New York

Hans Danuser

Curt Marcus Gallery

For some years now Hans Danuser has been taking photographs of the interiors of laboratories and industrial plants. Three series were on display here: “A-Energie,” 1982, scenes from various atomic power plants and research facilities; “Medizin I,”1984, observations of pathology and anatomical instruction labs; and “Chemie II,” 1989, views of genetic engineering labs. The black and white prints are not so much studies of work environments as landscapes of a world, depopulated and half-dark; not illustrations of the life spent in the acquisition of knowledge, however odd and arcane, but portraits of the objects and tools of the experiments themselves, and the environment in which they are kept.

There are no workers visible, nor any real evidence of their activities—a rack of empty overalls in a dressing room at an atomic energy site is as close as we get to any lively and recognizable human presence. Instead we see rows of glass ampules, test tubes with tobacco plants growing in them, steam rising from cooling towers, and barrels of nuclear waste, all photographed in a way that makes them look like scenes from a ghost town, or dream images of the secrets inside windowless buildings. Even the pathology labs are less than human places. They look not just deserted but closed, as if Danuser had gotten into them after everyone had gone home and had shot in the empty and darkening room what had been left out in preparation for the next day’s work. In one photograph a furrowed human brain lies on a board by a sink, below a shelf piled with scalpels. But the tissue seems less an example of a part of our bodies than an object of disinterested investigation, as plainly presented as a turnip pulled out of the ground. Other scenes show cadavers laid out on tables, severed arms with the skin stripped back to show their musculature, and a human heart on a plate, but there is nothing ghoulish or exploitative about the work; on the contrary, it has a certain clinical dignity, as if to show that after our lives we still have a respectable use, as the object of a calm and disinterested curiosity.

The time before life is another matter. There is a single shot from the “Chemie” series that is truly arresting, of a tub of ice with a pipette and a petri dish on it and in the dish an amorphous blot of whitish tissue, which on closer inspection proves to have two small dots embedded in it: it is a very young embryo, and the presumption is that it’s human. It is a deeply disturbing scene, in part because the urge to identify the putty in the dish as a sentient being makes it seem terribly vulnerable, and in part because the contrary urge to see it as no more than a bit of flesh makes one’s own origins somehow foreign and formless: the shock of recognition is followed almost immediately by a shock of refusal. And there, at last, is the ambivalence that dogs these dry investigations—neither the researchers’ nor Danuser’s, but our own.

——James Lewis