Orshi Drozdik

Orshi Drozdik’s recent exhibition “Manufacturing the Self/Body Self,” can be seen as the culmination of a project the artist has been working on for a decade. In the series “Love letters to the Medical Venus,” 1984–94, Drozdik describes the intensity of her experience with the Medical Venus in the Josphenium in Vienna. She first encountered this 18th-century anatomical wax model of a naked woman with an open abdominal and chest cavity in 1984, the subject of her series of black and white photographs entitled “My dear Medical Venus,” 1984–94. The perspective of the individual photographs shifts between the isolation of certain details and the entire figure, which allows the beauty or the eroticism of the model to become visible, and others where the opening in the body is the primary focus. While the first pictures examined their subject as a living being with a certain participation in the process of representation, the last ones leave no doubt as to the lifelessness of the instrumentalized body. This change in perspective corresponds to Drozdik’s ambivalence at that first viewing, above all in regard to her intention to photograph the Venus, the sense that she was degrading it by making it an object, just as medical discourse had done centuries before. The dialectic of sensuality and violent dismemberment is visible in the dual nature of this object of desire: the “Medical Venus” is both an object of masculine sexual desire and of scientific knowledge.

How far removed this model is from a simple functional object is reflected in the positioning of its body, which is typical for a representation of sexual or mystical ecstasies—closed eyes and a half-open mouth—but especially by a strand of pearls around her neck. Drozdik asked seemingly naïve questions, “Why did you smile when your heart was exposed?” “How could you offer your moist lips with a light smile while your intestines were torn out of your body?” This identification with the object of her gaze clearly differentiates Drozdik’s project from the distancing and conquering gaze of the creator of the model, as well as of the doctors who used it. In describing her experience of viewing the “Medical Venus,” Drozdik conveys her contrary emotions and the self-recognition they engender.

Nine years after this experience, Drozdik’s strong identification with this victim produces the sculpture, Body Self, 1993, a rubber cast of the body of the artist in the “Medical Venus” pose, which was the centerpiece of this exhibition. Here, the identity of the artist is combined with the product of scientific male fantasy. Between the two, the differences are interesting. Naturally, Drozdik’s body is closed, uninjured, but open to threat. In one of her love letters, Drozdik stated that the most important movements in her confrontations with Venus were those in which she looked at it through her camera—with a blank, objectifying gaze of a doctor. “Manufacturing the Self/Body Self” was undoubtedly a personal work, but it also registered questions about the power of scientific institutions in Modernism or the masculinity of such objective discourse. And even if the Medical Venus seems somewhat anachronistic, the theme of the medical gaze as an instrument of social power and ideologies remains contemporary, especially in view of the growing role of new technologies in the exploration and control of the (female) body.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.