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The Anxious Object

Researcher: Phillip Warnell, artist-in-residence
Start Date: September 2008

Phillip Warnell has been named Leverhulme Trust Artist-in-Residence with the Centre for the History of Medicine for the 2008-09 academic year. Phillip's work during this period will involve the direct and mediated use of objects and archival materials pertaining to the body and the history of medicine drawn from museum collections in Europe and the UK. In collaboration with historians of medicine, curators and archivists, Phillip will interrogate the material culture of medicine with specific reference to the historicity of the body and of the medical object. One possible focus of the research is artefacts connected to the history of radio-activity in relation to a wide range of health-related products, such as ‘radon water,’ ‘radio-active toothpaste,’ the shoe ‘fluoroscope,’ etc. Phillip’s work in the collections and archives will interrogate the material culture of medicine with specific reference to the historicity of the body and of the medical object.

The model for this idea is Phillip’s performative group portrait working with the sole surviving ‘baquet’ of Franz Mesmer, housed in the Museum of Medicine and Pharmacy in Lyon. This work involved photographing separately, and assembling digitally, a group of seven professionals who ‘collectively’ surround this extraordinary therapeutic object, intended to balance one’s ‘animal magnetism.’ (Animal magnetism was conceived by Mesmer as an invisible fluid that linked all living matter in the universe; the baquet was the device by which the balance of animal magnetism of individuals was accomplished, and its use in the eighteenth century was highly performative.) The seven participants form a kind of conceptual or intellectual lineage for the broader concepts that originated with Franz Mesmer.

Phillip brings an original perspective to his use of historical objects, such as Mesmer’s baquet, one that re-imagines how objects were used in relation to the body at a particular moment in time. His use of them now with the participation of others opens up lines of inquiry into changing body concepts, the historicity of objects, and the performativity of medicine. The object under this sort of treatment or interrogation becomes a kind of nervous subject, one with particular yet unstable meaning. To regard the historical, collected object as ‘anxious’ is thus to see it as a charged object, one that plays an active role in the creation of meaning over time.

 PlaceboImage credit: Phillip Warnell, Placebo (animal magnetism), photographic slide, 2008.


Phillip Warnell