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On Francesca Catastini’s The Modern Spirit is Vivisective

To begin with, the remarkable title of Francesca Catastini’s debut book poses somewhat of a conundrum. Vivisection is generally understood as the practice of performing anatomical operations on (living) animals for scientific purposes. In the beginning of the modern era, dissections were performed on cadavers, usually of executed convicts, a practice considered taboo before the Renaissance. But what makes the spirit vivisective, assuming that indeed we are, or have been, modern? It might have to do with the dynamic between the whole and the part, and with the peculiar bond between anatomy and spectatorship, but Catastini’s extraordinary book is not meant to offer any conclusive answer. In the postscript, written by co-editor Federica Chiocchetti (of the image-text platform The Photocaptionist), we read that the title was taken from James Joyce’s posthumously published early novel Stephen Hero. The vivisective spirit amounts to the surgical tendency of modern literature, whose focus on its own formal qualities could be seen as a form of auto-operation.

An important figure for the study of human anatomy was the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius, who taught at Padua where in 1543 he published the groundbreaking multivolume De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). The Vesalian “revolution”, writes Peter Sloterdijk in his magnum opus Spheres (1998–2004), might have been more important for the self-image of Western man than the oft-cited and misunderstood Copernican turn. The New Era (from the sixteenth century on) is marked by “making things explicit”—by, so to say, exteriorizing the hidden. Sloterdijk places the cognitive revolution sparked by the new anatomical incisions—enabling mankind to learn about its very own interior (which was convoluted before)—on equal footing with the world-shaking tremor of Ferdinand Magellan’s first sailing voyage around the globe (1519–22). In one telling collage, Catastini overlays a map of the Strait of Magellan with a picture of the fallopian tube, showing a pattern resembling the craggy coastline.


In her modest and handsome book, somewhat midway between paperback and hardcover, Catastini spins a speculative mental history of modern anatomy by way of association. She interlards a series of archival photographs, scientific illustrations, collages, and photographs of her own making with fifteen well-chosen citations, tacitly or explicitly pertaining to anatomy. Each of the five chapters ends with a calm view inside one of Europe’s early anatomical theatres, of sometimes eerily symmetrical harmony: the world’s first permanent one at Palazzo Bo in Padova (inaugurated in 1595), the Archiginnasio in Bologna, the Gustavianum in Uppsala, the Tieranatomisches Theater in Berlin, and the Ospedale del Ceppo in Pistoia. Although devoid of activity, one can sense the intellectual magnitude of the scientific revolutions that once unfolded there, no less spectacular (with the cadaver as both a physical and metaphorical vanishing point) as it was instructive.

For all its serious epistemological and health achievements, Catastini playfully demonstrates some contradictions and prejudices inherent to anatomical science. In the chapter “On Looking”, for example, we find two vanitas pictures, in which death contrasts with female beauty, one allegorical frontispiece from a seventeenth-century illustrated book on anatomy, and one 1943 photograph showing an anatomy student at Johns Hopkins Medical School holding what looks like a long piece of a leg bone. Throughout the other chapters—“On Touching”, “On Canon Lust”, “On Cutting”, and “On Discovering”—there are visual puns and insightful quotations about blindness, monstrosities such as the sixth finger, and, not least of all, the gender issue and the strange misconceptions early anatomists held about the female reproductive system.

Like a consummate vivisectionist, Catastini imagined a convincing whole from so many different and disparate parts. To conclude my brief dissection, I have cut out a small part of the long quote by Francis Glisson on the inside of the cover: “The end of artificial dissection is not to mangle and cut the object it takes in hand rudely into shreds, but to gain the perfect knowledge of the same and all its parts thereby.”

Francesca Catastini: The Modern Spirit Is Vivisective
With a text by Federica Chiocchetti / AnzenbergerEdition, Vienna 2016 / 112 pages, 16 × 23 cm, 50 colour illustrations.

*This book review appeared in print in Camera Austria International No. 137 (March 2017), p. 85.

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Overtones of Motion: Walking New York with Stephan Keppel

Through New York

—Yes, exactly right. Take a note of this—through New York.

—Because your work isn’t about a place. Your legs, your eyes, your camera, they pass through the place like they’re passing through a scanner.

Stephan Keppel – Exhibition view at PuntWG, Amsterdam (Fall 2015).

Walking, Scanning

Indian summer in September. We walk and walk and walk. The straight lines of Manhattan first of all, the crooked paths of Williamsburg, Brooklyn to a lesser extent. We look up and down, left and right, stop every couple of blocks or so. Stephan Keppel takes picture after picture, and I take mental notes. The pace of walking suits the city. In a few hours we’ve crossed almost half of Manhattan.

Walking with Keppel gives me an experience of New York I haven’t had before, though I took many long walks years ago, when a transatlantic photo-correspondence (a friend and I posted one photo every ten days on average, freely reacting to one another’s images) urged me to see the city with different eyes—eyes on a mission in pair with my little digital camera.

Keppel is a master stroller and keen and swift observer. His Fuji X-E1 camera, with a fixed 35mm lens, fits his way of snapping pictures. He sometimes notices remarkable situations in a split second: two men carrying a large wooden panel sideways into an entrance, or a group of men, under brisk morning sunlight, meddling with a pile of boxes, waiting to be moved into a series of lighting shops.


De stadsjutter (Rummaging the City)

The Dutch noun jutter is untranslatable. Closest to conveying its meaning would be “beachcomber”. Stadsjutter could thus be translated as “citycomber”.

The way Keppel combs and scans the appearances and movements of the city is a higher form of rummaging or foraging. Nothing to buy at a bargain, but attention drifting towards surfaces, patterns, rhythms, visual rhymes. And on the horizon looms a New York turned into rasters, grids, lines. A city of paper and ink.

Meaningful superficiality of impressions.

Stephan Keppel – Exhibition view at PuntWG, Amsterdam (Fall 2015).

Outside In

In this great city of human-built stalactites, dilapidated bricks and mortar, aggressive mirror glass high-rises, magnificent bridges, muggy metro stations, and millions of human souls going about their daily business, one can feel at home straight away and at the same time feel like a perennial outsider.


Bridges, Underground

We ride the J train, slowly sliding into Manhattan, down the red-painted Williamsburg Bridge. This bridge features phenomenally in the final scenes of the 1948 film noir “The Naked City” by Jules Dassin, where the wanted murderer Willie Garza is on the run from the police. At the end of the chase, he climbs one of the bridge’s towers from which he falls to his death.

Just before the train carries us into the underworld, conglomerates of post-war housing projects on both sides emerge. Endless rows of bricks, story upon story, tiny window frames and air conditioners multiplied by the thousands.

And so

of cities you bespeak

subways, rivered under streets

and rivers. … In the car

the overtone of motion

underground, the monotone

of motion is the sound

of other faces, also underground—*

[*Stanza taken from Hart Crane, “The Tunnel”, in Elizabeth Schmidt (ed.), Poems of New York (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), p. 59.]

Camera Austria International, No. 133 (Spring 2016), pp. 50-51.

The City as Book

The cliché goes that everything is bound to end up as a story, a movie, a book. Nowadays, for sure, everything flows into pictures. And New York is perhaps the most photographed city in the world. It is also very inviting to photography, with its lines, grids, patterns, the generally vivid light, but of sufficient diffusion. Not to forget the rough beauty of its elegant and sturdy bridges.

Life in New York City and its boroughs has inspired the publication of many great (photo)books, ranging from Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890), a passionate charge against the poverty of slum life; Helen Levitt’s magical world of children playing in the streets and empty lots of Harlem in A Way of Seeing (1965); William Klein’s frantic Life is Good & Good for You in New York (1956); and Ken Schles’s Invisible City (1988), a moving portrait of the partying underbelly of the rowdy East Village of the 1980s.

But if there’s any image book on the Capital of the Twentieth Century that comes close to Keppel’s way of observing and processing the constructed and weather-beaten surfaces of a city, it’s the relatively unknown New York, New York (1972) by the Hungarian György Lőrinczy. A love song to Manhattan in gritty high contrast.

Front cover of György Lörinczy’s New York, New York (1972).

The City as Text

“The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines”, wrote E. B. White in his famous essay Here is New York (1949).* The city is not only written about; the city writes itself. So vast and various, so dense, that it can never be read by one person alone.

Keppel prints images like one would print text. He converts image files into bitmap. “It opens up the texture”, he says, “and makes the images more graphical, avoiding the all too photographic”. The black ink powder of his laser printer burns deep into glossy, Chromolux paper—paradoxically creating a matte surface.

Text, subtext, metatext, intertext, texture. Text analyses and synthesises, evokes and describes. Architectural surfaces are tightly woven interfaces: to be read, interpreted, understood, or creatively misunderstood.

The city speaks history in four dimensions.

[*E. B. White, Here is New York (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949), p. 21.]

Stephan Keppel – Installation view at Quickscan NL#02, Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam (2016). Photo by Jan Adriaans and Job Janssen.

New York before New York

Keppel had not been to New York City before September 2015. But he got thoroughly acquainted and appropriated imagery before the city welcomed his physical presence. I took him to the library at the Fotomuseum Antwerp, where we browsed through piles of books and magazines, containing photos by well-known gods from the pantheon of photography as well as the forgotten ones.

A cinematic journey to the city brought us to the early 1900s, seeing fleeting images of the first skyscrapers built, and steamships going down the East River. And on to William Klein’s mesmerizing “Broadway by Light” (1958), Raymond Depardon’s slow glide into midtown, along the Roosevelt Island aerial tramway, at sunset, “New York, N.Y.” (1986), and finally, Jem Cohen’s film essay “Lost Book Found” (1996), an elusive but fascinating Benjaminian meditation on life and things in the metropolis.

Then, Keppel flew to Montréal early September for research in the archives of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), which houses many images of New York City (and, surprisingly, Montréal itself has often stood in for New York City in movies). Here he made acquaintance with, among others, the New York of Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Gordon Matta-Clark, and the Anarchitecture group.

Finally, the train ride from Canada down to New York State, along the Hudson, eventually coming to a standstill at Grand Central Station, the railway cathedral orphaned in that most suffocating and lifeless part of the city: midtown.

A first night in Queens, a first scanning of the physical space in which Keppel found himself. He captured the elegant cornice moldings, decorating the four corners of his room.

Camera Austria International, No. 133 (Spring 2016), pp. 54-55.

New York Is Nothing Like Paris

René Daniëls, a Dutch painter admired by both Stephan and me, spent a year in residency in New York in the 1980s, shortly after the heydays of punk, no wave, and “No New York”. In the 1970s, Daniëls had painted such objects as books, film cameras, and phonograph records—everyday objects but (potential) carriers of stories, history, ephemeral appearances, and, most importantly, music.

In the early 1980s, Daniëls produced a series of drawings and paintings called “Historia Mysteria”, in which the Brooklyn Bridge in New York seems to run into the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, connecting the old centre of the art world with the new global centre of art. (Or does the new centre fly away from the old, into the light of the future?)

Paris formed the scene for Keppel’s dreamlike city symphony Entre Entree (2014), more specifically, its areas neighbouring the Boulevard Périphérique.

In Paris, he meandered in circles; in New York, he walked in squares and lines.

New York is nothing like Paris.*

E. B. White was right.

[*The full sentence reads: “New York is nothing like Paris; it is nothing like London; and it is not Spokane multiplied by sixty, or Detroit multiplied by four.”, in Here is New York, p. 22.]

René Daniëls, Historia Mysteria (1981-1982). Oil on canvas, 160x240cm. Courtesy Instituut Collectie Nederland.

Second-Hand Spaces

Nowhere else can one visually scan the spatial decor of the city as condensed as in a store for used building materials. In two gigantic warehouses, called Big Reuse (formerly “Build It Green! NYC”), fragments of the discarded city are stacked, in continuous flux, on endless piles, and in countless rows.

The facades of dreams dreamt, waiting to be placed back onto the shelf of life.


Has New York Grown Old?

In “An Urban Convalescence”, a poem by James Merrill, I read:

As usual in New York, everything is torn down

Before you have had time to care for it.

Head bowed, at the shrine of noise, let me try to recall

What building stood here. Was there a building at all?*

Although Merrill had lived on the block he writes about for a decade, he barely even noticed change. But what is left to grow old, ages beautifully. “New York is the perfect city of wear”, says Keppel. The wear and tear of buildings resonate with his use of worn-out printers.

Notwithstanding the fact that Keppel’s New York City is devoid of human figures, its emptiness and decay feels humane, all too humane.

[*From James Merrill, “An urban convalescence”, in Elizabeth Schmidt (ed.), Poems of New York, p. 113.]

Stephan Keppel in NYC, Sept. 2015. Photo by Taco Hidde Bakker.

This collection of miniature essays appeared in print, including eight large photos by Keppel and accompanied by a German translation, in Camera Austria International No. 133 (Spring 2016), pp. 47-58.

Stephan Keppel’s New York-book Flat Finish (2017) is available at Fw:Books

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