INTERIOR: THE EXHIBITION OF VENUS, SAN FRANCISCO, 2000
“The wax figure is the setting in which the appearance of humanity outdoes itself.”
–Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project: Konvolut L, “Dream House, Museum, Spa.”(1)
Like your flesh, hers is capable of liquefaction. For you, such corruption is the inevitable end, while the Venus, so long as she stays in her vitrine and is not exposed to undue heat, will remain exactly as she has for the last two hundred years, as radiant and incorruptible as one beatified. She is no one in particular; several hundred corpses from the Santa Maria Nuova hospital were dissected to provide the forms for her wax body.(2) This Venere dei Medicea or Medici Venus, compound being of so many cadavers, came to life with her deaths already behind her, and, having survived death, she endures what you cannot; she has been flayed, rent, opened. She does what you cannot do for me: she opens the interior of her body.
The skin of her torso has been removed entirely; I expected to see the skin still attached but flung wide, like a curtain. So much of her flesh and so many of her inner organs have been removed that her interior does not appear as a hollowed-out volume; it is more like an open stage or exposed platform. From her clavicle to her pubic bone, she is a shallow boat bearing shining, waxen things, a gently curving tray of innards. Everything that could obstruct the view of the interior has been removed: lungs, diaphragm, intestines. I look down on her reclining body, at the floor of her partially emptied interior: the softly ridged muscles of her abdominal cavity, the lacework of lymphatic vessels. I can see into each of the chambers of her heart.
She was flown here from la Specola museum in Florence (where she is one of hundreds of anatomical wax models made in the 18th and 19th centuries) for a special exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. At the glass case displaying the Venus, parents lift up their children and say, in the voice reserved for wonders of science, “Look, you can see her stomach… her kidneys … her liver…” The parents’ catalogue of the interior of the Venus stays largely in the upper thoracic region; no one points out the four or so inches of her rectum, a shiny, flattened tube that ends abruptly where her intestines have been lifted away, the better to show us her interior. No one points out the ovaries, nor the uterus, which contains a tiny fetus, a homunculus barely visible behind an amber-colored amniotic membrane. No one says, look at her limbs splayed as if in ecstasy, look at her head thrown back, look at the tilt of her wrist, look at her hair spilling onto the fringed satin cloth beneath her.
I too am only cataloguing; what else can writing do before a body except catalogue it? So I stand at the vitrine and write down exactly what the parents say: “stomach, kidneys, liver.” It would be the same, were I to write of your body: stomach, kidneys, liver. Fingers, throat, belly. Fissures and membranes; members and folds. Your body, my catalogue déraisonée.
I won’t pretend to “write on the body.” The artisans of la Specola knew better: a body does not submit itself to writing, does not allow itself to be gathered up into a sign of itself. This is the wonder of the Venus, and her scandal: wholly artificial, she is nonetheless not the sign of a body–she is a body. She is nobody, but she is a body precisely in her exteriority. With every volume hollowed out, every solid sliced apart, and every juncture exposed, she reveals everything excepther interior. There is no interior to her; there are only surfaces and more surfaces: bright, resinous, glistening.
And this is why the various realia accompanying the wax models of la Specola—the hair, the fringed drapery, even the affects suggested by the poses—are not extraneous to the anatomical display. In painstakingly arranging the coiffure on the model of a flayed man, in putting a necklace on the model of a partially dissected gravid woman, the artisans of La Specola were not indulging in something frivolous; they simply refused to regard any one surface as extraneous to any other. Where there is nothing but surface, there is a profusion of surfaces: the wax model has an anus, but also eyelashes; a spleen, but also a pearl necklace; fascia, but also a posture of shame, or ecstasy, or sorrow.
I would like to bring the Venus home with me, to the apartment that has always resisted me. The one I did not paint because I know I will leave only the most anonymous of traces there. I want the apartment that has never been a portrait of me, that has never revealed my character or my tastes, to find its employment at last as an allegory of her: these books, phone bills, lamps, wine bottles, candle stubs, extension cords, this bed, this chair, this bathtub: she will hollow them all out and carry them aloft with her. Having freed my rooms of the burden of representing me, she will reveal rooms for what they have been all along: surfaces, nothing but surfaces.
“During my second experiment with hashish. Staircase in Charlotte Joel’s studio. I said, ‘A structure habitable only by wax figures. …’”—Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project: Konvolut I, “The Interior, The Trace.”
Only the chest and belly of the Venus are open. Except where it has been lifted away from her torso, her skin is whole. Her limbs are solid, her head entire. She is not like the wax model La Nervosa, whose net of nerves is exposed along her arms her back her legs her spine–La Nervosa, monument to the wretchedness of contact.(5) Nor is she like the weeping model in the cabinet of the Duc d’Orleans, whose agony seems to consist precisely in the fact that her weeping eye sits in a denuded, skinless face.(6) The Venus’ posture, which seems to me now languid, now ecstatic, is unrelated to the plundered state of her abdomen.
It is this suggestion of wholeness, of a corporeal integrity unperturbed by the gaping hole in her torso, that makes the Venus seem resigned to her situation. Perhaps she suffers as much as La Nervosa, or grieves as much as the weeping woman of Orleans, but she keeps these torments to herself. In a badly translated article from the Acts of the International Congress on Wax Modeling, she is called “the dissembling doll.”(7) Surely what was meant was that she can be dis-assembled and re-assembled? The model organs she is missing now can be fitted back in, and the skin, a single wax piece the same shape as the hole in her torso, can be put back on like a roof. But maybe “dissembling” is the right translation after all. The longer I look at the Venus, the more I think she may be capable of dissembling, of suffering without betraying herself. Which is to say, the longer I look at the Venus, the more I think she has an interior after all.
I will rent an apartment for the Venus in my name, in a neighborhood where I am not known. I will put the key in her mouth and go out, letting the door lock behind me. I will not need to enter the apartment again. It will be enough to know that she is there: my secret, my surrogate. My inner life will bloom, double, and redouble. Where there is nothing but surface, the interior returns as a ghost.
“The domestic interior moves outside.”—Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project: Konvolut I, “The Interior, The Trace.”
She has been arranged to reveal that she is an interior. Her partially dissected uterus, its muscles cut away but an oddly glassine membrane left intact, contains a child. The child fills the entire space of the uterus, so that it is scarcely discernible: it is a mollusk, a kernel, a being in perfect congruity with its dwelling.
In one of the fragments of his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin wrote that the womb was the original interior. He was not psychologizing, nor positing a compulsion to return to the womb, only remarking that the original dwelling was therefore “not in the house but in the shell.” For Benjamin, the nineteenth century came closest to this original interior (every bourgeois home a plush, womb-like casing), while
the twentieth century, with its porosity and transparency, its tendency toward the well-lit and airy, has put an end to dwelling in the old sense. … Today this world has disappeared entirely, and dwelling has diminished: for the living, through hotel rooms; for the dead, through crematoria. (8)
This does not mean that we wander, expelled, deprived of our shells, as exposed as La Nervosa, as sorrowful as the woman of Orleans. And not only because the nineteenth-century interior, like any number of nostalgic arrangements, can be readily purchased today. It is true that transience and anonymity (the hotel room), as well as rationalization and diminution (the crematorium or columbarium), have transformed the interior. But the world that has disappeared is not the interior, but the exterior. If we wander, it is in a world of surfaces, and that means, in a world of interiors from which we can find no exit.
To gain admittance to the little wallboard-enclosure where the Venus was displayed in the Exploratorium, I had to affix a white adhesive dot to my visitor badge. The white dot meant that I had heard and understood the docent’s warning that inside were exhibits of an explicit nature, perhaps not suitable for all members of the family. The family, this mythic interior, is breaking down, and yet its logic of enclosure—its “values”–have not been not destroyed but disseminated. Where there is nothing but surface, the interior is everywhere.
We will take her in; she will live with us. She will not mediate our passions or triangulate our desires—we could get anybody to do that. If there is an exit from the interior that encloses us, it is through the passivity of a body that cannot be commanded, that does no work, that produces no family. Let her child be ours: a pellucid, waxen thing that can never be born nor even appear. We will give it our name but it will never have an identity. It is coming all the same, ruining every enclosure in advance, dissolving every relation, opening every interior.
1) Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1999) 409. Here I have modified the translation slightly (wax figure/figure of wax). All further citations from this work are given in the Eiland/McLaughlin translation, unmodified.
2) Marta Poggesi, “The Wax Figure Collection in ‘La Specola’ in Florence,” Encyclopedia Anatomica (New York: Taschen, 1999), 13.
3) The name “Medici Venus” commonly refers to another, more famous statue, not made of wax but marble. For a comparison of the two Medici Venuses, see Zoltan Kádár, “Sul profilo della cosidetta ‘Venere dei Medici’ di cera,” in La ceroplastica nella scienza e nell’arte, atti del i congresso internazionale (1975: Florence, Italy), 525-532.
4) Jean-Luc Nancy, “Corpus.” Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence, trans. Brian Holmes and others (Stanford: Stanford U, 1993) 197.
5) The name La Nervosa, and the fact that she is the only female statute in the collection at La Specola that is not reclining but standing, are discussed in a webcast from La Specola Museum to the Exploratorium (http://www.exploratorium.edu/bodies/webcast_6_24.html). On gender in anatomical statues, see Ludmilla Jordanova, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender and Science between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), 43-65.
6) Michel Lemire, “Representation of the Human Body: the Colored Wax Anatomical Models of the 18th and 19th Centuries in the Revival of Medical Instruction,” Surgical-Radiologic Anatomy: Journal of Clinical Anatomy 14, (1992) 289 and figure 3.
7) I distinctly remember a photo caption in English that translated “Venere s’montabile”as “dissembling doll.” Nonetheless, in preparing this essay, I find no such caption in La ceroplastica nella scienza e nell’arte, atti del i congresso internazionale.
8) Benjamin, 220-221. (Konvolut I, “The Interior, The Trace.”)
Diana George lives in Seattle, where she works as a technical editor. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Chicago Review, 3rd Bed, and Denver Quarterly. She’s a member of the Seattle Research Institute.