Curious Trends


Freak shows, anatomy and body parts in art and design

Why are curious people and freaks of nature suddenly in vogue? Old fashioned freak show memorabilia, dismembered body parts and anatomical models of diseased bodies are now popular in art and design. Here are some examples and possible reasons for this curious trend:

The current dichotomy between the cult of celebrity and the body beautiful, as opposed to natural imperfection and individuality is one of the main drivers behind our interest in anatomy and freakish body forms. The growing demand for plastic surgery and interest in people who are or have been very different in appearance from the mainstream has resulted in ‘freak show’ reality TV, with programmes such as Beauty and the Beast and Britain’s Fattest Man attracting huge audiences.

Whilst plastic surgery is relatively new, the voyeuristic desire to see freak show style exhibits has a long history. Man’s urge to travel, especially as part of a ‘Grand Tour’, and to discover and categorize natural curiosities generated a particular interest in the variety of human forms, along with hitherto unencountered diseases and deformities. By Victorian times, a visit to a freak show, often associated with a travelling circus, was quite common. Our renewed interest in all things Victorian is another factor contributing to our current fascination with mortality, morbid anatomy and freak show style exhibits.

Collections of old style freak show memorabilia - mainly posters, paintings and photographs are comparatively rare, but have recently featured in a number of exhibitions, including the Peter Blake curated Exhibition #3 at the Musuem of Everything in Primrose Hill.

Vintage anatomical models and body parts have also been seen at a number of antique fairs and have been used by contemporary designers, for instance in Alex Randall’s leggy lamp, (called Patience).

Modern design art has also been inspired by the body, or parts of it - like Nick Davis’ handy coat rail and Claire Loader’s quirky ceramic faces.

Coat rail with hands or feet - by Nick Davis of The Foundry

Curious faces by Claire Loader

Contemporary art has also used the head as a subject for more traditional sculpture and mixed media pieces, like the stone busts by Emily Young and wall plaque by London based Brazilian artist, Ana Maria Pacheco shown below (as photographed at the London Art Fair).

Body related home furnishings and fashion pieces are slightly more unusual. These foot base lamps and this ceramic (chocolate?) fountain decorated with heads were spotted at an international trade fair:

More academic studies include a research project by Hye Eun Kim, currently studying for an MPhil in Fashion Womenswear at the Royal College of Art , which derives from an awareness of the potential of fashion garments to have therapeutic functions. Kim defers to traditional Chinese medicine because, like garments, it shares a close relationship with the body. Her research is based on the theory that, if clothes stimulate acupuncture points, they can potentially help to prevent disease. The idea is to eventually use made to measure garments to improve circulation, or encourage energy flow to help rebalance the body.

Finally, if you’d like to explore this topic further, there’s an annual Congress for Curious People held in New York in conjunction with The Coney Island Museum. Full details can be found at Joanna Ebenstein’s impressively comprehensive Morbid Anatomy blog. She explains that,“Since the 1860's, Coney Island has been a beacon for strange and interesting people. For generations, it has attracted the curious and the enlightened, the onlooker and the performer. Every spring Coney Island USA convenes The Congress of Curious Peoples, a 10-day gathering of unique individuals at Sideshows by the Seashore and the Coney Island Museum, celebrating Coney Island's subversive and exciting power and exploring its political, artistic, and spectacular possibilities through performances, exhibitions, and films by important artists in the world of the 21st century sideshows.”

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