Alison Dell, Ph.D.
Frans Masereel Centrum, Ars Moriendi 2017
Alison Dell is scientist and an artist whose work explores the structures and patterns inherent in biological systems, as well as the production of meaning in scientific images. Dell received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013, following pre-doctoral research at Columbia University. Both doctoral and pre-doctoral work examined cell signaling in developing neurons. As Assistant Professor of Biology at St. Francis, her research focuses on neural development during low-level exposure to common environmental pollutants. Dell is co-founder of Art in the Lab - an ongoing project bringing scientists and artists together for events that mix drawing and laboratory work.
“The old attitude in which death was both familiar and near, evoking no great fear or awe, offers too marked a contrast to ours, where death is so frightful that we dare not utter its name. This is why I have called this household sort of death “tamed death.” I do not mean that death has once been wild and that I had ceased to be so. I mean on the contrary that today it has become wild.” -Aries (1973)
"The Ars Moriendi essay residency developed from both my practice as a scientist-artist, and my long term interest in the print. The project drew its inspiration from one of the earliest European woodblock books, Ars Moriendi which was widely disseminated from the 1450s-1800s. These works, originally produced in Northern Europe during the post-plague era, served as a lay guide to the trials and temptations faced by the dying. During my residency I researched the history of the prints of Ars Moriendi while producing prints related to death and dying and using the traditional techniques that produced the original works. I also used more contemporary techniques, such as RISO."
Game of Whispers and the Monsters: Trace vs. Collage
The Ars Moriendi books were easy to share and understand -not only due to printmaking's friendliness towards reproduction but also due to the universality of themes and the easy interpretation of a story told in pictures, requiring no extensive translation. As the books traveled from place to place, they were traced and reinterpreted into different editions. With each tracing, the medium and the hand of the artist changed the lines and subtly (or not) altered the content of the drawings. What of the drawings and the content of the book? The book presents five challenges or temptations faced by the dying person. Since the book was ecclesiastical in origin, the challenges are represented as demons or monsters, which surround the dying person. In corresponding plates, the dying person is able to overcome temptation with divine assistance from the angels and saints. While the artists and artisans who reinterpreted the Ars Moriendi stuck close to details regarding the angels and saints; it seems that looser interpretations were allowed for the monsters. I thus undertook copying each monster from seven different editions of the Ars Moriendi to see how they changed across time and space. I added to this game of whispers, as my tracings became laser cut rubber stamps, transparency templates for silkscreen and ultimately large scale lithographs. I chose to call the creatures, “monsters” rather than demons. The word monster originates from the from Latin root which gives us “demonstrate.” These monsters not only illustrate the trials of the dying, but also show us the slips between hand and medium in print. Every copy is an original.
Pacemaker and Data Antivisualization
In a second body of work, my Ars Moriendi series investigates death and dying through a biomedical lens. While we now know much more about the molecular basis of disease and pain than we did in the 15th century; the processes faced by the dying person is much the same.
During my essay research I looked at contemporary medical guides for care of the dying person, self help texts for terminally ill people and/or their families, and primary scientific literature on the molecular biology of neurodegeneration, aging and disease. My thoughts began to focus on several main areas (1) autonomy of the dying person (2) the increasing grey area/slippage in the meaning of death in the context of medical
intervention. (3) Neural Prosthetics and life prolonging devices such as pacemakers and respirators; (4) the changing role of the dying persons family as medical apparatus and hospital settings supersede family relationships.
Within the FMC atelier, I addressed these issues in different ways. I began to work with iconography of the cardiac pacemaker – an electronic device which regulates the beat of a patient’s heart. I first carved an image of a pacemaker in woodblock, and then produced the image in lithography and by risograph. Additionally, I worked with the image sets of medical history, cardiac biology, death and dying to produce images for risograph. While I was not able to complete the artist book at FMC due to ink drying time; I will complete the cover and internal text images back in NYC and fully credit FMC in the colophon for the edition of books, which will number less than 25. Additionally the images for the project will be scanned and become digital – and high res versions of Ars Moriendi2.1 will be available online – mirroring the migration of the original Ars Moriendi into archives and image repositories. As to the essay – it will be completed by mid September. I would be delighted if FMC would like to publish the essay. Additionally, the print magazine Carrier Pigeon has agreed to publish the forthcoming essay based on the “game of whispers” tracing; with accompanying images.
24.07.2017 - 18.08.2017