Photographing Victorian Corpses Exposes the Beauty of the Human Body
Mia-Jane Harris's portraits of medical specimens challenge our fear of death.
Although we think of "beauty coming from within" as something spiritual, something defined by the soul and essence of a person, London-based artist Mia-Jane Harris takes it literally, photographing deceased human body parts exhibited in various museums and medical collections. Harris's project, entitled Beautiful Corpses, documents human remains, bringing attention to the detail and beauty of our inner composition. "My art delves into the curious, fascinatingly odd, and morbidly beautiful. I aim to intrigue the viewer and pull them into my world with strange objects and morbid curios to manipulate their emotions on the subject of mortality," she tells Creators.
Harris's work not only captures the intricate textures, folds, patterns, and layers of the inner human form, her work critiques our feelings towards our demise and challenges us to rethink the bleak "nothingness" that awaits us. Harris believes that utilizing and understanding how to preserve human tissue gives her control over her own passing. As a result, she challenges the inevitability of human disappearance after death by turning her fear of it into a fascination and artistic preservation. "I give a second life, a creative resurrection, to the deceased in the hope that in return this second chance I give them will help me live on through these creations when I am gone."
For several years, Harris has been a volunteer at various medical museums and mortuaries which inevitably has inspired and shaped her creative direction. "Being around death in my everyday life helped me to dull some of my fear of it by making it seem like a day-to-day normality," Harris says. Although photographs of cadavers are usually not permitted in mortuaries, due to respect for the dead and their families, Harris was given permission to sketch and draw individuals who had died within days or months of their death.
"The intimacy of these sketch sittings, being so near and looking so carefully at the bodies in front of me, made me want to break more into this taboo of seeing death so closely," Harris says. For her Beautiful Corpse series, Harris photographed the organs of people alive during the Victorian era—mostly hearts, wombs, and intestinal tissue between 100 and 200 years old preserved in formaldehyde. As a result of the Victorian preservation process—the washing and bleaching of human tissue—Harris's work captures the otherworldly aesthetic of preserved organs: their bluish and purplish hues, which resemble the marbling found within natural stone.
Mortality fascinates Harris, in particular the fear of her own demise. "There were complications during my birth which resulted in me being born deceased, and after resuscitation left with Erb's Palsy and partial paralysis and stunted growth of my right arm, so I have always had a fascination with the morbid and abnormal." Harris's work explores ways to help others find death and loss less challenging. She aims to shed a different light on medical collections and interpret them in a new and modern way.
"Museums hold thousands of human cadaver sections and specimens that are used for scientific research and study. They are looked at every day to learn from, but in their dull and dirty containers surrounded by thousands of others, they lose a part of their charm. People are so focused on what they are that they don't notice how beautiful they are," Harris explains. "I want to take away the scientific surroundings, the educational environment, the dust, the grime, and the textbooks to leave behind solely the objects; focusing on the patterns and colors of the tissues instead of what each specimen was."