Cellular Dramas and Somatic Memories


Erika Doss

University of Notre Dame


            Despite our fondness for the expected efficiency of metal and machines—for our cars, computers, cell phones, and iPods—contemporary Americans are also drawn to the unsettling enigma of human biology, and especially the human body.  Exhibitions like Body Worlds and Bodies Revealed, Fascinating and Real—shows which promise to reveal the visual mysteries of the physical unknown by featuring hundreds of plastinated corpses arranged in various "life-like" poses (playing basketball, riding a horse)—are wildly popular.  So are television programs like CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) and NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), best described as "howdunit" crime dramas whose characters use cutting-edge forensic and biometric tools to solve their cases. 

If these sorts of visual culture entertainments affirm what Mark Seltzer describes as a contemporary cultural fascination with "wound culture," with a collective gathering around scenes of physical shock and trauma, they also rather artfully downplay the messy banality of physical decay in favor of visual seduction.  Featuring unusual designs, odd angles, and tinted lights, Body Worlds and CSI are highly stylized and highly persuasive productions whose general tendency is to aestheticize the biology, and pathology, of the human body.  Equally problematic, these visually compelling body-centered productions help to reinforce uncritical notions of biological determinism: the notion that human behavior is determined by inherited physical and biological traits. 

Leigh Ann Hallberg's new works, collectively organized as Cellular Dramas and Somatic Memories, are similarly engaged in the visual geographies of the body and biology, but on an introspective scale that refuses any easy assumptions.  These works are less about bodily entertainment than about considering and questioning, the interiority of the body itself.  As Maurice Merleau-Ponty asserted in Phenomenology of Perception (1945), "The body is our general means of having a world," basically arguing that human consciousness was situated in the body, and equating the perceptual subject with the "lived body."  Refusing mind/body, subject/object divisions, Merleau-Ponty not only dispensed with Cartesian dualities but emphasized perception's crucial affective interdependencies.  As he wrote, "whenever I try to understand myself, the whole fabric of the perceptible world comes too."  Hallberg is similarly engaged, although the body in question is not simply the dominant human but the "whole fabric of a perceptible world" drawn from biology's broadest application as a branch of knowledge attentive to all living organisms and vital processes. 

            Cellular Dramas has its origins in Hallberg's reaction to images produced by electron-microscopy, a magnification process that can enlarge specimens up to two million times their original size.  Fascinated with the cellular and crystalline processes that such imaging reveals, Hallberg was further intrigued with how these minutely magnified views revealed the same sort of chemical and physical properties of repulsion—of, for example, oil and water branching away from one another.  Experimenting with graphite on Mylar, she embarked on a series that investigates issues of structural repetition and scale, and raises questions about the visual possibilities of knowledge.  The carefully rendered drawings of Cellular Dramas are based on Hallberg's meticulous observations of the patterns and shapes of a large natural world—the branches of trees, the arterial divides of rivers—which might also serve as the structural blueprints of human anatomy.  Intimating the similarities in macro and microscopic views of a biological universe, these drawings also refute their distinctions and hint at their shared social sensibilities.  Hallberg's refreshingly controlled hand-touch sensibility reveals a quiet patience for studio practices coupled with a critically engaged consideration of the limitations of visual knowledge, or at least its ambiguities.

            The drawings in Hallberg's newest series, Somatic Memories, continue these themes albeit on a much smaller scale and with a heightened attention to the affective and personal dimensions of knowledge.  Some of them are based on handmade lace from Cluny, which has been in Hallberg's family for generations.  Adding memory to the mix of visual sources, Hallberg again argues against the untenable dimensions of biological determinism to reveal the much more crucial, and creative, dynamics of biological questioning.