The Little Theatre of Disease and Desire
The Old Operating Theatre, Museum & Herb Garret
16 February 2008
Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen
Tramping up the narrow, winding stairs to the museum, clutching a rope banister, scraping past other museum visitors, passing through the museum gift shop with its huge piles of books on medical history and other rarities, one enters a medical cabinet of curiosities in a garret with crooked wooden floors and dusty rafters that leads on to a lovingly preserved nineteenth-century operating room, one of the very few remaining in the world. Daniel Barker’s temporary exhibition consists of a silent toy theatre slideshow and three mock-up toy theatres constructed from cardboard and positioned on rocky plywood frames. The former is shown on a television monitor in the operating room, the latter are scattered amongst the garret’s anatomic models, skeletons, poisons, trephines, chloroform inhalers and herb samples.
Barker is a writer-artist of graphic novels. His work has been likened to David Lynch’s films, mixing mundane reality, dreams and the occult. The slide show of stills of cut-out figures and diary excerpts tells the story of a Patient struck by a rare nervous disorder. Plagued by aches, a compulsive desire to find meanings in patterns of stains and spillages ('symbolisis') and apparitions such as the Examinator, Giant Eye and Giant Boy, the Patient is escorted by a sympathetic bearded doctor out of his isolated room to an operating room, where the Patient is operated upon by tiny surgeons and carried aloft by a flock of bloodied aprons. Though the project was begun in 2002, it was completed in a 2007 residency in the museum. The work is very atmospheric without being nostalgic, evoking a nineteenth-century interpretation of illness as part physiology and part psychology and “humours” and dramatizing the oracular spectacle of the museum’s medical equipment and skylight-illuminated operating room.
Purists might object that the slide show is not true toy theatre – there are no metal sliders, no figure animation. Casual visitors to the museum did not watch the whole slide show, nor pay much attention to Barker’s models on display. But I was really touched by Barker’s work, which sat happily amidst the clutter of the medical past and the dreams of the visiting public’s present.
All images by Daniel Baker. A blog about Daniel Barker’s toy theatre projects is at www.papertheatres.blogspot.com