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Creating a Skeletal Symmetry from a 19th-Century Collection of Imperfect Skulls

Perfect Vessels
David Orr, “Unknown (shattered; reconstructed)” (2015), archival dye-infused aluminum disc, 30-inch diameter (© David Orr, courtesy The Mütter Museum)

Robbers, prostitutes, and fallen tightrope walkers: the craniums in the Hyrtl Skull Collection in the Mütter Museum at College of Physicians of Philadelphia are fractured remains of imperfect lives. In his series Perfect Vessels, Los Angeles-based photographer David Orr considers how photographing and mirroring these skulls enhances lobotomy scars or syphilitic distortions into some attempt at impossible perfection. A series of 22 dye-infused images on 30-inch in diameter reflective aluminum discs are going on view at the museum this month, not far from the wall of 139 Hyrtl skulls with their sardonic smiles and gaping sockets.

“It’s such a simple gesture, to mirror a face,” Orr told Hyperallergic. “But this simple gesture can generate complex results. The textures of the skulls create these patterns of abstraction near the center line. The more dramatic instances could only have come from skulls with bone-damaging maladies like syphilitic necrosis, so the medical specimen aspect of the Mütter’s collection had a major impact on the project.”

A lithograph by Eduard Kaiser of Josef Hyrtl (1850) (via Wikimedia)
A lithograph by Eduard Kaiser of Josef Hyrtl (1850) (via Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

Viennese anatomist Josef Hyrtl amassed his skulls in the 19th century, focusing on white Europeans at a time when his contemporaries were often collecting those of different races in an attempt to promote pseudoscience like phrenology. “In a broad sense, he was proving that the size of the cranium has no correlation to intelligence,” Orr explained. By showing all the differences of the caucasian skulls, Hyrtl hoped to discredit this scientific racism.

The skulls that came into Hyrtl’s possession were on the whole from criminals and the impoverished (although he likely involved a grave robber for some his collecting). Many have their former user’s name and cause of death, such as robber and murderer Milan Joanovits executed at the age of 30 in Belgrade, the 19-year-old famed Viennese prostitute Francisca Seycora who died of meningitis, and the 24-year-old tightrope walker Girolamo Zini who broke his neck. At one point, Hyrtl even claimed to have the skull of Mozart, although this specimen did not make it to the Mütter when the institution acquired the skulls in 1874.

“All my work is about order systems, how we derive, create, or apply meaning from the world around us,” Orr said. “Mortality, of course, is a huge generator of our order systems: every religion is built around the idea of transcending death, and all mythologies center on heroes who willingly risk — and often cheat — death.”

Another ongoing project, called All That Is Solid Melts Into Airhas photographs of the skies above locations of violent deaths, which are meant to be viewed from below, giving the viewer an idea of a last look, although just as much suggesting that such meanings are projected onto the serene clouds. So far, Orr has visited over 100 of these locations. Like the Perfect Vessels, the skies through this cataloguing suggest some sort of rationality, but both are also random, brought together only through a deliberate organizing. As a sort of modern vanitas, the skulls can easily represent death, yet also their original purpose as containers of a self.

“As soon as I did my first test, I saw the results emphasized sculptural qualities of the skulls, which led me to think of how once utilitarian vessels, whether crafts we travel in or chalices we drink from, are now exhibited in museums, and thought of as art,” Orr said. “Then I realized our skulls are vessels: containers for our brains, crafts which our psyches travel in, and conduits for intense energy. And sculpture, as well. The act of balancing them begins to remove the veil from that idea.”

Below, you can watch Orr’s perfected skulls morph into their individual shapes through a video by the artist.

Perfect Vessels
David Orr, “Milan Joanovits, m, 30 (robber + murderer; executed in Belgrade)” (2016), archival dye-infused aluminum disc, 30-inch diameter (© David Orr, courtesy The Mütter Museum)
Perfect Vessels
David Orr, “Unknown (trans-orbital lobotomy)” (2014), archival dye-infused aluminum disc, 30-inch diameter (© David Orr, courtesy The Mütter Museum)
Perfect Vessels
David Orr, “Unknown (underbite; metopic suture)” (2015), archival dye-infused aluminum disc, 30-inch diameter (© David Orr, courtesy The Mütter Museum)
Perfect Vessels
David Orr, “Francisca Seycora, f, 19 (famous Viennese prostitute; died of meningitis)” (2015), archival dye-infused aluminum disc, 30-inch diameter (© David Orr, courtesy The Mütter Museum)
Perfect Vessels
David Orr, “Girolamo Zini, m, 24 (tightrope walker; died of broken neck)” (2016), archival dye-infused aluminum disc, 30-inch diameter (© David Orr, courtesy The Mütter Museum)
Perfect Vessels
David Orr, “Geza Uirmeny, m, 80 (attempted suicide at 70; lived until 80 without further melancholy)” (2014), archival dye-infused aluminum disc, 30-inch diameter (© David Orr, courtesy The Mütter Museum)
Perfect Vessels
David Orr, “Unknown (syphilitic necrosis)” (2014), archival dye-infused aluminum disc, 30-inch diameter (© David Orr, courtesy The Mütter Museum)

David Orr: Perfect Vessels is on view July 14 to January 5, 2017 at the Mütter Museum (19 S 22nd Street, Philadelphia). 

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