Morbid beauty

Houghton Library Blog 2015-07-01

Morgues 4This post is part of an ongoing series featuring material from the Julio Mario Santo Domingo Collection. 

Of the many altered states of consciousness chronicled in the Santo Domingo Collection, death may be merely the most permanent; as a subject often circumnavigated out of discomfort, fear, superstition, or propriety, it takes its place alongside sexuality and drug use. This striking volume, Morgues, confronts death directly, though not without a sense of beauty.

Printed in a scarce edition of only fifty copies, it is a collaboration between the American photographer Andres Serrano (most famous for the image Piss Christ); the Spanish novelist Mario Bellatin; and the designers Olivier Andreotti and Harri Koskinen. Andreotti supplies the book’s visual design, with lines of Bellatin’s text snaking across silhouettes comprising bones, viscera, and surgical instruments. Koskinen, for his part, is responsible for the packaging: the loose portfolios of text rest in a plastic slipcase, which is itself contained between two halves of a stainless steel shell. This shell is held together with two thick rubber straps, fastened with magnetic pads; this outer casing, cold and heavy, evokes the sliding storage drawers for corpses in a morgue.

Morgues 2

Morgues 3

This lavish presentation frames the content of the work: five photographs by Serrano, accompanied by a short story in five parts by Bellatin. The text, in French and Spanish, reads like a dark folktale. The images, selections from Serrano’s 1992 series The morgue, are intimate yet anonymized portraits of dead bodies – the frame captures a hand or a brow, rather than the entire corpse.

Morgues 6

Taken as a whole, the words, images, design, and boxing of Morgues work together to examine our complex, often artificially distant, relationship with the inevitable.

Morgues 5

[Paris]: Toluca Éditions, 2006. FC9.B4147.2006m, HOLLIS number 14356270

Thanks to rare book cataloger Ryan Wheeler for contributing this post. This post is part of an ongoing series featuring material from the Julio Mario Santo Domingo Collection.