Murdering to Dissect

Murdering to Dissect by Daniel Glaser appeared in the original 2009 production programme for Under Glass

Under Glass is not a romantic piece, but the illumination of its encapsulated human subjects still reveals beauty. It represents one side of a long-running argument about whether probing and understanding things increases or destroys their beauty. Some have sought to oppose art and science suggesting that art proposes contemplation and science deconstruction. But, as Under Glass demonstrates, pulling things apart does not necessarily drain the life out of them.

Its view of village life owes more to the deeply repressed hysteria of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood than the liberated contemplation of Wordsworth’s Lake District home at Grasmere. And it’s hard to imagine a romantic poet turning a spotlight on the human condition in such a stark fashion or sticking a jerking figure under a microscope. Wordsworth invented the phrase ‘murdering to dissect’ which conjures an image of butterflies pinned to boards; their lives sacrificed to the enumeration of a classification system. The kill jar and the display case are physically rendered in Under Glass, but the specimens are still twitching.

Keats went further in his poem Lamia and denounced philosophy (including science) that will ‘clip an angel’s wings’ and ‘unweave a rainbow’ as it complies its dull catalogue of common things. That is the origin of the title of one of Richard Dawkins’ books (Unweaving the Rainbow) where, with typical directness, he challenges the view that scientific explanation destroys beauty. Under Glass presents the viewer with an alternative view by borrowing materials such as laboratory glassware. As an audience this feels more like a lab tour than an artistic performance. Rather than sitting passively in rows we are led into the darkened zone of investigation, stepping round equipment and transgressively peering into the dark.

If we tread carefully it is so to avoid disturbing the experiment rather than putting off the performers. As such this is a masterful theatrical illusion but it asserts a basic truth: by seeing beings like us exposed we see ourselves more clearly.

The physical movements in Under Glass function in a similar way to alienate and ultimately to reveal. It is not a simple dance piece but its layers of abstraction use the artificiality of dance. The dancer’s body is from the same species as the viewer but as it contorts and judders (as it performs impossible leaps and exquisitely matches intricate rhythms) our identification with the dancer breaks down. We know more about this process now through the findings of neuroscience, the articulation of a ‘mirror system’ which exploits our own movement ability to help us see the movements of others. But this knowledge only emphasizes the power of this ancient trick. As we lose ourselves in contemplation, as our eyes adjust, we move beyond a simple sense of distance (‘look at that funny man in a box’, ‘isn’t it odd the way that skin is flattened against the glass’, ‘how can she keep moving but always seem still’) and start to notice how we ourselves are captured, our tics, our repetitions, our interrupted streams of consciousness, all laid bare. Science and art can both dissect their objects of study and, with expert hands each can bring the life out.

Daniel Glaser is the director of Science Gallery at King’s College London.

Photo credit: Manuel Vason