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Thesis Abstract

An Inert State: Tracing a double-defiance of death via photographic poiesis

Unknown #9 from the project, Dogs: An Inert State, 2012.

This practice-led inquiry examines the seen (known) and unseen (unknown) binary in the relationship between the photograph and the museum taxidermy specimen as a way of revealing a double-defiance against the Freudian concept of the death-drive. From this, a new concept photo-dermy was established and explored via the production of five museum-based practice-projects.

Examination of the photo-dermy concept necessitated the practical testing of cultural ideas pertaining to photography and death. Theoretical concepts on photography’s ontology with death inform this inquiry, such those proposed by Roland Barthes. Influential concepts such as Sigmund Freud’s death-drive theory and his propositions on mourning are explored as well as Walter Benjamin’s notions of the aura and the optical unconscious. Ideas pertaining to the cultural distancing of man’s relationship with the animal and the subsequent view of the taxidermy specimen as spectacle are examined. Additionally, Michel Foucault’s epistemes structure an exploration of the modern museum’s governance of visuality, helping define the museum’s spatial and metaphorical expressions of its Wunderkammer past.

To access an embodied perception of death in the research, a practical and sensory method of working called poiesis was developed. This operated via a reflective and tacit methodology as a form of sense-making in its photographic explorations of nineteenth-century taxidermy collections and forms of display. The methodology provided a flexible structure for the logging and organisation of materials, such as the journal. This was the central axis of the methodology for capturing varied iterativities between reflections and haptic actions, fieldwork, conversations, ideas and project development.

The poiesis established binary expressions of the photo-dermy concept as a material and metaphorical connective tissue between the seen and unseen. The findings of each practice-project form a drawer of a metaphorical Wunderkammer, illustrating how a reflective poiesis enables an embodied apprehension of death-drive defiance.

Implications for this research lie in using an embodied poiesis to extend explorations into the skin-like traits of the photo-dermy concept. 

All work (written and visual) © Alexandra C. Murphy, 2022. All moral rights reserved. Use with permission only. All work is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND license.

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