Q&A: Joanna Ebenstein Discusses Death and History at the CDC Museum

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Artwork by Joanna Ebenstein. Image courtesy the David J. Sencer CDC Museum.

Savior of Mothers: The Forgotten Ballet of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis is a dance consumed with drama, science, monomania, and prostitutes dying by the dozens each day from an illness termed “childbed fever” in the late 1800s. Dr. Semmelweis obsesses over their mysterious mortality rate until he discovers that simple hygienic practices in hospitals, such as doctors washing their hands, spares their lives. His assessment arrives before the development of germ theory, though, and his peers dismiss his epiphany as yet another superstition. The lowly ladies haunt the increasingly manic doctor who endeavored to cure their preventable deaths; they twist and twirl around him onstage in dresses adorned with microbial patterns until his fixation spins into madness. In a classically tragic ending, Dr. Semmelweis dies in a sanitarium of septicemia—a version of the disease that killed the women dancing their deathly dance around him.

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Though Savior of Mothers is imagined as if it were a real ballet performed at the end of the 19th century, it’s actually a story created by a contemporary artist. The exhibition is on display now at the CDC Museum at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through September 5, 2012.

But the life story of Ignaz Semmelweis, tormented by his largely ignored discovery of antisepsis as disease prevention, is quite true. Joanna Ebenstein, founder and curator of the Morbid Anatomy Library in Brooklyn, invented the ballet in response to the CDC’s wish to exhibit art that promotes handwashing. Already fascinated by Semmelweis’s tale of genius and insanity, Ebenstein welcomed the chance to render his life in the medium most fitting to his dramatic fate.

Click above for a video produced by Newsweek featuring the Morbid Anatomy Library, or click here to watch it on YouTube.

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Ebenstein, as of yet, has no plans to turn her costume drawings and mocked-up tickets into an actual performance. The conception of it is enough for her. Ebenstein has had difficulty making much of her work accessible to the masses; the library she runs in Brooklyn overflows with wax molds of diseased body parts and taxidermied animals. Imagining a ballet provides a little playfulness to her work without compromising her explorations of mortality.

As I sat down with her in a conference room at the CDC, Ebenstein elaborated on her appreciation of the carnivalesque art that informs her ballet, as well as modern culture’s altered practices surrounding death.

BURNAWAY: You have a quote about how “our culture doesn’t deal with death in any conscious or institutional way,” which I can’t say I fully agree with. But I think there are a lot of rituals that other cultures do that we automatically try to make into taboo or a kind of otherness. How do you think that’s affected how our culture deals with death?

Joanna Ebenstein: In America in the 1880s and 1930s, there’s this change that happens in a lot of ways. That’s always the period I was interested in in school—I was a history major—because that’s when we became who we are as modern people. Until the 1880s most people would kill their own animals for food. Until the 1880s, the idea of a good death was to die at home surrounded by your loved ones and then to be laid out in your parlor afterwards. This then becomes outsourced to funeral homes, and then your parlor becomes your living room, and the funeral becomes the funeral parlor.

So I think the fact that we culturally try to deny death in various ways is a luxury of our time. I mean, when could you ever have done that before? Think about in the 19th century before cars. Horses would just die in the street. It was part of everyday life. People who are believers in religion do have ways to deal with it. But a lot of the people I know don’t have any conscious and dignified discourse about it.

For my whole life, I’ve been interested in death, and I’ve been called morbid my whole life, and I began to think about that. What’s morbid about thinking about death, really?

And think about humans versus animals. At first they said, “Well, maybe humans are different because they use tools.” Well, no, crows use tools. You can’t say that. “Well, language?” No, it looks like chimpanzees can learn language.

I think what makes humans different, or what the human condition is, is that we know we’re going to die. I don’t think other animals do—maybe they do, but I don’t think so. And if that’s the case, if that’s the main problem of human life, then it’s really perverse that we’re not even supposed to talk about it. It’s almost an infantile denial of something inevitable.

BA: I guess animals don’t—probably don’t—have the consciousness that they’re going to die, but they have the instincts to keep themselves alive. But we seem to kind of eschew our instincts and replace them with a constant fear.

Artwork by Joanna Ebenstein. Image courtesy the David J. Sencer CDC Museum.

JE: I’m interested in psychology, and I read Jung and Freud. I really like Jung’s idea of the shadow side. This idea that the more you try to repress something, the more it pops up in uncontrollable pathological ways. And I really feel like death is the biggest thing—you can’t repress it.

I even wonder, with all these healthcare debates and stuff, if you just trace these to their logical conclusions …. I think there’s just something about death. We all think that we’re going to be saved. That the dream of medicine is to live forever.

BA: So, I want to talk about objects and cabinets of curiosity. First of all, with the cabinets of curiosity, I thought it was really interesting that these were things owned by the aristocracy, because now they seem so carnivalesque. That seems kind of tawdry and low-rent, but the aristocracy was interested in these. I guess that’s just because it’s rare, and most people couldn’t get their hands on it, so that gave it appeal?

JE: Modernism in art changed a lot. There’s this distrust of sensuality, and I think modernism ushered in this feeling that suddenly your ideal space wasn’t clutter—it’s a white room with a single object. And the cabinet of curiosity is the opposite of that. It’s not about one perfect object; it’s about the conversations between many fascinating things. It is seen as low-rent now, that style. It is also experiencing a comeback in private collections. A lot of them are artists and not rich people, but it’s the same kind of aesthetic of unpredictable juxtapositions.

I’ll also say that I don’t think that carnivalesque is a bad thing. A lot of what I’m trying to do in my work, too, is play with ideas of theatre and spectacle with real facts and didacticism. Scholars are doing a disservice to people by not having some feeling of how to communicate ideas—they distrust pleasure so much. But if you want to communicate to a mass audience you have to draw them in somehow.

BA: The thing about carnivalesque that people want to get away from is that they think, “Oh, there’s so much artifice,” and modernism doesn’t like that concept. But I think because you can combine things that are factual and non-fiction with the carnival atmosphere, people are going to be okay with that.

The exhibition, Savior of Mothers: The Forgotten Ballet of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, is on view at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta through September 5, 2012.

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