Entering the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge is like walking into some sick combination of a morgue and a library. The walls are adorned with large, grotesque photos of human faces accompanied by huge blocks of text. Only, something is wrong with these faces. They don't seem human at all. It's as if they're missing the spark of life. The faces on the wall are the work of Heide Hatry, a visual artist and curator originally from Germany.
The exhibition, entitled iHeads and Tales/i, features photographed portraits of sculptures created by Hatry using clay, uncured pig skin, raw meat and pig eyes.
iHeads and Tales/i isn't an experiment in shock art. Rather, it is a romantic profession of the character present behind the face of every human race. Hung alongside each portrait is a story that goes with the face in the picture. The 27 stories are varied and stylistically deep; some read like poetry, others like disconnected prose.
One story is written from the point of view of a rape victim learning to deal with her fear of men. Another is comprised of the stream-of-consciousness musings of an alcoholic as she watches Heath Ledger's death story unfold. Each story, though abstract and bizarre in many cases, brings a certain amount of life to the dead skin and hollow gaze of the sculpture in the photo. According to the Pierre Menard Gallery's website, Hatry created the sculptures by first molding clay into the shape of the face, and then covering the clay with pig skin. Hatry then added a fresh set of pig eyes to each sculpture just before photographing it. Once photographed, Hatry distributed the portraits to various authors and asked them to write a story to go along with the sculpture. Essentially, the authors were given the task of creating a character for each disembodied, inanimate head.
Sure, it's a little creepy and, when taken at face value, somewhat strange. But the whole concept makes sense. In absence of a story, are we really anything more than big chunks of flesh? It's who we are and the things we experience that bring life to our meaty forms. That's the point Hatry is trying to get across in iHeads and Tales/i.
Even the wordplay in the exhibition's title presents the two contrasting concepts of a head (just the frame, a blank canvas, if you will) and a tale (the story and personality that bring that canvas to life). The head and the tale combine to make us truly human.
Hatry's work is not exactly suited for a gallery setting. The text of the stories run without paragraph indentations and are often written in small font. Spatial restrictions due to the dimensions of the frames alter and cram the text. Thankfully, Hatry came through with a solution. In addition to the gallery exhibition, there is a iHeads and Tales/i book. Published by Charta Art Books, it is an anthology of the portraits and the stories in the exhibition; each photo is accompanied by its respective story. While not exactly coffee table material, iHeads and Tales/i is much easier to absorb in printed form.
iHeads and Tales/i provides humanistic insight into what brings depth to existence. Like a well intentioned Victor Frankenstein, Hatry brings life to the lifeless. Her refreshingly unnerving medium is a unique combination of sculpture, photography and the written word that grabs the attention of the viewers and holds it, no matter how badly they want to look away.
Oh, one more thing. There's an actual pig skin and clay model of a human body laid out on a metal morgue gurney, fully clothed and missing its eyes. It also kind of smells. Enjoy!
iThe exhibition will run through March 15 at the gallery, located at 10 Arrow Street in Cambridge. The gallery is open to the public from noon until 8:00 p.m. daily./i