Reposantes is a group of works inspired by Jean-Martin Charcot’s hysteria patients at the Salpêtrière hospital. In a series of photographs, embroidered texts, and a sculptural object, I explore the ideas of translation, reenactment, and the broken narratives of hysteria.
The Reposantes photographs are restagings of original photographs from the Iconographies photographiques de la Salpêtrière published in the 1870s.The original images were used to create visual records of the patients’ symptoms – particularly illustrating the four phases of Charcot’s concept of the hysterical attack. However, many of the photographs do not convey the signs or symptoms of obvious illness or disorder. This inability to translate the patients’ illness into photographic documents is what initially interested me in these images and what I sought to capture in reenacting and rephotographing the scenes. Also by reenacting the patient’s poses, I explored the performative and imitative aspects of hysteria – it’s history of imitating different illnesses and other culturally available symptoms, the Salpêtrière’s experiments in inducing attacks through hypnotism, and the accusations of simulation that were leveled against the patients.
My photographs are selected from all four phases of Charcot’s hysterical attack. The first phase of the attack was the epileptoid phase which consisted of tonic contractures and clonic spasms. This was followed by clownism, where the patient would assume contorted postures and make “illogical movements.” The third, and often considered the most fascinating, phase was called attitudes passionnelles. In this phase, patients would vividly reenact past events in their lives through repeated gestures and hallucinatory conversations. The complete attack would then terminate with a delirious withdrawal. Instead of using one iconic photograph for each element of the attack, I’ve used several versions of each image to emphasize the duration and posturing involved in the photographic process. Most of the original photographs from the Iconographies were taken in the Salpêtrière’s photography studio and not in the wards. The grid layout both constructs and deconstructs a narrative sequence. The entire group of forty photographs can be read in one direction illustrating a complete attack in order. In another, the ordered sequence becomes confused and meaningless. The narrative can also be viewed in randomly selected, abbreviated groupings – and no grouping of three or more photographs in any direction is ever the same or repeated.
“She lets shreds of sentences slip out, which, if stitched back together, would make sense to very few: but who would restitch them?” 1
Hysterics have mainly been known through the images and descriptions made and recorded by their doctors. The embroidered pieces in Reposantes attempt to counter this by including texts written by Augustine, one of Charcot’s most photographed patients. In these writings, she describes her own experiences after inhaling ether and amyl nitrate.
The original writings are in French and as translations 2 they are an imperfect representation, but they provide a much overlooked perspective in the history of hysteria – the patient’s own.
The texts were hand-embroidered in small fragments and then restitched together, thereby creating a broken and recomposed narrative. By choosing to embroider the texts, an originally handwritten document was translated into another handcrafted medium – needlework, which was prevalent at the Salpêtrière.
Arc-de-Cercle consists of an arched spinal column with dangling red threads, each knotted three times. In making this piece, I utilized one of the most unusual and recognizable signs of a hysterical attack (the arc-de-cercle position) and combined it with peripheral elements of Charcot’s classic four-part hysterical attack: the aura hysterica, or prodrome, and the occasional moments of remission between the phases.
Often, hysterical patients would experience an “aura” which would announce an oncoming attack. For example, Augustine’s aura was described as “the rising of three ‘knots,’”. The first ‘knot’ was a throbbing in the ovarian area; the second ‘knot’ “rises like a lump agitating the heart and breathing”; and the third ‘knot’ would contract the whole neck. 3 During the course of Augustine’s attacks, if there was a remission, “she would take advantage of it to attach a ribbon to her garment; this (would) distract her and give her pleasure: ‘When I’m bored,’ she says, ‘all I have to do is make a red knot and look at it.’”
1 Comte de Lautréamont. Ouevres Complètes. Paris: Gallimard, 1970, pp. 136-137
2 Georges Didi-Huberman. Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003. pp. 295-296.
3 Ibid., pp. 100-101