What kinds of death need investigation? A criminal death is one that “didn’t happen naturally”, according to a Baltimore detective in 2012 documentary, Of Dolls and Murder, on show now as part of the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition, Forensics: The anatomy of crime. Once natural causes have been eliminated, the detective continues, that is when “you know you’re dealing with a certain kind of death”.
The Wellcome Collection has a long-standing interest in death. 2008 saw Life Before Death, a collaboration between photographer Walter Schels and journalist Beate Lakotta, before 2013’s Death: A Portrait. While the former focused on death’s institutional context and the latter examined cultural attitudes towards death, Forensics hones in on the history of forensic science and, with it, this “certain kind of death”. It isn’t just a literal death that silences the bodies unable to testify themselves. Forensic investigations might also involve criminal acts of loss, experienced as violence or abduction and perpetrated upon living bodies too, such as in cases of missing persons or sexual assault.
In 1910, Edmond Locard founded the first working crime laboratory in Lyon. His pronouncement that “every contact leaves a trace” created the core of all forensic science: the intention to prove presence or contact, with or without a body. Val McDermid, crime writer and author of the exhibition’s accompanying book, notes the first recorded use of forensics in a Chinese handbook for coroners, Washing Away of Wrongs, dating as far back as 1247. It includes case studies like the investigation of a roadside stabbing wherein, after a process of elimination, the tell-tale buzzing of flies attracted to minute traces of blood on a sickle blade seal the case.
Although forensic science has revolutionised the justice system, McDermid describes a history shot through with “courtroom disasters, eccentric pioneers, crowd-pleasing showmen and dangerous (sometimes fatal) research”. This element of spectacle and theatricality is evident in the exhibition, divided into five rooms: The Crime Scene, The Morgue, The Laboratory, The Search and The Courtroom. As within forensic science itself, the body is placed under intense scrutiny to reveal histories, events, actions, desire and intent.
Identity appears as a concept which is resolute, unable to resist or escape corporeal moorings. Ever in search of ways to better categorize the human body, identification techniques such as the Bertillon system developed in 1879 by the French criminologist, Alphonse Bertillon, measured and observed body parts, notably the head and face, of individuals to produce charts for comparison and analysis.
Forensics extends beyond the human towards both other life forms and technology.
The classification of facial features in these essentially physiognomical study charts gave way to the use of finger printing, replaced in turn by Alec Jeffreys’ first genetic ‘fingerprint’, the ground-breaking use of DNA analysis to establish genetic differences as unique, from identity to identity.
Forensics also extends beyond the human in two different directions: firstly, to other life forms in the field of forensic entomology. Insects and plants become agents of detection, metering changes in pace with seasons, life cycles and surroundings. These would ordinarily go unnoticed but here yield data to be harvested for evidence at trial. One such exhibit is a bottle of preserved blowfly larvae from the high profile 1935 Buck Ruxton murder case. This was the first time in which maggots had been used in the UK as forensic evidence to establish a time of death.
Secondly, to technology: explored in the rooms, The Laboratory and The Morgue, where a bounty is placed on revealing what is invisible to the naked eye or beyond tangibility. Considerable advancements in screening and imaging technologies within disciplines such as microscopy, serology and toxicology have brought new levels of precision to investigative procedures. Teresa Margolles’ audio recording of an autopsy mirrors these strategies in a strikingly visceral reading of physicality beyond bodily presence.
The exhibition recognises that criminology’s scientific narratives are just one set of stories amongst others.
The exhibition recognises, therefore, that criminology’s scientific narratives are just one set of stories amongst others. For example, Japanese Buddhist watercolour paintings, or kusōzu, graphically depict nine stages of bodily decay. In What Remains, Sally Mann photographs rotting cadavers, left to the elements in US ‘body farms’, facilities for the scientific study of decomposition. Both reveal a sensual beauty and playfulness through morbid curiosity, suggesting that what is exposed by the body in such unsentimental contexts of death and decomposition might still transcend medical or legal uses.
This is a sensitively curated exhibition. It has to be: the subject matter operates within such delicate frameworks of intimacy. The result is an experience that weighs heavy, either with a responsibility of witnessing, or with a need to hold to account. The exhibition’s emotional force peaks at richly subjective responses that connect the body to expansive understandings of identity as cultural. Teresa Margolles’ removal and repositioning of a section of the floor from the site of her friend’s murder brings the crime scene to the gallery space in the most intensely personal and affecting manner. Alfredo Jaar’s The Rwanda Project, Šejla Kameric’s work with the on-going identification of massacre victims in the Bosnian war during the 1990s and Professor Sue Black (filmed by Chris Chapman) talking about her own professional role in seeking justice for the horrors of genocide or sexual violence. All three exhibits represent very different perspectives but equally bring a hunt for resolution into emotional close range.
Documentary film work by Patricio Guzman frames grieving women searching for the remains of their loved ones, murdered by Pinochet, and highlights a temporal dimension in addition to a driving sense of humanity in the field. While forensics experts like Professor Black work with urgency, and with respect for the passage of time as valuable tool, the halting separation of time is painfully felt by Guzman’s subjects. As they comb the sand, their conversation with the land is slow and offers up only intermittent revelations. The precious skeletal fragments are the only tangible trace of their kin.
Despite aspiring to operate as pure description, Forensics constantly reminds that this particular science is riven by story-telling and performance. Dramatic tension generated in the presentation of evidence is touched upon in The Courtroom section, running parallel to media hungerings for sensational stories (lest we forget the Victorian’s relish for a gory murder story) and the popularity of crime and courtroom dramas in fiction and TV. Real-life personalities crop up throughout: such as Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the pioneering British forensic pathologist, famed for the Crippen murder trials, who gained notoriety and criticism for his theatrical presentations. Such examples embody the power of a compelling story charismatically told.
Since the law is so tightly bound in language, telling the truth and telling a story may not be at odds at all.
Since the law, performative in essence, is so tightly bound in language, telling the truth and telling a story may not be at odds at all, but in many ways, might even be one and the same. The witness affirmation, for example, is itself a performed declaration of one’s own truth, or at least one’s own subjective perception of events: I do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
McDermid recently wrote that the crime novel often gives “voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don’t vote.” This schism between exactly whose truth may be determined and legitimated as fact rather than fiction is a very real concern, and Forensics does address the expense at which a history of classificatory systems has tended to bear down upon certain bodies and identities.
As the exhibition draws to conclusion, the antagonistic relationship of story-telling to truth is further pronounced. Even the most official facts presented as truth and authorised by legal and forensic scientific experts may be judged by history, or discovered at a later date to be incorrect. Works by Christine Borland (Second Class Male / Second Class Female) and Jenny Holzer (Lustmord) foreground corruption and culpability as constant watchwords for power, as wrought through the strongholds of narrative and perspective.
The narratives of living bodies may not always be more reliable than those read from the bodies of the dead though. In 1986, and the first use of DNA fingerprinting for investigation, DNA analysis brought about the exoneration of Richard Buckland, who had previously confessed to the rape and murder of two teenage girls in Leicester, the very same place where DNA profiling was first discovered by Alec Jeffreys.
Similarly, and unlike forensic photography, there is no desire to ‘freeze-frame’ the scene of the crime itself in the final artworks of Forensics. Taryn Simon’s portraits of wrongfully convicted people in the 2002 series, The Innocents, should prompt a closer look at the inconsistencies in the way that DNA identification is employed. In some cases, for example, the cost of the technique is deemed prohibitive or unnecessary. Larry Mayes, photographed by Simon at the scene of his arrest, was found by police hiding under a mattress at The Royal Inn, Gary, Indiana. When DNA analysis established his innocence, he had already served almost 19 years of an 80-year sentence for rape, robbery and unlawful deviate conduct. Reassessing the value of first-hand witness accounts, lineups and photographic evidence, these portraits show a more nuanced example of violence or miscarriage of justice. Compare and contrast with today’s use of DNA profiling, especially the database compiled by the UK government (a development that even Jeffreys is critical towards). What this and the exhibition itself makes clear is that, while forensic science may not set out to lie exactly, like the camera, it bears witness to some very inconvenient stories.