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Forensics: The anatomy of crime

25 February 2015 Laura Stevens

Having undergone a £17.5 million development, the Wellcome Collection is hosting a major free exhibition that explores what the body leaves behind after a violent death. Who dunnit is just one of the questions raised in this challenging and thought provoking exhibition.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Or so the idiom goes. And, in the context of forensic science surely the camera never lies. Photographic evidence of the suspect at the scene of the crime or blood on the bedroom carpet is all the jury needs to convict and condemn.

These clear-cut notions, so easily presented in TV dramas, are unsettlingly undermined in the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition, Forensics: The anatomy of crime. Our innate, and often morbid curiosity with how it happened, why it occurred and who dunnit is uncompromisingly presented here. A major display that blends history, science and art, Forensics investigates our enduring cultural fascination with death and detection.

Split into five sections Forensics journeys from the site of the body to the finale in the courtroom, by interweaving original evidence, archival material, film footage and scientific instruments. With images of genocide and brutal murder photographs openly seen, this is a display that is unsuitable for children or even those of a sensitive nature.

The gruesome showcase sets its macabre tone at the exhibition’s entrance: ‘The Crime Scene’. Here the viewer is confronted by different representations of the genesis of all murder stories. There are newspaper clippings on Jack the Ripper, intricate 1950s dioramas of domestic crime scenes and the work of modern day forensic entomologists.

One particularly chilling exhibit confronts the viewer to question the schadenfreude that accompanies the visitor – that of a literal murder scene into the space. Artist, Teresa Margolles, has brought the floor tiles on which her friend was killed on into the Wellcome Gallery.

But alongside the sense of uncomfortable voyeurism that Forsenics unapologetically generates is the importance of studying this shocking subject. Photographs from the open air ‘body farms’ in Tennessee where donated bodies are left to decay in varying outdoor conditions depict an extremely important scientific study, despite the horror film connotations.

This scientific emphasis is particularly stressed in the second part, ‘The Morgue’. Tracing this history of pathology from the 13th century to contemporary 3D scanning, the cold white autopsy table signifies a more clinical section of the exhibition.

Edmond Locard’s devastatingly simple premise that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ is the starting point for the middle section: ‘The Laboratory’. From this analysis came toxicology, DNA analysis and criminal profiling where the previously unseen became visible through trace evidence techniques.

Turning the corner into ‘The Search’, issues of untold crimes take on a global dimension through examining the war atrocities of the 20th century. With mass graves, genocides and political disappearances being tragically commonplace in a century marked with carnage, forensics here explore how to find the missing.

In the most intense work of the whole exhibition, Šejla Kamerić has created a sealed off, metallic box that contains video footage that seeks to recover the human stories behind the massacre victims of the 1992-5 Bosnian War. Using worldwide examples this part of Forensics traces different and urgent searches for justice, reparation and restitution of identity in the face of barbarity.

The final section, ‘The Courtroom’ is also the ultimate test for forensic medicine as it is called to account in order to ensure justice is served. With video work exploiting the dramatic tension of the courtroom, this section also presents the conflict between forensic evidence and witness findings. And, what happens when there appears an insurmountable divide between the two.

Explicitly playing with this schism are Forensics’ final works: Taryn Simon’s The Innocents. Simon has taken photographs of wrongly convicted criminals at significant sites to their story - the scene of the murder or the place of the alibi. The works brilliantly capture the photographers’ lethal ability to blur truth and fiction, and how supposed concrete evidence can still be subject to manipulation with devastating consequences.

Illuminating a fascinating and crucial world, Forensics: The anatomy of crime challenges and provokes its audience to explore the unseen, question perceived realities and appreciate how much knowledge a human body can leave behind after death.

Forensics: The anatomy of crime is on at the Wellcome Collection from Feb 26 to June 21. For more information go to their website.

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