In January 1913 Gaston Durville started to experiment with a dismembered hand, a body part given to him by a certain Dr. Soquet . For almost more than three months this hand was treated with the electric flow of magnetic fields. Additionally, three so-called magnetiseurs carefully performed a ritual where each day, for three quarters of an hour, they gently caressed the hand, but without touching it. The aim of Gaston Durville and his collaborators was nothing less than to prove that magnetism can actually be used for conservation. After two weeks still no signs of decay could be detected, only the weight of the specimen had significantly dropped. After two months, the dismembered body part finally resembled the hand of a mummy. Durville documented this strange experiment using photography and noted, not without pride, that this preserve ‘would in his audience not evoke the fastidious impression of an anatomical preparation’, but that this object was ‘much more of a museum exhibit’.1 Considering this phantasmal transformation from assumed nature into culture, a process that seems to forego a transformation of the material in question, not only the result is surprising, but also the effects created: traditionally, the creases of a hand signify life.
Experiments with magnetism and hands were quite common around 1900.2 It was fashionable to capture and fixate the force fields and energies emanating from the sitters, as one can see in an image of a hand captured on a photographic plate by Jakob von Narkiewicz-Jodko in Sankt Petersburg in 1896. The trace of the electrified hand verifies the vital force – or the ‘nervous force’ as the Russian state councillor called it – of man-made mass media; rays and lines attest energetic processes. In this document the lines of the hand and the electrostatic discharges permeate each other, creating a crystalline mesh. Quite differently, in the case of Gaston Durville’s mummified hand the camera is only capturing dead matter. But strangely enough, the creases of the hand are emphasised by the unusual treatment; in fact they stand out more than ever. The more death and decay and with it the process of conservation are spreading – until the flesh looks like shreds of paper – the more the life lines become visible. It seems as if the hand in the moment where it is entering the afterlife of the museum, would insist on being part of our mortal world. The lines of the mummified hand, that testify the enormous web of life, stay inscribed into this peculiar three-dimensional photograph as indecipherable fate.