The Resurrectory

Artweek, July/August 2005, Vol. 36, issue 6

By Prudence Roberts

The recent installation/performance by Liminal, titled The Resurrectory, explored the uneasy area where medicine, research and death intersect. The work is based on the history of two nineteenth-century murderers, William Burke and William Hare, who found lucrative, albeit brief, careers supplying fresh cadavers to an anatomy school in Edinburgh. (The title is derived from “resurrectionist,” a term for grave robbers.) In light of current debates over stem cell research, abortion and how science and religion define the beginning and end of life, this macabre story takes on a newfound relevance.

Liminal, started in 1997, describes itself as “an ensemble of artists who create live performance installations that intermingle theater, the fine arts and technology.” For this work, the group recruited video and film artist Jim Blashfield and painter Gabriel Liston to supply many of the rich and complex visual elements. The Resurrectory was designed to function both as a gallery installation and as the setting for the group’s performance. It succeeded on both measures, giving visitors, who could move at will through the space (and performance) an unfolding experience that gradually made them actors in Liminal’s own investigation.

The Resurrectory was installed at the Portland Art Center, whose gallery was transformed into an inquest area, an anatomy theater and a collections office, each defined by curtains of translucent plastic sheeting. In daytime hours and during the evening performances, visitors could roam through the spaces, picking up objects, reading crime reports and interment records, looking at video projections and paintings, and, through headphones, hearing a metaphysical anatomy. Ambient noise—the drip of water, the sound of straw underfoot—added verisimilitude. Gradually, the odd assortment of furniture, images, text and objects assumed a structure and a story emerged from the dimly lit setting, enhanced by Liston’s wall paintings. These sepia-toned, gestural sketches, which resembled large Delft tiles, alluded to the histories of the eight known victims and the accounts of their murders.

The most visually compelling piece of the installation was the anatomy theater, with its pneumatic, sheet-draped cadaver. Through the magic of Blashfield’s video projection, the body underwent the decay and transformation described in the anatomist’s lecture. 


As one listened to his chanted and weirdly poetic account, organs appeared on the corpse, followed by bouquets of flowers and leafy vines suggesting decomposition. Portions of the text also appeared in projection on the wall: words broken apart so that meaning was hard to extract. During the performance, the doleful, minimalist music of the Parametric Orchestra (keyboard, violoncello and electronic saxophones) accompanied the anatomist.

The collections area housed crime reports describing the circumstances of each victim’s death. Polaroid crime shots were a nicely anachronistic touch. A hand-drawn wall map located seven important sites and places of historic interest in the investigation, overlaying Edinburgh’s street grid with that of Portland’s east side to create what Liminal called “The City.” This intriguing concept didn’t seem as fully developed as other parts of the installation: I could not discern a compelling correspondence between, for instance, Parliament Close in Edinburgh and a 1950s apartment complex at SE 15th and Alder in Portland.

A wedge-shaped stage dominated the inquest area. Quiet an ominous during the day, this was the focal point of the performance. Here, Liminal’s athletic performers reenacted the murders, in which Burke and Hare plied their victims with whiskey, then suffocated them. The resulting corpses ended up on a gurney, where a nurse/attendant prepared the bodies for the anatomy theater. The attendant’s costume—a short crisp apron, black tights, a nurse’s cap and a bustle made of bundled latex surgical gloves—added a touch of gruesome whimsy to the scene.

One final note: During the course of its run, The Resurrectory changed constantly, and Liminal continued to add new elements to the installation and performance as well as a walking tour that visited points of intersection between Portland and Edinburgh.