Timothy Prus, curator of the Archive of Modern Conflict, shows BJP his latest creation, a mediation on nineteenth century science and anthropology, presented in a Shakespearean drama.
I am left to wander the rooms. As the name suggests, the archive began as a place of reference for images of the World Wars, before expanding on this remit to document the other wars of the 20th century. The actual owner of the collection, only referred to as “a Canadian friend” throughout the interview, clearly does not rule with a tight grip. In the 22 years Prus has presided over the archive, the scope of enquiry changed out of all recognition, now housing anything that appeals to his considerable curiosity, taste and wandering interests. At present the collection includes more than four million photographs, and has spread from London to Beijing and Toronto. If photography is a broad church, then surely this is a church of his own making.
After a short wait, Prus bursts in to greet me, unfurling his scarf and overcoat while gripping my hand. “This certainly has had a long genesis,” he says when we’re finally seated at the dinner table, The Whale’s Eyelash laid out in front of us, showing the detailed intimacies of a snake’s small intestine. “I’ve been thinking about the microcosm as a way of exploring narrative for about 20 years,” he says. “It’s taken me a long time to work out how to use morphologies in natural history as a form of storytelling.”
His answer is to publish the slides to the very best standards of modern book publishing, but in a sequence, indeed a classical Shakespearean five-act structure, with which he aims to say something about our modern condition – namely the paradoxical, and often overlapping struggle between the forces of science and faith, reason and heritage. Prus asks us to observe tiny fragments of the natural world, their shape and colour and texture presented dispassionately. But these fragments are also significant to us; in folklore, mythology and symbolism. They inhabit both worlds.
The opening act to Prus’ play includes the horn of a rhinoceros, the diatoms from the stomach of a Japanese oyster, the leg of a Spanish fly and a monkey’s testicle. They all have scientific value, but what is their anthropological significance? Each is an historic aphrodisiac. Rhinoceros horn is still worth more than diamonds on the black market, as large tracts of the world continue to believe it magically enhances virility, machismo and libido. An oyster shell features in The Birth of Venus, as depicted by Botticelli, while Casanova was reputed to eat five dozen a day. The Spanish fly was Marquis de Sade’s chosen sexual aid, while a monkey’s testicle formed the basis of Serge Voronoff’s fortune; the French-Russian surgeon became a household name in 1920s France for his ability to graft a monkey’s testicular tissue on to the testicles of men in need of therapy. He was later exposed as a quack.