On Sequentiality: From the Head of a Frog to the Head of Apollo

   

Twelve stages in the sequence from the head of a frog to the head of a primitive man. Coloured etchings by Christian von Mechel after Lavater, 1797. Wellcome Library, London 

Twelve stages in the sequence from the head of a primitive man to the head of the Apollo Belvedere. Coloured etchings by Christian von Mechel after Lavater, 1797. Wellcome Library, London 

J.C. Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (1789–98) surveys morphological transfer: from states of animality toward the formation of so-called ideal human types. The bases for his study was that a greater knowledge of mankind would emerge from the thesis that God created Man in his own image. Lavater hence, attempted to capture human portraits as an amalgamation of the moral, the intellectual and the animal. A fine balance of virtue and vice would therefore be recognized as markings upon the corporeal exterior of humanity—foreheads, noses, chins and eyes becoming coded scripts of “natural inclinations”. In one depiction, a raven’s beak fuses with a male profile in a physiognomical reading of his character and inner spirit. This sort of proto-animation is also seen in a 24-stage transformation from the head of a frog to that of a primitive man and ultimately to the idealized head of Apollo. 

The Museum of Rhythm brings together a coloured drawing of Lavater’s Frog-to-Apollo head (1797) with Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies of Boys Playing Leapfrog—part of his pivotal Animal Locomotion series (1872-1885). As this renowned electro-photographic investigation meets another predecessor of human-animal behavioural sequencing, one is reminded of the complex theatrics that accompanied the construction of these modern scientific documents. Experienced here as a qualitative “leaping” from one state of being into a rationalized other. 

 

Installation View, The Museum of Rhythm  at Taipei Biennial 2012 

From there on the production of a sequence around the frog leitmotif becomes obsessive—perhaps, dissonant even. A wooden frog-shaped guiro (popular souvenir and percussion instrument largely exported from Southeast Asia) is exhibited beside a copy of George Orwell’s Some Thoughts on the Common Toad as well as the endangered Taipei Grass Frog’s call. As Orwell presents a lucid account on the habitat and movements of the common toad, the resonant body of the Frog Guiro calls to be ‘croaked.’ Meanwhile, we never see that rare Taipei Grass Frog but only hear a recording made by local amphibian experts. An accompanying factsheet claims it was popularly known as Thunder God Frog.