Lacan at the Scene

By Henry Bond. MIT Press, $24.95

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York / Issue 738 : Nov 19–25, 2009

It seems insufficient to judge photographer Henry Bond’s Lacan at the Scene as being merely good or bad, when what it is, really, is audacious. Bond presents 79 forensic photographs of British crime scenes from the 1950s. He examines visual clues in the images—a stiletto shoe, a handful of hairpins—and “diagnoses” the killer according to Jacques Lacan’s taxonomy of mental functioning as perverse, neurotic or psychotic. Embroidering his project are astonishing passages about Georges Bataille’s meditations on perversion and Walter Benjamin’s study of photography. Part of Slavoj Zizek’s “Short Circuits” series, the book is a bricolage of the sacred and profane.

The photographs themselves are nightmarish. Something terrible has happened in these rooms; strewn newspapers, a phone off the hook, and a beautifully set table are silent witnesses and clues. Bond explores these objects’ meanings, hoping to shed light on the killer’s motivations and psychology. In one image, he homes in on a cup of cold tea on the nightstand, the one item out of place in a meticulously tidied room. The killer convicted of the murder was the butler; the victim, his mistress (she was stuffed in the room’s wardrobe). The killer, it appears, brought the cup of tea into a room he’d already fastidiously cleaned, “to someone he knew to be dead.” Bond reads the gesture as an announcement of the “triumph over the designated law of master and servant”—a transgression which is the hallmark of a perverse killing.

While Bond’s interpretations occasionally strain credulity, his sensibility enthralls. His goal isn’t police work per se, but to reveal how humble objects at the margins of crime scenes become powerfully allusive and lend themselves to a narrative. Like a still-life painter, Bond illuminates the simple things we see every day, and in the process he allows us to discover our rich and various responses to them.

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