During 30-plus years in a London studio, Philadelphia-born identical twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay have brought life to a body of work that defies traditional categorization.
Working in stop-motion animation with intricately detailed puppets and miniature sets, they hauntingly illustrate the power of a 2-D medium to conjure an enveloping atmosphere. Visually, their films are simultaneously gorgeous and grotesque, organic and mechanical.
For admirers, last year’s announcement that the Quay Brothers had been commissioned by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia to create a short film based on the collection of the school’s Mutter Museum of medical oddities seemed like an ideal pairing of artists and subject. That feeling is borne out by the result, “Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting.”
On Tuesday, July 31, as part of a three-city tour that includes a trip to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for an exhibition and career retrospective, the Quays will visit the Wexner Center to introduce “Weeping Glass” and another recent short film, a dark, mesmerizing tale of self-discovery titled “Maska.”
In an email exchange, the brothers (they chose to answer as one) explained that they thoroughly researched the Mutter Museum’s holdings before spending a week collecting particular objects of interest for shooting.
“The film is above all a meditation,” they wrote.
“For us, the essence is to try and capture what is already there in secret presence but most importantly what is there in an imaginative presence. We prefer to evoke rather than present things on a plate.”
With the skeleton of Harry Eastlack, who suffered from a rare bone growth disorder that left all but his lips paralyzed before his death, they found “the frame with which to enter the portals of the museum.”
Struck by an anecdote involving Eastlack’s sister and her frequent museum visits to see her brother’s remains, the filmmakers ruminate on the unique form of immortality granted by the museum to its specimens. These also include a plaster cast of Chang and Eng, history’s most famous conjoined twins, and an expansive collection of antique skulls with the fates of their original owners engraved into the bone.
As these visceral images unfold, they instill a powerful, wide-eyed fascination, spiked with dread and a sense of reverence instilled by location and treatment. Though I’ve never been to the Mutter Museum, it’s not a stretch to believe that the Quays have immortalized the unique experience of being there.