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Q&A/What to SEE/Photography/Visual Art

What to SEE: ‘Annie You Are Okay’

4 August 2022

Emerging artist Isabel Bereczky draws on a century-old mystery and gives it a contemporary twist for her debut solo exhibition, as she attempts to reassure her subject, ‘Annie You Are Okay’.

Anyone who has done first-aid or lifesaving training will have become quite intimate with “Resuscitation Annie”, the life-like manikin used by students to practice CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation.

Most would be surprised to learn its origins and the tragic mystery of the young woman whose face served as a model for its features.

Recent fine arts graduate Isabel Bereczky has produced an exhibition of photographs that aims to explore the mystery of who this woman really was. As she tells Craig McKeough, she is attempting through her art to “resuscitate Annie”. 

Craig McKeough: This is a really unique and quite captivating concept. Tell us about the so-called “Unknown woman of the Seine” and how you became inspired to explore her story.

Honouring Annie: Isabel Bereczky. Photo by Bo Wong

Isabel Bereczky: The story begins during the 1880s, when the body of a 16-year-old girl was discovered in the River Seine. At the time it was common for morgues to publicly display Jane and John Does to help identify them. To the French public, the girl became known as L’Inconnue de la Seine, or the Unknown Woman of the Seine. Without injuries and adorned with a serene expression, her visage was enigmatic. A plaster cast of her death mask was created, replicated and dispersed across Europe. Rumoured to have taken her life following severe heartache, the mystery girl captivated the bourgeois, and she became somewhat of a cultural icon.

Half a century later, the first CPR manikin prototype was developed by Norwegian toy maker Asmund Laerdal who was said to have been inspired by a reproduction of the girl’s death mask mounted in a relative’s home and he based the doll’s likeness on it.

Discovering this story was a big surprise for me. I have been interested in looking at forensic methodologies through a contemporary artistic lens and I have created more than 30 portraits in paint and charcoal of reconstructed faces of Jane and John Does. Normally, I gather source imagery from forensic databases, but my discovery of “the Unknown Woman of the Seine” came from reading an 18th century anatomical flap book called Warren’s Household Physician in which I was confronted with grisly pop-up illustrations of female bodies ripped open and dissected. This was the starting point to an in-depth study of the exploitation and eroticisation of the female corpse within anatomy and medical teaching. This led me to Annie’s story, in which the face of an unidentified girl was grossly copied and reproduced as a CPR teaching tool.

Uncovering the manikin’s backstory chilled me and I was concerned that its dark origin had been swept under the rug. I don’t think words can rationalise the intense connection I felt to Annie. I just knew I had to create artwork to honour her.

CM: When we first hear the name “Resuscitation Annie” it might seem like a bit of a joke. But the woman herself was more than a manikin and not just a victim. How important was it to you to show the woman herself in a positive light?

IB: It was incredibly important to show Annie in a positive light. Her likeness has already been subject to mass reproduction and manipulation, and I needed to ensure my work did not defame her further. Annie is known as “the most kissed girl in the world”. I guess this phrase can be viewed as poetic in the sense that her demise was the result of apparent suicide following unrequited romance. However, when the act of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is performed on replicas of her body without consent, the phrase doesn’t seem so poetic anymore.  

Essentially, the series is a way for me to depict her in a dignified manner. I attempt to give Annie the figurative “kiss of life” by allowing her legacy to live through my photographs. The series is a way for me offer protection to her, to tell her: “Annie, you are okay”.

CM: As a recent fine art graduate, you will have explored a range of styles and mediums. Have you always been drawn to photography?

Kiss of Life: Images from ‘Annie You Are Okay’, by Isabel Bereczky

IB: I come from a painting background and recently delved into photography as a means of artistic expression, but I have fallen in love with the medium. My work often comments on themes of mortality. I feel photography can be discussed in direct relation to death itself; a photograph is witness to something that no longer exists. In photography, ambiguity is everything. I find the most rewarding images are those in which something unexpected has crept into the frame, or once developed, the image is strikingly different to what I anticipated. Let’s just say it has helped shake off my need to control every aspect of creating an artwork.

CM: Can you explain a little about your process in styling and staging the photographs.

IB: I used photographic film to call back to the technologies of the time in which Annie lived. Film adds pressure to the process because you can only rely on a limited number of shots, and for me this increased the emotional intensity of the images.

The photographs were taken in the hour before sunset. This transition between day and night works as an analogy for the transition between life and death. The images portray Annie on the cusp of life as I attempt to resuscitate her.

CM: Do think you succeeded in getting closer to finding the “real Annie” as part of your process?

IB: Generally, it seems that an unidentified person’s value lies in their mystery, and to me that is a real shame. The truth is, we do not know the “real Annie”, and as time passes, the possibility of discovering who she was becomes more impossible. That is the reason I do what I do. My work is an ode to the nameless, to those who were cast away and forgotten. My art will never reveal Annie’s true identity, but I feel the series has succeeding in the sense that I have grown closer to Annie. I found myself in extremely vulnerable situations with Annie, such as retrieving her from the water and reviving her on the riverbank. I can only hope that the series brings attention to her story, and that others grow close to her too.

“Annie You Are Okay” opens with a public event from 6-8pm on Saturday 13 August at NEXTDOOR 24/7 Art Venue, Palmyra. The exhibition continues to 11 September for members only via subscription. Contact the gallery for details or isabelbereczky@gmail.com to make an appointment to view

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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

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