For the last decade, Liz McGarrity has been pulling out the eyes of Victorian-era dolls and mounting them in pairs in glass domes. Now, at 65 years old, they are among the many items she sells at the Morbid Anatomy flea market, which returned on April 30th after a six-year hiatus.
McGarrity was one of more than a dozen merchants gathered in the sunny courtyard at Industry City in Brooklyn to kick off the event, which will now happen monthly, in its new space where art and death intersect.
“If you look at [the eyes], you'll see that they actually have different expressions. Some are looking up, and some of them are looking down,” said McGarrity as she pointed to the dozens of doll eyes. “I just like the idea that there's a little creepiness to it, but also wonder and whimsy.”
Morbid Anatomy started as a blog in 2007 when founder Joanna Ebenstein was also doing a photo exhibition about medical museums around the world, such as the Mutter in Philadelphia. The blog was Ebenstein's way of organizing her research and her growing collection of reference books on medical arts. When she got requests to access her collection, she opened it to the public and started a lecture series and exhibitions.
Eventually it turned into a Christmastime fair, which became the very first flea market in 2009 to complement the blog and library, which focused on exhibitions and public events around themes of nature, death, medicine and society.
“The Morbid Anatomy flea market is a place to go if you're the kind of person who likes the kind of things you can't buy at normal flea markets,” Ebenstein said. “We have what I call morbid-ilia, different kinds of macabre or death related things from around the world.”
In 2016, Morbid Anatomy ran out of money and had to close the doors to its museum and market. At the time, it was located in Gowanus. Its rebirth came when co-founders Ebenstein and Laetitia Barbier got the opportunity for a space at Industry City last year, but the flea market did not return until this spring when vendors could use the open-air courtyard in the complex that houses their library and exhibits.
Splayed on the vendor tables on Saturday were a wide breadth of objects. Piles of wearable African snake vertebrae are sold alongside a life-size antique doll head that has been slit open across the temple to create a purse.
“I do like creepy doll heads since I was younger and found one on the street,” said Brooklynite Natalie Kocsis, who purchased the doll head purse. “It’s definitely a statement piece. Not many people have doll head purses. And I can use it to put my keys, credit card and maybe some lipstick.”
Vendors displayed skulls, antlers, preserved insects in glass and an abandoned wasps nest with the tree branch still attached. Vintage medical illustrations and books related to death were stacked shoulder high. But the biggest crowds mingled around the taxidermy, including a Noah’s ark consisting of period stuffed pets and farm animals and “rogue taxidermy,” which proprietors say is ethically sourced from animals that have died of natural causes. There were also religious and cultural objects such as Santa Muerte, an icon of holy death from Mexico.
“There's something about the beauty of what nature or time can do to an object,” said Wren Britton, the maker of the doll head purse. “There's beauty to realizing that something isn’t forever. That there's a finiteness to all of us and to everything.”
Although Morbid Anatomy’s museum did not reopen in its new reincarnation, the library, academy and gift shop are open to the public with a calendar of events that includes $8-lectures on cultural expressions of mortality; free show-and-tells; classes with the taxidermist-in-residence, Divya Anantharaman, and free tours.
“I think there's beauty in sort of paying tribute to this thing [death] that most people try desperately not to think about,” said Queens resident Marie Chapman, who is a skeletal anthropologist and a regular at the market since its beginnings.
The market will open one Saturday every month, noon to 6 p.m., running until at least Halloween, their most popular time of the year, or when it gets too cold to sell death-related art outdoors.
“At the contemplation of death is the natural state of being human,” Ebenstein said. “I think we’re filling a cultural gap, and giving people a place to find beauty in death because it is something that is all of our fates.”