In The Anatomical Venus, Ebenstein, cofounder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, explores the allure of a female wax figure created in 18th-century Florence with the aim of teaching anatomy to a popular audience.

What’s the appeal of the anatomical Venus today?

For me, when I saw the Venus, I had seen all these objects in medical museums but when you see that—it’s life-size, it looks real, you know it’s not real, but something in you believes it is real anyway. I always say there is a flicking that happens. There is this cognitive dissonance and your brain is just firing off and there is a delightful confusion. This confusion is not delightful for everybody, but for me, I really like that. I think it illustrates that the way we divide the disciplines now are so arbitrary. You know—art and science, spectacle and education—the fact that all these things are unified in that object—that’s what makes her so bizarre.

You say the purpose of the book is to explore the enigma but “also not spoil her charm.”

I don’t want to say so much that she stops being mysterious. I think if I had done a book with no pictures it wouldn’t have worked. There is something about that interplay. Images allow you to be more subjective and affective and deal with more subconscious, unspoken things. What I really want to communicate is what I love about it, which is this mystery and this kind of sucking-you-in-ness of it. I feel like describing it, explaining it, doesn’t do that. It ruins that.

There’s the theme of sensational and educational, that’s also what I find so appealing about the book.

To me that’s the whole Morbid Anatomy Project. I am very, very interested in reuniting the educational with the spectacle. And that’s why originally my concept for doing this book was that it would be more about anatomical museums in general. But then I kept thinking about the Venus and the way people respond to her when they see it. It draws them in a way no other object from the history of medicine does, and through that one object it allows you tell all those stories in a way that’s accessible and interesting and not boring.

What do you hope to accomplish by presenting her in the form of an art book?

My whole life I have liked stuff that no one else likes, that everyone else thinks is creepy and horrible and grotesque. When I visited these objects and photographed them, I really tried to capture their beauty rather than their grotesqueness. Other photos from the series include a taxidermied human head, a human arm. I see them as really beautiful objects that speak of the time they were made; they tell these cultural stories. A lot of people approach them as, “Oh my God, that’s disgusting.” I really want to urge people to see them as beautiful things that tell us really fascinating stories about the past and the present.