Driven mad by my inability to pin my thoughts into coherent sentences, I temporarily cease typing and take a pause to reach out and lift my cup of tea. Ignoring the handle, I slide my fingers around its belly, gripping it between my thumb and second finger, allowing it’s body to swing into the hollow of my palm, my little finger curling round to catch the bottom edge as it reaches my lips.
Has there ever been a time when the body was not there in art in some form or another? As itself, as metaphor, as object, as subject, both present and absent, on the canvas or driven back on the viewer, the list goes on and on alongside a constant morphing of intention and sensibility through the generations. So when I say that my practice starts with the body I add my name to a record both illustrious and otherwise.
Of this terrain, which part is mine? And how do I know that? How am I distinguishing between what is interesting to me, or merely informative, and which part I am actually occupying?
And how can I not be aware that in being female and starting from my own body I am potentially entering a problematic territory that I may have no choice but to acknowledge and somehow manage (or deploy).
“The body in art must be distinguished from the flesh and blood it seeks to imitate. In representation the body appears not as itself, but as a sign. It cannot but represent both itself and a range of metaphorical meanings, which the artist cannot fully control, but only seeks to limit by the use of context, framing and style. This complex of signs is what I call the bodyscape.”
[pg 3, Bodyscape: art, modernity and the ideal figure, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Routledge London, 1995]
John Coplans Self Portrait Frieze No 2 1994
The literal body….
Must the body in art be distinguished from the flesh and blood it seeks to imitate?
At one level the answer is “yes”, the answer embedded in “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” in The Treachery of Images. Any record of a body is not the body itself but stands in for the body. There is plenty of work where the body is a sign of itself and not just the drawings of body dissections by Leonardo da Vinci and the later history of medical drawings and photographs.
When I look at the work of John Coplans I see an exploration of the body “just as it is”, perhaps easier to achieve with an older male body. The work is intended to explore the universal human experience and is read in this way, his use of photography being the ability of the medium to record what you set in front of it, just as I have done with the camera and the scanner or in drawing.
Similarly the work of Thomas Florschuetz is concerned with self-definement, as if by fixating on his own body he ensures his own physical existence. This is very different from the projects of, say, Cindy Sherman who is concerned with layers of disguise and personas.
I am drawn to these artists work because their work looks at the body in itself which appeals to the analytical side of me but at the same time I inhabit my body, I speak of what it makes me feel, its visceral nature, the kinaesthetic experience of living.
Am I asserting the right of the female body to stand for the universal? It is certainly the case that absent having to consider the impact of my being female on my work my preoccupation is with the occupation of space, how my sense of myself differs from my actual occupation of space and how I go about occupying space and experiencing that occupation. Separately I may consider that the occupation of space is a political issue but my conclusion is that I have no intention of making that explicit in my work. I see my allies in this conclusion as being Helen Chadwick and Rose Finn-Kelcey.
‘One of the things that came from my involvement with feminism in the seventies was a very strong belief that my sensibility is determined by the fact of my being a woman, but that I don’t want to talk about women’s issues through my work. My work is informed by cultural and social conditioning, but not explicitly.’ – Rose Finn-Kelcey, 1990
Noted on 26 July 2017 from the exhibition introduction to: “Rose Finn-Kelcey: Life, Belief and Beyond” at Modern Art Oxford
I turned to chicken wire as a means of quickly taking moulds of myself in particular forms. These started as ways to investigate my physical size although I was temporarily engaged by its feistiness and the way that it catches the light. I have looked at the work of Cedric le Borgne, an artist that works with chicken wire as his prime material, and concluded that this is a distraction (though the intention of his sculptures may be of value to me in the future)
The possession of space
Reading about the attempt to reclaim the nude for art from its place in popular culture and advertising, I came across Javier Vallhonrat and his project “The Possessed Space”. I have two responses to this. The first takes the title at face value, answering the question in my mind around how my work with the hands is evolving. At the moment this is where my focus on the occupation of space is directed.
“Vallhonrat believes that the universal use, or rather abuse, of photography has cheated human beings of the ability to perceive and experience space in depth; increasingly we dwell in a flattened, two dimensional image-world. With his supple collaborator, Vallhonrat sets out to redress this imbalance, directing her to embody simple geometric shapes – in this instance the triangle – with her volume. Thus can art, thus must art ‘approach and challenge the pure signs of mathematical rationality’.”
pg 72 - 75 The Body: Photoworks of the Human Form, William A Ewing, Thames & Hudson, London 1994
My second response is to review his actual intention: is this informative to me?
I find the recording of overall shape onto an image intriguing and this may prove useful in my own investigations on the occupation of space. The first sentence here I am only partially convinced about unless he is speaking purely of conscious awareness, if it were literally true we would all be bumping into the furniture. We move around in space all the time and have highly sophisticated unconscious systems to be able to do so. These are not undermined by living in a world saturated in two dimensional images. What may be undermined is our conscious familiarity with our three dimensional world.
And these are beautiful images of a naked female body, which is potentially problematic.
Hiding in plain sight
When my hand first hit the platen my attention was drawn to the way that its three dimensional nature was recorded with no depth of field. That led me to prepare the images for the corridor show based on our actual dimensions in the selected poses. I was amazed at just how small these were as if the embodied self (knowledge) hides in plain sight. This is the origin of my question on the occupation of space.
The occupation of space
In exploring what it is to occupy space I initially looked at this literally, starting with dimensions and just doing anything with them until a direction emerged. This is when I first attempted to calculate my volume. Consequently my residency in Durham was spent on a particular set of questions: Am I really 1/20th of a meter cubed? How much space is that anyway? Is it really that small?
Subject Object Sobject (SOS)
I have spent some time considering the idea, encountered in March, that when women make art they have a particular approach to corporeality, born out of our historical position as object rather than subject, so that when we make art we are both simultaneously in a way that men are not.
With a practice that starts and ends at embodied experience I am always a subject, my whole practice is about being a subject and functioning in the world as that subject. This is not about being a woman, this is true for all of us and therefore it should be possible for me to speak to the universal from this position.
However, we do live with a way of thinking that is still in part built on a mind-body opposition that handed rational transcendence to the masculine and corporeal immanence to the feminine. No wonder then that the Harvard Business Review can speak of loyalty as a feminine skill, when clearly it is a human attribute.
In starting with my own body any representation I make can potentially fall into object, and to date I have largely avoided explicit images.
Then I remember Sam Taylor-Johnson (Sam Taylor-Wood), series “Bram Stoker’s Chair” and “Self Portrait Suspended” and think maybe it is possible. Is it the unglamorous underwear that says “nope” to a sexualised interpretation?
It is certainly possible to produce work based on the body that is sexless, Anthony Gormley has achieved this multiple times and I don’t think this is entirely to do with it being a male body.
Thomas Florschuetz Plexus VII 1994
Cedric le Borgne Les-Naufragés 2011
Javier Vallhonrat, Triangle 1987
Javier Vallhonrat Trihedron 1989
Sam Taylor-Johnson, Bram Stokers Chair II, 2005
Sam Taylor-Johnson, Self Portrait Suspended III, 2004
The metaphorical body and the means of making
I have also been concerned lately with the metaphorical body. Firstly there is the piece I made for the Crypt, whose making originates in experiments in ways of capturing the negative space of a body (as a form of the opposite of occupation), in this case footprints. But in making something site specific I have pursued a metaphorical approach, looking at the ephemerality of the body (as set out in Ecclesiastes), the footprint as sign of the some time passing by of a person and the material of lifestyle magazines as the impossible promise that our passing can somehow be withheld or delayed.
The use of paper pulp goes to a change in materials to those that are somehow mouldable, the chicken wire being something that I could pull around me like a cloak to take on the form I was making. The paper pulp is something that can be crushed or compressed and can simultaneously stand in for a sense of the fragile.
This also goes back to a sense of working with the hands, the kinaesthetics of making that I perceive when I look at the work of Rebecca Warren, say. Though what I really take from Rebecca Warren is the process of making the work in the laboratory of the studio and then taking it from the studio and presenting it as a work for public viewing.
With Body Tetris I am attempting to mix both the literal dimensions of the body with the metaphorical use of the material.
It is based on the dimensions of my own body but in making my thinking became occupied by the material so the dimensions became flattened. The flattening made sense to me once I realised that these magazines are intended to occupy us, to occupy our thoughts and desires. As a work though this does not work so can be seen to be a final working through of the material in the studio rather than an actual piece.
The desire of touch
Meanwhile, my interest in the hands has expanded from “the hand as it is” to their movement out into space and the reaching out to touch or hold. This is part of how we encounter space perhaps even possess space. When I say, possess, I am thinking of a form of occupation rather than ownership.
I have worked this out in part through turning to painting again, though not for long, and following a making path through what comes to mind. I also carried out a review of other artists whose work incorporates the hands.
Anna Malagrida, Cristal House, 2016
When I did my BA those who described writing as being part of their practice were theory heavy so I formed the impression that that is what such writing “should” be, hence, not for me. I’ve spent my whole adult life expecting to write in ways that the reader could understand and I am not prepared to change that approach.
I also find that in finalising my drafts I need to read aloud, not just as if I truly am speaking to someone but as if anything I write must have a kinaesthetic quality of speech to it – the movement of the mouth, the tongue, the segue of matching expressions on the face, perhaps the accompanying gestures of the hands… So the writing then becomes a representation of an embodied experience, of it’s speaking.
I only pinned this down fully in the last few days so do not yet know where this sits contextually. I have certainly already begun to look at other artists writing, one of which is covered in the Critical Analyses but this is my first clue as to why I find some writing unsatisfactory.
When I reviewed the work of Anna Malagrida and the explanatory narrative that references gesture as the way in to interpretation, I realised that I have been more interested in the ability of the hand to make gestures rather than the gestures themselves. Then I started playing with a particular gesture, the holding of objects, and the next investigation was born.
Meanwhile my kinaesthetic experience of working with the hands has moved into my choices of materials and means of making rather than being realised in the content as set out above.