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Body Count

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
Our interest in historical art is full of strangeness and conflicted meanings. I was speaking to a student today about the pre Raphaelites. I was trying to put myself in their shoes; a group of angry youngsters, critiquing the system and being vilified for their daring boldness. Perhaps they were the Jake and Dinos Chapman of their time but how can we possibly reinhabit that historical sensibility today? To our eyes now the work those artists did as the pre Raphaelite brotherhood seems beautiful or even kitsch and sentimental – the very thing they were railing against themselves.ChapmanCHESS
Walking through the National Gallery of Scotland’s permanent collection as a woman, it is easy to become immune to what is quite a bizarre experience. In certain rooms I am walking through endless pink pneumatic nudery, designed for the private consumption of men in their bedrooms. Some of those rooms are the 18th century, three dimensional equivalent of Nuts magazine. The flimsy framework of mythology is so ludicrous it is reminiscent of the Kenny Everett character from the eighties who would pepper her monologues with  “and then suddenly all my clothes fell off”.1981_kenny-everett
Interesting then for a small group of us to visit Death to Death at the modern and look at an exhibition which was about the figure, but from the inside out. If traditional art has been a Jekyll and Hyde affair of idealism and voyeurism, then this show was an opportunity to have a more interesting exploration of what bodies are and represent.
The show was curated using the collection of Dimitri Daskalopoulos, partnered with key works from the galleries collection. Daskalopoulos said of his own collection “We are frail, we are simple. The body is a receptacle for everything – a marvel of human existence that is resilience and creativity. The visceral part of it reminds us of our body and our fluids – that we need to be alive and have emotions – so passion!”
louise bourgeois untitled 1970-2So many OCA students cite figuration and portraiture as an interest. Of course the excellent book Painting People by Charlotte Cummings can help to open students up to considering different approaches, beyond Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville!  But what about really interrogating even further how it feels to inhabit a body and to be involved with other people’s bodies. Most people I know don’t swing by on fluffy clouds with all their pubic hair shorn off (..maybe the odd one). The bodies I know intimately – that of my daughter ,my partner and my own, I know in small unexpected ways.  Death to DeathArtists like Helen Chadwick, Louise Bourgeois, Tracy Emin, Ana Mendieta, Joseph Beuys, Sarah Lucas (all featured in the collection) explore physicality and the human figure in intimate, inventive and sensual ways – often looking inside at fat or blood or musculature as well as focussing (as Sarah Lucas does so beautifully) on posture or movement and gesture.
I think the students who came to the study day for death to death were impressed by the creativity and inventiveness with which all aspects of inhabiting a body and bodies in space were revelled in. I would like to see more OCA students reflecting on why they are working with the figure and being more inventive with their ideas. How to make a piece of art about the smell of a babies breath, or the totally relaxed vulnerability of a sleeping child, or the feeling of disengagement as your body ages and you no longer recognise it as yours and finally death and the redundancy of the human body?

Posted by author: Emma Drye
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15 thoughts on “Body Count

  • An interesting viewpoint. I find the body fascinating – especially because mine is impaired and, rather like your comment about disengagement as your body ages, this means that my feelings are ambivalent toward it and this is reflected in my imagery. On the one hand without my body I’m dead so it’s nice to have it. But on the other hand its constantly breaking down and threatening to die on me and so creates a constant state of anxiety and tension. I’m just now finalising my Major Project on this subject for YOP – so a timely article.

    • Hello CLK55Pete – could you put a link to your work here please – I am sure other students would like to see what you are doing – I certainly would.

        • Hi Pete
          Your photos of your body provide an abstract beauty that makes me want to look- and at the same time I’m asking lots of questions about the painful or uncomfortable nature of the textures, shapes and lines. In some images the serenity of the composition wins, in others the painful colours win. Together they give me the sensation of taking tentative steps closer towards something I cannot really comprehend.
          What comes across to me in your body photos (especially as they sit within the rest of your portfolio) is that you have found a way to uncover beauty and let it transcend the harsher aspects of your situation.
          Your images speak clearly from the first person. I think what you have done is invited us in, made us feel at home, and allowed us to use our empathy as you gently tell your story. Its very hard for one person to really understand what its like living in another person’s skin, but I think you have opened up our hearts, and also shown us the beauty of your spirit – what could be more generous than that?
          Thank you for sharing your work – very inspiring as I think about how to bring my own vulnerability to my level 3 portfolio.

        • Thankyou Pete – I have only just noticed this reply and visited your sites. Your work is really amazing. I like the simplicity of the delivery. I think you would be a good person to apply for a residency once you have graduated.

  • I was very moved by your project Pete. It’s brave to do this. It’s uncomfortable viewing, and raises lots of questions.

  • The exhibition was, indeed, about seeing the body from the inside out, focussing on fluids, bones, skin etc. There was some fascinating work. The body is a great subject to explore. There are other ways to explore the body, though, which can be just as fascinating. For example seeing the body as a social unit and exploring how it connects and disconnects with others.

  • Olivia – thanks for posting this 🙂
    I may have to take a trip to see that exhibition.
    I’m about to start level 3 and am thinking about bodies. I have been considering making work about the connection (or lack of) between mind, body and spirit, and creating an inner space for contemplation.
    I really liked how you phrased some ideas for exploration of bodies and I will look to that to see how I can best shape my project and research. (Its interesting for me to note, for example, that I become more compassionate towards my body as I age, better at listening to it, better at allowing it to be what it is, than trying to transform it into something its not. And as I get older I find that mind, body and spirit are in communication again in a way that they have not been since I was a child and was completely unconscious of these concepts).
    If you know of any artists working in this space, please let me know 🙂
    and for any PRINT MAKERS out there…
    Another artist who works with the body from the inside out is Susan Aldworth. Some of her (giant, exploded) prints are in the National Portrait Gallery.
    The work in the NPA is based on what she learned about epileptics.
    The portrait Atomised
    I think she’s been working with Newcastle (Northumbria?) University Neuroscience department to create art inspired by how the brain works. _ exhibition at the Hepworth Gallery called Reassembling the Self.

    • Hey Carol, I was so heartened but your comment as it suggests my photos have achieved what Fry referred to defined as “higher works of art”
      “And when we come to the higher works of art, where sensations are so arranged that they arouse in us deep emotions, this feeling of a special tie with the man who expressed them becomes very strong”. (Roger Fry, An Essay in Aesthetics, 1909)
      Thanks so much for taking the time to write it and good luck with your level three work. (Post a link to your work please).

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