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Cybernetic Culture Research Unit

Il Numogramma Decimale

H.P. Lovercraft, Arthur Conan Doyle, millenarismo cibernetico, accelerazionismo, Deleuze & Guattari, stregoneria e tradizioni occultiste. Come sono riusciti i membri della Cybernetic Culture Research Unit a unire questi elementi nella formulazione di un «Labirinto decimale», simile alla qabbaláh, volto alla decodificazione di eventi del passato e accadimenti culturali che si auto-realizzano grazie a un fenomeno di “intensificazione temporale”?

K-studies

Hypernature. Tecnoetica e tecnoutopie dal presente

Avery Dame-Griff, Barbara Mazzolai, Elias Capello, Emanuela Del Dottore, Hilary Malatino, Kerstin Denecke, Mark Jarzombek, Oliver L. Haimson, Shlomo Cohen, Zahari Richter
Nuove utopieTecnologie

Dinosauri riportati in vita, nanorobot in grado di ripristinare interi ecosistemi, esseri umani geneticamente potenziati. Ma anche intelligenze artificiali ispirate alle piante, sofisticati sistemi di tracciamento dati e tecnologie transessuali. Questi sono solo alcuni dei numerosi esempi dell’inarrestabile avanzata tecnologica che ha trasformato radicalmente le nostre società e il...

Rappresentare il corpo nell’arte
Magazine, ANATOMIA – Part I - Ottobre 2020
Reading time: 29 min
Dobrosława Nowak

Representing the body in art

Historical-critical excursus on the representation of the human body in past and contemporary art: from the turning point of Modernism to the search for female identity in Anna Uddenberg and the posthuman in Stelarc and Martyna Czech.

From the very beginning of all human creative endeavors, we have used, if not even exploited, the image of the human body. The rock paintings of Lascaux, where various figures of human beings appear alongside the animals, date back to around 17,500 years ago. The human body is in fact fundamental for the understanding and expression of our place in the universe.

In this essay, retracing the history of art, I will analyze works made in different eras, focusing on the most recent works in which the human body is represented, the absolute protagonist of an enormous amount of contemporary works. From painting and sculpture to installation, video art, and performance, the body in art plays various roles, from being the subject of a portrait to becoming an active presence in participatory events. The means to represent the body are the most disparate: a painting, a video, a sculpture and, starting from a certain moment in the history of art, even the artist’s own body, first through the birth of performance art and happening, thanks to which numerous questions arise on a first unprecedented form of indissoluble identification between the artist and his product (body art) (https://www.artonweb.it/artemoderna/artedopo60/articolo16.htm). The purpose of this analysis will therefore be to understand for what reasons and in what ways contemporary artists represent the human body.

When did it all start?

During the centuries of figurative art ranging from the Renaissance to Realism, passing by Baroque, Neoclassicism, and Romanticism, Western artists never seem to have expressed a fully casual approach to the human body. The paintings of these different eras have in fact always tried to express, as accurately as possible, the characteristics of the model taken as the protagonist. Body, face and gaze expressed the human form as truth beyond the visible and the tangible. The design was based on the correlation of human proportions believed to be ideal with geometry. Rather than presenting itself as a free creative interpretation of the subjects observed, for these artists, the representation of the human figure followed specific criteria and canons of beauty and symmetry.

In art, the human body begins to free itself with impressionism and post-impressionism, when for the first time the works consciously show us a human form depicted in a way that is less adherent to traditional proportional canons and endowed with greater vitality, portrayed with its feelings and anxieties, within mainly natural scenarios.

 

The great modernist turn

Later, with the start of Modernism, new means of expression made their way. In Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism, nothing matters more than the artist’s personal gaze on reality. As Mic Anderson explains in Encyclopaedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/list/10-modernist-art-movements): 

“The central aims of Cubists were to discard the conventions of the past to merely mimic nature and to start in a new vein to highlight the flat dimensionality of the canvas. This effect was achieved through the use of various conflicting vantage points to paint pictures of common objects such as musical instruments, pitchers, bottles, and the human figure”. 

 

Continuing, Futurism takes shape as a movement that compares human beings to machines, celebrating an ideal of speed, change, and innovation in society, and rejecting the artistic and cultural forms and traditions of the past as a whole. In “Smithsonian Magazine” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/dada-115169154/), Paul Trachtman effectively describes the rapid social and cultural changes taking place during this era:

“In the years before World War I, Europe appeared to be losing its hold on reality. Einstein’s universe seemed like science fiction, Freud’s theories put reason in the grip of the unconscious, and Marx’s Communism aimed to turn society upside down, with the proletariat on top. The arts were also coming unglued. Schoenberg’s music was atonal, Mal-larmé’s poems scrambled syntax and scattered words across the page and Picasso’s Cubism made a hash of human anatomy.”

This era sees the birth of Dadaism, in which the human form is often represented as mutilated or made to appear mechanical or fabricated, a representation which, according to curator Leah Dickerman, is closely related to a large number of seriously injured and mutilated veterans of the era and, consequently, the sudden expansion of the prosthetic industry. Again Trachtman writes:

“Berlin artist Raoul Hausmann fabricated a Dada icon out of a wig-maker’s dummy and various oddments—a crocodile-skin wallet, a ruler, the mechanism of a pocket watch—and titled it Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Age). Two other Berlin artists, George Grosz and John Heartfield turned a life-size tailor’s dummy into a sculpture by adding a revolver, a doorbell, a knife and fork, and a German Army Iron Cross; they gave it a working light bulb for a head, a pair of dentures at the crotch and a lampstand as an artificial leg.”

With the Surrealism theorized by André Breton, in turn, influenced by Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), art reaches the deepest and, in some cases, darkest dream visions, playing without restrictions with the notion of the human body. Through the work In Voluptas Mors (1951), Salvador Dalì represents the human body in its indissoluble tension between death and sexuality, while Hans Bellmer, with his series of dolls, engages in the creation of provocative, often grotesque sculptures depicting dolls of pubescent women, rebelling in this way against the canons and standards of beauty imposed at the time by the Nazi regime.

Subsequently, a progressive detachment from the figurative representations of the human body distinguishes movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Color Field Painting – while previously a similar disinterest had already been expressed by movements such as Neoplasticism, Constructivism, and Suprematism. Yet, in these same years, the interest in human corporeality remained intact, for example, in the work and research of an artist like Henry Moore, an eclectic individualist inspired by ancient and primitive art (Egyptian, Sumerian, pre-Columbian, African, Mexican and Etruscan sculptures), by the works of Amedeo Modigliani, Constantin Brâncuşi and Picasso, as well as by Italian Renaissance art.

The opulence of conceptual art: from “Self Portrait as a Fountain” (1966) to “The Artist is Present” (2010)

Marcel Duchamp passed through the different currents of Fauvism, Cubism, and Dadaism before he became a pioneer of conceptual art. His relevance and theoretical importance for future conceptual artists were recognized by the American artist Joseph Kosuth in his 1969 essay, Art after Philosophy, where he states: “All art after Duchamp is conceptual (in nature) because art exists only conceptually”. With Duchamp, in fact, the need to “put art back at the service of the mind” (https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/duch/hd_duch.htm) emerged. As demonstrated by the evolution of subsequent art history, this also meant putting the body back in motion.

An important reference to the most famous Duchampian ready-made, Fountain (1917), considered the starting point of conceptual art, is the self-portrait of Bruce Nauman titled Self-portrait as a Fountain (1966). In a single, simple shot, the artist’s performance becomes sculpture, photography, and conceptual artwork in an intricate message on many levels. As the artist Jacolby Satterwhite writes in “Artforum” (https://www.artforum.com/print/201808/on-the-art-of-bruce-nauman-76748), the work:

“(…) arrived just two years after the United States’ official desegregation of water fountains, which were never just innocent and deracinated modern objects. The self-portrait was, of course, a remake of Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Fountain, 1917. Nauman’s intentions were rather tongue-in-cheek and nodded toward history; however, he knew his body was a font loaded with a metonymic chain muddy enough to merge the darkest of political concepts with the lightest of objective explorations—his body as sculpture”.

Starting from the twentieth century, we thus see a significant change both in the way the body is generally perceived, and in the ways in which it is used in art, especially when, with conceptual art, attention shifts from the work to its creator, the artist, as Vilma Torselli points out with these words (https://www.artonweb.it/artemoderna/artedopo60/articolo16.htm): “If, as happens precisely in conceptual art, the work of art is not necessary, it is rather abolished, then attention shifts on the craftsman, who summarizes in himself what remains of the notion of art“. 

Following this trail, in the 1960s, with the birth of performance, body art and happening, works created only through the use of the body appear, represented even in its absence, as in the case of the research of Davor Džalto, Antony Gormley, and Andy Warhol.

An important influence on the development of performance art is given by the photographs, taken in 1950 by Hans Namuth, which portray the American painter Jackson Pollock while making his so-called “action painting”. With the canvas laying on the floor of his studio, Pollock uses the dripping technique to pour the paint onto the surface. This bodily experimentation of painting continued throughout the 1950s in the research of artists such as Yves Klein, in whose works we see the boundaries between painting and performance blurring. (https://www.tate.org.uk/artist-rooms/collection/themes/body)

At the same time, the birth, in the 1960s, of body art sanctions an unprecedented and epochal change in the ways of using the body within art, hence also understood as a political tool of protest or provocation, as Torselli indicates (https://www.artonweb.it/artemoderna/artedopo60/articolo16.htm): 

“It was an expressive form of the 1960s […], which arose in Europe and then spread to America and Japan, at a time when the crisis of the abstract and conceptualist movement required a total and sensational renewal, also using, as often happens, the forms of protest and provocation. In the complete denial of the expressive means already experienced, rejected because they have become sterilely unable to represent contemporary needs, the artist turns to the most elementary and essential expressive tool, the human body, often his or her own […]”

Pioneers of contemporary art such as Yves Klein, Carolee Schneemann, Yayoi Kusama, Charlotte Moorman, and Yoko Ono are breaking down and further overcoming these increasingly outdated barriers. In this same period, avant-garde artists (2 – among others, Allan Kaprow, Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Red Grooms, and Robert Whitman) give rise to the happenings, mysterious and private encounters of scripts between artists and their friends in different specific places, incorporating exercises of absurdity, performative actions, costumes, nudity, and various random and seemingly disconnected acts. In the same vein, the Vienna Action Group, formed in 1965 by Hermann Nitsch, Otto Mühl, Günter Brus, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, carries out various body art actions focused on the representation of real social taboos (for example, genital mutilation).

Taking up Torselli again, the body of the artist-shaman thus becomes a manifest symbol of the art = life syllogism (https://www.artonweb.it/artemoderna/artedopo60/articolo16.htm):

“In a performance that is never repeated totally the same, an actor-performer, the body-artist, pursuing reality in its most strictly actualistic aspect, exhibits his own body by theatricalizing a physical experience that has the final product in the artist himself, instead of creating art objects, categorically abolishing any barrier between art and life […]”

Starting in 1995, together with the studies of the French art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud, a particular form of art began to take shape that places nothing else but the viewer’s body at the center of the experience. This art, defined as relational (or, later, socially engaged art, community-based art, participatory art, etc.), is codified by Bourriaud within the volume Relational aesthetics (1998); the term appeared for the first time in 1996 in the catalog of the Traffic exhibition, which he curated at the CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux.

Defined as “a set of artistic practices that take the whole of human relations and their social context as a theoretical and practical starting point, rather than an independent and private space” (3 – Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational aesthetics, postmediabooks, Milan, 1998), relational art has its roots in conceptual art, in the Fluxus movement and in the practice of happening, and it’s based on performative techniques that transform the observer into an active participant, and so the artist from creator to the facilitator. Among the artists identified by Bourriaud, we remember Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno, Vanessa Beecroft, Maurizio Cattelan, Jes Brinch, Henrik Plenge Jacobsen, Christine Hill, Carsten Höller, Noritoshi Hirakawa, Pierre Huyghe.

In these researches, more than a strong interest in the body, there is, on the part of the artists, the desire to immerse the viewer inside the work, completely abolishing the barriers between “I” and “you” and giving life to a “collective body”. Rather than an encounter between the work and the viewer, relational art in fact produces encounters between subjects, the meaning of which is collectively elaborated.

Several years later, in 2010, Marina Abramović continues the noble traditions of both relational art and performance art with the work The Artist is Present, a performance organized at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the retrospective dedicated to the artist. The work took place from 14 March to 31 May 2010, thus becoming Abramović’s longest performance, during which the artist spent about 700 hours motionless. In the performance, the artist sat in silence and motionless, in front of a chair from time to time filled by visitors, who could in this way come face to face with the artist, at a very close distance able to create between the two an intimate space full of pathos.

A few years earlier, in 2006, the English artist Martin Creed made Work No. 503 (Sick Film), the first of a series of videos in which he presents a series of young men and women filmed in the act of vomiting. Here, the artist explores the human body and its processes, trying to arouse discomfort in the viewer, research expressed by Creed also in some of his other videos focused on basic bodily functions, such as sex and defecation. In each of these films, the body is placed against a rigid and sterile background, to focus all our attention on those fundamental functions that we usually maintain in the hidden space of our privacy. About his 2007 work, Work No. 837 (Sick Film), Creed states (https://www.ubu.com/film/creed_sick.html):

“Vomiting is a good example of trying to get something from the inside out; it’s painful and making work can be painful too; it’s also uncontrollable. I want to make work that is more like a vomit than a rumination“.

About the relationship between art and the human body in body art, in his interview for “Qantas Magazine”, quoting Robert Hughes, the director of the National Gallery of Australia, Nick Mitzevich, states:

 “Art closes the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way passes from feeling to meaning. Live art, and in particular body art, is often experienced at an emotional, physical, and liminal level. It’s often not till after the performance, that the meaning and potency comes to life and becomes part of you, and might even slightly change you”.

In contemporary art, the use of the body thus often also forms a pretext for addressing political and social issues related to the construction of identity, as Paul Hobson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyZX7sCK_24), director of Modern Art Oxford tells us, speaking about the series of short films produced in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture:

“The human body is fundamental to how we understand aspects of identity such as gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. Individuals typically adjust and alter their body image to conform with or rebel against social conventions, and to express messages to others around them. As the body is a site for expressing identity, many artists use the body as a way of commenting on identity politics (…), as well as to develop new concepts of art”. 

What’s new? The good old Internet 

In 1969 the Internet inaugurates its global dominance with ARPANET (its ancestor), turning the world upside down more than any artistic movement ever could. Today, there are 4.54 billion internet users, which in 2020 represents 59% of the world population. Every day these users are bombarded with images of all kinds, and many of these represent human bodies.

Among the most interesting artists who today deal with the subject is the Swedish Anna Uddenberg. She develops her research on the body through a series of sculptures that embody a contemporary and hyper-normalized female ideal, as well outlined by David Andrew Tasman in an article published in Flash Art (https://flash—art.com/article/savage-space/):

“Her figurative sculptures — often lithe, dressed in complex and revealing garments, and contorted improbably into suggestive or explicit poses — embody the tension and hyper-normalized standards of a neoliberal feminine identity, reinforced through commodity culture’s commercial imagery, social media celebrity influencers, the rise of reality television at the fin de siècle, and erotic subcultures more easily accessible than ever before due to the ubiquity of the internet. Her figures are distorted by these forces to the degree that the absurdity of what amounts to a collective fantasy — and the unfeasible demands it places on the body — becomes apparent. While Uddenberg’s critique of the millennial subject is one of the most cohesively formed of her generation, it is also a practice with subtle yet important ties to the past”.

The change, yet, is not only quantitative but also qualitative:

«As sociologist Tiziana Terranova has recently pointed out, the shift from old to new media, or from the ‘Set’ to the ‘Net’ is indicative of a conflict between two different types of cultural force, ‘the culture of representation and the spectacle and the culture of participation and virtuality’.» (4 – Josephine Berry, Human, all too Posthuman? Net Art and its Critics, «Intermedia Art», 2000).

In many ways, Uddenberg’s research can be traced back to that artistic current defined for the first time by Maria Olson in 2008, and subsequently further elaborated by the critic Gene McHugh in 2009, as “post-Internet”, a term that distinguishes it from the previous Net Art of the late 90s, characterized by the custom of using the Internet as a medium. Post-Internet Art, to which artists such as Petra Cortright, Jon Rafman, Ryan Trecartin, Amalia Ulman, and Artie Vierkant are usually associated (5 – https://www.artsy.net/gene/post-internet -art), expresses a current trend in contemporary criticism in recognizing the inevitable impact that the Internet has on culture and art. Post-Internet does not refer to a later time, to an “after” Internet, but rather to a time “on” the Internet, and since the Internet has become such an essential part of our life we ​​can deduce that every work of art is, in some way, associated with it.

What are we in a process of becoming?

In the huge amount of artistic movements already run through and the number of means of expression at our disposal, it is clear that imagining a future for contemporary art today is not an easy undertaking.

Accustomed, as we are, to imagining a linear evolution of history rhythmically connected to human evolution, the moment we find ourselves analyzing the different rhythms with which machines proceed and develop, in their exponential evolution, we get into difficulty. As David Simpson explains well in the TED Our Posthuman Future (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAb-mSq615g), computers “double in processing power roughly every year. […] In thirty years they are going to be a billion times more capable than the ones we have today”. Will we one day be able to apply the same consideration to the arts, also and above all, by virtue of their always deepening connection with machines and new technologies? What will we become, and what will art become?

A starting point for being able to formulate a first plausible answer to these questions is the Rosi Braidotti’s appearance at the conference in January 2017, entitled Posthuman, All Too Human:

‘What are we in the process of becoming? What kind of subjects are we in the process of becoming, subjects of knowledge, subjects of law, subjects of desire, subjects. With all of the apparatus of French philosophy, that I have enormous love and admiration and respect for, the most vilified and the least understood tradition, not only of political thinking, but also of philosophy, philosophy of science, is understanding of the body, understanding of affects and the passions. And more than ever, I think, we need to go back to the bodily materialism of the French […], a great tradition of bodily materiality and embedded epistemology that I think could see us through the dark ages coming’.

The common sense of urgency to analyze what we will become is more than understandable. Even more so today, in conjunction with the current Covid-19 health crisis, where social distancing and economic upheaval are driving most of us to focus on ourselves as organic beings. Despite all the impetuous improvements of “human matter”, at the moment the virus is unbeatable, and the bodies prove highly vulnerable. In spite of every possible posthuman narrative, we are still fatally mortal. However, our attention to the human body continues to grow and express itself within society, in culture, and in contemporary art.

The human body in the most recent contemporary art

In recent years, numerous artistic researches have brought out a renewed interest in a figurative matrix towards the human body as noted in 2019 by Brett Reichman, university professor of the Department of Painting of the San Francisco Art Institute (https://www.artandeducation.net/announcements/231188/situational-the-body-in-contemporary-painting):

“During times of social and political strife, individual liberty and cultural ethics are contested through issues of the body. In that respect, a robust interest in figurative painting has intensified over the past few years alongside artist’s renewed purpose in painting people”.

Analyzing a large corpus of contemporary works of art in which the human body is highlighted as the preponderant element of the representation, I have come to identify some common patterns and recursivity between one work and another.

On the one hand, we find a fragmented representation of the human body, which has as its object heads, hands, feet, or other parts of the body dismembered, if not even deformed (see in this regard the works of the following artists: Marta Pierobon, Christine, Metodo Milan; Zoe Barcza and Anna Uddenberg, Cruising, M/S Mariella; Michele Gabriele, Clumsy and Milky: encoding the last quarter of a pose, White Noise Gallery; Anastasia Bay and Habima Fuchs, Contemporary Archeology, G/ART/EN; Lionel Maunz, Dead Eden, Lyles & King; Jala Wahid, Franticek Klossner, Ronit Baranga, Lewis Hammond, Enej Gala, Jana Euler, Clément Rodzielski, Ádám Horváth, Horizont Gallery, etc.). These body parts are often presented in gruesome circumstances, staring at us through holes in the floor or crawling on walls. Other times they are filled with plants (as in the case of Marco Giordano’s heads for the Living in Imagination exhibition, Galeria Wozownia), or they are dressed in a cross-gender aesthetic (the 2016 series by Emilio Bianchic entitled Uh La Lá LA la la). However, it can also happen that the human body acquires the appearance of an animal, for example, a deer, as happens in Isabelle Albuquerque’s work, Orgy for 10 People in One Body, presented in 2020 at the Sextet exhibition (Nicodim Gallery); or, which assumes gigantic dimensions, as in the work of Damien Hirst entitled Hymn (1999-2005), which in turn sees as its precursors Gino de Dominicis, with Calamita Cosmica (1988), and Susanne Ussing, with I Drivhuset, Ordrupgaard (1980).

On the other hand, yet, in the current artistic representations of corporeality, we frequently encounter sexual organs (like vaginas and gigantic phalluses), “strong” scenes of sexual acts, organic elements such as excrement, and a whole series of other elements that belong to the sphere of intimacy (see the works of Ambera Wellmann, Agata Słowak and Max Maslansky, and the Homebound exhibition by Urara Tsuchiya at Ada Project, Rome). Everything that was once labeled as intimate, private, today, in many artistic representations, is no longer so and takes on a leading role and position on the stage. About the paintings of one of the most promising Polish painters of the new generation – Martyna Czech -, Piotr Policht states (https://culture.pl/pl/tworca/martyna-czech):

“Her images are much more direct, blunt, and brutal. The scenes are framed tightly, like in unsuccessful or even accidental photographs.[…] As she describes herself, she is interested in extreme states and feelings. Thus, there are no ambiguous characters and moral shades of gray in Martyna Czech’s paintings. There is hate, love, revenge, suffering, death. Man is a friend or – much more often – a traitor, an enemy, and an utterly lousy creature. First of all, towards animals, which often take revenge in her paintings”.

Debuting in 2014, “when—to a packed and sweaty Club Silencio, […] its founding performers inserted lime green lasers into their anuses and swiveled around the room” (https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/the-crazy-collective-energy-of-young-boy-dancing-group), the Young Boy Dancing Group is characterized by the surprising use of some props that soon earned them viral fame. From the outset, the troupe has performed in the same way in underground venues and within institutions. Their performances are completely improvised, and pursue the sole goal of plunging into the ecstasy of intimacy, sharing with the audience an experience of chaos full of sexual charge and breaking down any barrier with the viewer. 

Particular attention to the theme of human corporeity, analyzed from the point of view of its effects in the construction of the categories that define identity (such as sex, gender, and skin color), is given, as mentioned, in the works by Anna Uddenberg, who not only focuses on the rapid developments of current technologies and their effects on culture but extends her research to the analysis of the unfavorable role that women play in our societies. In this regard, see for example her work from 2016 entitled Venus of Our Times and presented at the ninth edition of the Berlin Biennale. More generally, as Anna Gritz points out in “Kaleidoscope” (https://www.kaleidoscope.media/article/anna-uddenberg): “Her figures appear torn by the sheer impossibility of reconciling the trusts of self-improvement, spirituality, sexual attraction and personal and professional fulfillment […]”.

When we refer to the questions investigated above by feminists and in similar types of artistic research, it is appropriate to recall the work of the Polish artist Alicja Żebrowska entitled Original Sin (1993-’94) (http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/Feminist_Revolt_Poland.html), a video installation containing some close-ups of a vagina in which various objects are inserted, including a button, a Barbie and a dildo. The Barbie scene is emblematic, applied in such a way as to simulate a sort of “birth”, confusing the strictly anatomical plane with the sexual one.

Among the artists who work with the notion of the body, we also remember the iconic Sarah Lucas of the Young British Artists movement, whose works combine humor and provocative images to challenge expectations about gender and sexuality; or Tracey Emin, a British artist known for her touching works that investigate autobiographical details through a variety of media.

Among the feminist artists who deal with the body in Poland, challenging the discriminatory policies of the ultra-right government led by Jarosław Kaczyński, which on several occasions has shown that he deprives women of their fundamental rights (6-for more information see the article previously written by the author and published in «KABUL magazine»), we remember Agata Zbylut. Through an approach that we could define as “universal”, the artist investigates herself in the role of a woman belonging to a complex and troubled Eastern European society. Using social media in a prolific way (including Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/agata_zbylut/?hl=pl), Zbylut becomes an object of her own research, performing aesthetic interventions and transformations on her body (far from the typical cosmetic images of the “before and after” we are used to), and exposing her point of view in the captions. Through these interventions, she tries to highlight what it means to be a woman in a country like Poland, where, with the present ultra-right government, it is even more difficult to simply be a woman.

A further approach employed by several artists who work with the idea of ​​human corporeality is expressed in a certain science fiction trend oriented towards the future and populated by cyborgs, mutants, strange machines similar to humans – in a vast repertoire of which, artists attempt to investigate the possible effects that the technological tools of tomorrow will have on the human bodies. See, for example, the work of Renaud Jerez; or the research of the Australian artist Patricia Piccinini, who in 2016 was awarded the title of the most popular artist in the world by «The Art Newspaper», thanks to the exhibition held in Rio de Janeiro which attracted over 444,000 visitors worldwide. A further example of this approach is given by Stelarc, a naturalized Australian Cypriot artist and visiting professor at the Brunel University School of Arts. The artist, who in his works uses medical tools, prosthetics, elements of robotics, the Internet, and virtual reality, took ten years to find a surgeon willing to implant a human cartilage ear in his arm, thus managing to exasperate body modification practices in a posthuman sense. Regarding this surgery, Stelarc states (http://stelarc.org/?catID=20242):

I have always been intrigued about engineering a soft prosthesis using my own skin, as a permanent modification of the body architecture. The assumption being that if the body was altered it might mean adjusting its awareness. Engineering an alternate anatomical architecture, one that also performs telematically. Certainly what becomes important now is not merely the body’s identity, but its connectivity- not its mobility or location, but its interface. In these projects and performances, a prosthesis is not seen as a sign of lack but rather as a symptom of excess. As technology proliferates and microminiaturizes it becomes biocompatible in both scale and substance and is incorporated as a component of the body. […] These are prosthetic objects that augment the body’s architecture, engineering extended operational systems of bodies and bits of bodies, spatially separated but electronically connected.“

Concluding this brief examination of the artists who deal with the body with a “future-oriented approach”, the last attitude that seems interesting to me to mention is that of the South Korean artist Lee Bul, among the first to transport the creatures of science fiction subculture in contemporary art, through a representation that visually recalls the aesthetic structure of classical statuary. An example of this is his floating cyborgs in white marble, portraits without limbs, and in poses that recall those of classical sculptures.

Alongside these numerous researches in which it is possible to find some conceptual and visual elements that are in some ways common, there are naturally as many, which are expressed more on a strictly individualistic side of personal research. An example is the work of the artist Yang Shaobin, “careful observer of his surroundings and of the globalized world context” – writes Tereza de Arruda (https://www.p-arte.com/shaobin.html) – and a “witness of his times” in a particular social context – that of China – which in recent years has gone through a long and troubled period of growth and international recognition, culminating in 2008 with the celebration of the Beijing Olympic Games. De Arruda writes:

“War scenes or battlefields have become commonplace in cinema and television, and a constant feature of daily newscasts too, unfortunately. War is an aesthetic media spectacle. Especially after the September 11 terrorist attack, which immediately led to the war in Iraq and a broad participative discussion internationally, there was pressure on many countries to take positions. […] Like war reporters, Yang Shaobin will continue to watch and report events undaunted by the psychic or physical marks left, or by mutilations”.

Last but not least, the pandemic. Although the echo of this period of crisis will have repercussions in the distant future, even today the subject is a reason for analysis and research also in contemporary art. For example, Long Island’s Alone Gallery is the first exhibition space designed to be lived in isolation, developed precisely in response to the challenges posed by Covid-19. The gallery has no staff, and visitors can visit the exhibition together with no more than three partners at a time. Floating alone in the center of empty space, Tony Matelli’s disturbing Josh (2010) transforms the gallery into a room for self-reflection. Speaking of Josh, we read Jacquelyn Davis in «Artforum» (https://www.artforum.com/picks/tony-matelli-25777): 

Josh appears to magnify an ambivalent condition that stems from the psychological detachment required of anyone wishing to start anew. In the work, a pale, masculine figure sporting fair-weather attire floats barely above the ground, seemingly unaffected by gravity. Much is relayed through the faces of Matelli’s humanoid creations; the visage of Josh, for instance, is frozen and resigned.“

Recontextualized to 2020, Josh, in his state of motionless suspension, is one of several human bodies represented in art in the era of the pandemic. However, in this disturbing and uncertain situation of the present, there are also those who, like Urara Tsuchiya at the Homebound exhibition in September 2020 at Ada Project (Rome), manage to glimpse a glimmer of positivity, through the sculptural representation of small human and animal figures taken in sexual acts that express tenderness.

Conclusions

After reviewing some of the most incisive artistic research on the body in history and the present, a first conclusive consideration that we can draw is the following: today’s art is no more courageous or scandalous and promiscuous than that of the past. Art is, in every era, a clear reflection of its time and draws heavily from it. What at first glance might seem to us the expression of body anxiety typical of the 21st century (with parts of the body dismembered, dazzling sexuality, the exploration of one’s own taboos, etc.) is nothing more than a visceral focus on the returning body cyclically in almost all eras.

But why we have been so commonly paying so much attention to the body in art? The answer is trivial: after all, the notion of “having a body” concerns each of us. But this does not mean that human sensitivity to some topics remains unchanged over time, or that threats do not change or increase.

The crux of this argument is that the art that studies and analyzes human corporeity has not changed over time in a qualitative way, but in quantitative terms, which is equivalent to saying that at this moment, the artists’ response to what we perceive as a threat to the human body, is perhaps higher than it has ever been in the past, and we notice it from the extreme need to keep showing bodies, to break them down, and to analyze them, both in terms of their presence and in those of their absence.

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di Dobrosława Nowak
  • Dobrosława Nowak è scrittrice, ricercatrice, artista e curatrice. Laureata in Fotografia (2013) all'Università dell'Arte di Poznań (Polonia) e in Psicologia (2015) all'Università di Adam Mickiewicz a Poznań. Nel 2018 ha frequentato il corso "Ultime Tendenze nelle Arti Visive" all'Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera. Scrive d'arte per varie riviste in inglese, italiano, polacco e francese. Nata in Polonia, vive e lavora a Milano.