International Sculpture Center


The Body

is Exhausted

"The body" has been a prominent theme in recent sculpture, but some sculptors are shifting the focus toward the body's interactivity with its surroundings.

The ecology of images is delicate; overuse fatigues the terrain. Twenty years of one particular type of focus on the body has brought a severe drought to the arena.

The body, at one time a genuinely transgressive visual trope, has been seriously overworked, beaten out of shape by a plethora of visual, ideological, and formal demands, all of which picture it from one particular vantage point. This single viewpoint has produced a now stereotypical, no longer transgressive, representation of the body as a brainless, abject sack of fluids, a hapless victim of disease and biology, an unconscious pawn of governments and cultures.

Over the course of the past two decades, "the body" as subject matter has been given a lot to do; it has been exposed to technologies, exploited by the male gaze, theorized through various expanded gender terminologies, "formed" by "capital." In hot pursuit of critical theorizing, "the body," as an artistic trope, has fallen victim to uncritical belief in and reliance on categories. Through adherence to these categories and as a consequence of limited understanding of the theories, many contemporary artists now routinely refer to the body as being "situated" in various "arenas," as a "site" for numerous activities such as "desiring," "ideology," "gendering," and "writing." The obsession with the body as subject and signifier, as envelope of consciousness, as spectacle, is one that is essentially modern; a consequence of the multiplication of theories of subjectivity from Goethe to Nietzsche, Freud to Dr. Ruth. The Lacanian analyst, Julia Kristeva, wrote: "significance is inherent in the human body," but she didn't answer the questions this statement raises-what is signified and what is significant?

There are a growing number of artists who are attempting to answer this question via a shifted focus. Uncomfortable with or simply bored by current en vogue notions, they no longer perceive the body as the sole arena in which to behold or understand subjectivity. Although none of these artists deny embodiment or the idea that the body is important to the development of identity, they contend that the body is not ultimately reducible to its physical states. While they consider gender and sexuality to be important features of identity, they decline to treat them as factors that entirely establish our character as subjects. What interests these artists are the ambiguities present in the attempt to construct and represent the self without resorting to definitions that assert fixed characteristics: male or female, for example. To them, the body is mired in contingency and ambiguity, subject to a range of forces that are not concerned with the biological, forces which are in fact indifferent to biology. Even more important in their work is the interactivity between body and environment. The main distinguishing feature seen in the work of these artists, one that sharply separates them from the mass of artists dealing with the body, is the fashion in which they deal with the notion of consciousness. The centrality of the brain, the mind as the animator of the body, as the analyzer and interpreter of experience, is the central conceptual determinant. Their intention is to create a dialogue with the viewer concerning reference, identity, and cognition.

Rod Baer and Steve Barry deal in images that conspicuously leave out the appearance of a literal body. Instead, they propose an arena which is animated by the absence of a generic body: race, gender, and class left entirely to the projection of the viewer. Both Baer and Barry are concerned with establishing access to intention; for them the viewer is a collaborator, necessary to complete the narrative. This is an extremely clever way to expose the personal as a microcosm of the social.

Baer's sculpture is an analog for bodily experience; within this logic, bodies are not abject, objects are. His use of readymades and appropriated elements organizes rather than manipulates material so as to produce a mix that appeals equally to recognizable and unconscious associations; every element carries a split charge. The dumbness of the artifact, its inertness, the way in which it acquires meaning through anthropomorphizing, its uselessness when consumed exists as a coordinate and an opposition to the bodies that use them. Human bodies are repaired and restored through any number of interventions; things are used up and thrown away. Things are abject as a consequence of human exploitation. Rod Baer's installation, Monsoon (1994), is based on the interplay between the material and the meaning implied by use of the material. This tableau of a drowning living room creates a sense of looped time: the proximity and endless trickling of the water, the swampy odor of the flooded objects create an anxious reality which immediately incorporates the viewer. These objects have had no other function but that of human use, their mute and ruined appearance asserts their exploitation. Baer's thinking represents an extremely interesting refraction: it exposes the myth of human mastery over environment as a total refusal to co-exist. Baer displays what we do to the world: use it till its guts hang out, until it is exhausted and beyond renewal, despised, out of fashion. This is not metaphorical for the aging of the body, instead it is global, it makes a larger statement about how we live today.

In Steve Barry's work, the body is both metaphor and machine, mirror and mystery. While the image of a body is often present in his work via projection, the presence of bones, or the reflection of the viewer, these structures are animated by the implication of some undefined function. Because these objects are often motorized (they often include seating, chains, rockers, hinges, and wheels), it is clear that they do some kind of work, that they are completed through interaction with a human presence. The nature of the task to be accomplished is open to speculation. They are clearly adjunctive to some body, but what kind of body? The interest in the object lies in the disjunction between the appearance of these objects and what the beholder knows of human physicality. The point is the strong contrast between the kind of work these objects appear to perform, and how we fantasize such a body working within such an application. (Our) History (1996), a seven-by-four-foot steel and Fiberglas structure, pivots open on hinges to reveal an empty ribbed interior. In design terms, its appearance is abstract and functional, not unlike a Philippe Starck chair. The function of this object is not revealed. Its proportions and mode of construction imply a scientific use such as a biosphere or a sensory deprivation chamber. It also bears a distinct resemblance, minus interior prongs, to that medieval torture device, the iron maiden. The proportions are such that it could comfortably enclose a person of any size. It moves on wheels, making itself conveniently mobile. Barry's titles, an essential component of his work, function with a similar mobility; in this case, the title and the object could refer equally to the personal, a claustrophobic relationship, or more politically, to the flexibility and multiple functions of historical interpretation.

Jana Sterbak also intends her work to perform as ambiguously didactic object, philosophical in scope. Although she is notorious for her meat dresses, her work includes other objects that reflect the Modernist confusion of bodies with machinery. Her objects are distinguished by a taste for clinical presentation which lays claim to the territory of "fact." In this way, she appeals to a logic supposedly at odds with mere aesthetics: the logic of science and the investigatory methods science employs. Her utilitarian, geometric, and factual-looking configurations concern themselves with the way in which objects become suffused with specific social meaning as a consequence of the way in which they are used. Her 1989 interactive piece Remote Control II (with aluminum, wheels, cotton sling and remote control device), has been presented as a performance in which two tuxedoed men assist a woman into a device resembling an enormous metallic hoop skirt. The woman then drives around in the device which exposes her limbs limply suspended two feet above the floor. The fashion in which the control device is passed from woman to attendant is a dual performance of sexual power and machine relations. The activity dramatizing the apparatus addresses the problematic human dependence on technology as well as the Duchampian notion of a human/mechanical sex machine. A more recent work, Cage for Sound (1994), a delicate, nest-like apparatus of curved bamboo, wheels, and leather straps, is similarly completed by a human participant who functions as the object's motor. This object, presented with a video projection of a man wearing the device while running around a track, presents the viewer with the dilemma of all relationships human and technological: empowerment is a consequence of dependence.

Lilla LoCurto and Bill Outcault's collaborative work concentrates on one of the most peculiar and notable features of human consciousness-the plasticity and flexibility of perception, interpretation, and identification. Self- Portrait (1992) is a large-scale installation consisting of a chair placed at some distance from a nine-foot-in-diameter, metal-ribbed bubble suspended from the ceiling. A video camera mounted in front of the chair transmits the viewer's face to the top monitor of a stack of four monitors suspended within a chain link enclosure hanging in the middle of the bubble. When someone sits in the chair, an oximeter sensor picks up the viewer's pulse which is then amplified to provide a kind of soundtrack to the video images. The four monitors present a fragmented human body to the observer: the top monitor shows head and shoulders; the second, torso; the third, pelvis and thighs; and the bottom, legs and feet. The viewer's head remains on the top monitor while the remaining three change every five seconds, showing a body section from some 35 to 40 people of differing genders, races, and ages, both clothed and nude. The viewer, because of the electronic interface, is both participant and observer. Via their investigations of social relationships, LoCurto/Outcault posit an expanded and extended form of consciousness, suggesting that an identity based solely on gender, race, or class is both arcane and impossibly rigid. Instead, they suggest that identity is more fluid, possibly even interdependent.

A related view of the body as both biological metaphor and social landscape can be seen in the work of photographer Aura Rosenberg. Her 1993 sculptural installation, Dialectical Porn Rock, at the Alexanderplatz subway station in Berlin, was made by decoupaging photos torn from porn magazines to the surfaces of rocks of various sizes. The piece plays a sly, joking trick on the viewer; because all the elements appear to be identical, the images on the stones do not make themselves immediately apparent. Once the viewer notices that there are in fact images on some of the stones, the nature of the images comes as a surprise. The installation embodies the human tendency to give visual order to the intangible. In the Berlin piece the images consist of an assortment of female genitalia and the faces of women miming ecstasy for the camera. By making stone into flesh and at the same time mirroring pornographic and advertising practices, Rosenberg inverts the process of fragmentation: a practice which has been integral to the modern process of confusing the animate with the inanimate, the body with the machine.

These artists are all social moralists; they seek to communicate socio-political and environmental issues through the conjoined vocabularies of art and technology. Though the final work is often allegorical or metaphorical in appearance, it is also deeply confrontational and outspokenly moralistic. The bodies in the work of these five sculptors collapse distinctions between the real and the natural, and the arti-ficial and the constructed. The common ground uniting these sculptors is the idea of the body as a metaphor for the existence of mind. Their bodies have organs, but more importantly have brains. They suggest that the power necessary to create the self will be inevitably ambiguous in its results and that, even though this process is essential to personal freedom, the consequences of its use will be out of the user's control. The body's physicality-its desires, its mortality, and its submersion in the chaos of physical nature-becomes a metaphor for the impossibility of individual fulfillment. To paraphrase Richard Rorty, these sculptors attempt to make the difficult distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that the truth is out there.

Kathleen Whitney is a sculptor and writer living in New Mexico.

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