Friday 1 February 2013

Hearts of Florence

It's almost Valentines Day and warmth, Spring sunshine, tiny fluttering love birds (sparrows if I'm being honest) are in evidence in Florence. Being of a romantic disposition, I found the coldest and dampest museum possible, and was immediately drawn to the stone, metal and broken hearts of New York based contemporary artist Janice Gordon.

Her exhibition 'Embodiment: Medicine, Metaphor and Metaphysics' lies deep in heart of the natural history museum 'La Specola', part of Florence University. With a keen personal interest in medical matters of the heart and its biological failures, she examines the fragility of the body and the psychological reaction to open heart surgery. Taking into account the history of medicine, she borrows famous anatomists' images and works them into her practice through collage and video.

Using her body as a model, she constructs a number of paper torsos and adorns them with talismans placed over where the heart would be. She fashions these from semi precious found objects, broken watches, gold wire caged jewels and suchlike, and attaches them to the 'skin'. The glistening, semi-opaque paper reflects the body's seeming fragile quality, though in one image she is wearing one of these pieces suggesting they are stronger than they look.

One of the video pieces, called 'Surrender' (2012) documents her experience of open heart surgery. It opens with jerky camera work and vivid scrubs colour suggesting the effects of pre op medication. Then going under, it fades to black and white, focusing inwards on the chest, lungs and breath. The x-ray provides a journey into ones imagined unconscious body, allowing you to experience both the surgical view and be the person being operated on. Fading in and out are glimpses of the actual heart, clouds, and a swimmer fighting to break the surface of a pool. As the tension rises, the body under anaesthetic panics and imagines drowning, finally the release and the swimmer surfaces - and colours return with the patient waking.

However Gordon's exploration of the question 'what is embodiment' is answered using the museums collection of historical anatomical wax works. Room after room of glistening fleshly redness, compounded by the terracotta floor tiles, varnished wood and pink colour sketches above the cases. After the natural history fur and plumage of stuffed birds and animals, this excursion into human anatomy is a shock. Her third video piece begins with an ivory Venus whose inside are revealed and morphs as easily as wax into incredible detail. Her heart is revealed and concealed using modern and historic imaging techniques.

Gordon's fresh, almost clinical response to these rare, insights into the human body take you on an incredible journey. How art and science rely on each other; how mind and body interact; how methods of the medical past inspired the present; connections are made so that we learn and more deeply understand what makes us tick. And that natural stony heart takes on a warmth, beating in the sun.

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