Monday, 11 March 2013

Body, mind, water

Embodiment is the hot topic right now it seems. Whether it's the retirement of the page 3 girl, the apparent increase in nudity in London's theatres and performance spaces, or 20,000 year old statuettes, bodies and art are everywhere.

The more I read about embodiment and art, whether from a clinical, philosophical or sociological point of view, it is clear that even if you're looking at a landscape or still life, the body is still present. From the gesture of the artist to the gaze of the viewer, all art is embodied. Once this is understood it would seem that there is little left to say. Which is rather an issue given that I've got 5000 words to find. Perhaps the key is to forget the theory per se and concentrate on the art?

The exhibition 'House of many windows' consists of work by contemporary figurative artists* and looks at how they present the body. Whether it is their own, others or imagined historical portraits. I was interested in  the way the artists depicted their subjects communicating with the viewer.

The most extraordinary works here are Emma Critchley's full body portraits of free divers. The complicated underwater photo shoots are set up to capture the effects of water and light on the body. Given the circumstances, all communication between the the artist and diver is difficult and trust has been built over an amount of time. Her camera allows us to examine the physical effect of their world. For example on their faces you can see their incredible breath control, skin is given a luminosity whilst the ripples contort and play with their bodies and hair. The divers appear suspended, whilst the shafts of light give them an 'other worldly' dead feeling. The resultant ethereal solidness is almost magnetic, over and over again I came back to these images.

Free Diver Portrait I and II (2011)
This exploration of veiled and difficult communication between viewer and figure painting was also explored by Paul Benney in his exhibition in Somerset House's Deadhouse last year. The painted effects, contrasting the blurred with the sharp, convinces the viewer that the life size naked bodies are beckoning you to another place. He also paints figures underwater with a similar impact as Critchley's. They are as powerful as the divers, their bodies suspended in time and space, accepting the watery world that they are in. The main difference between the two is that his appear unclothed which gives them a natural mammalian strength; the hi tech gear of Critchley's divers makes them seem very alien, as if they are interlopers.

Levitation (2005)
Both artists are ambiguously spiritual in tone, each suggesting a knowledge of what is beyond this world. Of course, you might argue that there is nothing 'beyond'. But these images demonstrate the effects of altered states, whether it is the deep mind control of static apnea, religiously inspired meditation or hypnosis for medical/entertainment reasons. Pushing the mind to the limit in order to control the body is certainly undisputed.

Water in these two cases is a good way of creating distance and making it easier for the viewer to understand what the artists are trying to communicate. It offers them both a metaphor for death, unattainable peace and a non specific 'other'. Both artists have created interesting, thought provoking, desirable images of the figure.

House of Many Windows is on until 12 June 2013 at Collyer Bristow Gallery, 4 Bedford Row, London, WC1R 4TF

Paul Benney's Night Pictures was on from 4 October – 9 December 2012 at Somerset House

*Dan Coombs, Emma Critchley, David Dipré, Aly Helyer, Annie Kevans, David Lock, Kate Lyddon, EJ Major and Boo Ritson

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