Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Exhibiting the body: Seminar notes

I have been grappling with space for weeks so the thought of examining the art/science of the human body was appealing, something on a scale which which I am familiar. To look inward rather than outward reflects Renaissance notions of 'as above so below', macrocosm to microcosm. However The Body is obviously turning out to be just as vast as space. Inevitably and wonderfully. 

These notes condense two seminars and introduce central themes of the module. Interestingly, despite a thematic spread across the ten weeks, there is still a feel of an artistic narrative in the images/sculpture we have been discussing, perhaps reflecting the linear explanation of medical/anatomical developments, e.g., starting with Leonardo and Vesalius through to Jo Spence and John Isaacs. Timelines have also been handed suggesting a coherent structure is required in this area of art history. A skeleton of dates, requiring the flesh of artistic endeavour, perhaps...

The central theme here is the religious tenet 'know thyself' and was discussed in the introduction of the hefty catalogue of the Spectacular Bodies exhibition.  It was one of the first 'blockbuster' shows to feature art and science in real dialogue and explore their respective boundaries and has featured heavily in the module so far. It aimed to raise questions about context, whether something was art and look at the purpose of exhibits. For instance, what do we achieve by putting the historical / non historical, art / non art side by side? What does this bring to an exhibition such as this? How do you contextualise a work of art? 

The curators asked, do we know when we are looking at a medical and art work? And the answer is 'not always' - it is possible to float between art and science. In many of the medical exhibits there appeared to be an aesthetic excess, they contain details which may be disturbing. The mid 18th century anonymous baby head preserved in a jar wears a bonnet, as if ready for bed. To the modern gaze, this intimate detail doesn't belong in a medical scientific context. 

The exhibition began with Da Vinci and Versalius, both important and featuring heavily. The 1540s saw the first 'allowed' dissections of human cadavers and this became common practice in the training of medical students. Illustrated texts introduced naturalistic images of the body, firstly with classicising backgrounds but these disappeared in later editions. The well known poses struck by the anatomical bodies reflected Greek statues and Christian art, martyrs, dances of death which introduced respectability and beauty. 

Later baroque representations saw less classical poses but as Michael Sappol points out, these later images should be seen as part of the history of printed books, written to delight and entertain.  Huybert's engravings of Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) depict riotous skeletons of infants, but this highly artistic way of presenting natural history assemblages starts to disappear from 18th onwards. Medical texts are not supposed to be like this, they are to be separated from art. 

However William Hunter's mid 18th century images are still strange, presented like meat with drastic foreshortening and slab like legs. He spoke of the study of anatomy requiring work 'beyond the range of ordinary informs the head, guides the hand and familiarises the heart to a kind of necessary inhumanity'. The baby in the cap sees this clinical detachment evaporate, emotion was clearly very much in evidence. By the 19th century and Gray's anatomy, images are presented with no context or background coldly abstract. No reference to death or skill of dissection is made. Once the printing process allowed it, colour was added, making it more schematic and universalised. 

The wax models feel part of a different tradition. I can't help but be reminded of the Spanish sculptures in wood, an intentionally emotional and real experience. Joseph Townes (1827-79) wax models for teaching anatomy are so raw, his 'Section of thorax' is a realistic portrait of death, the most human condition of all. If his wax models have a humanity, then contemporary artist John Issacs portrays human flesh as 'flesh', presenting the remains of humans on a butchers slab in a very disturbing way. We asked what was wondrous in these wax sculptures? 

The various exhibitions that followed Spectacular Bodies, most notably at the Wellcome Collection have built upon this juxtaposing of art and science and they continue to interrogate and puzzle one another. Most memorable for me in one of their latest exhibitions were 'the extraordinary but clumsy prosthetics developed in an attempt to ‘normalise’ children affected by thalidomide in the mid-20th century' as shown in Superhuman. Their only use now are reminders of medical failure, however their painted doll-like shoes and empty straps demonstrate a loss of innocence which is as poignant as it is eerie. They have moved into a different world. 

If the realism of  18-19th century objects and images trouble us, as demonstrated in this Spectacular Bodies, and later exhibitions, then contemporary art and medicine is encouraging multiple reactions within the viewer. They are certainly more unsettling than historical liaisons, as Ludmilla Jordanova says 'art is more overt in the way it uses the body to make trouble'. We were asked to compare the films of the surrealist Jan Svankmayer and the Cabinets of Curiosity of Rudolf II, in a medical context, life cycles, laying bare and bodily decay, evolution. 

We then turned to two female artists Jo Spence and Orlan both working in the 1980s on series of images with medical themes and self portraits. Superficially they have a lot in common but their art is very different. We were asked to make sense of the differences and how both of them were different types of theatre.
Orlan: she is a feminine masquerade. A deliberate attempt to use surgery on her body, co-opting medicine as part of her performance/body art. Surgery as technique. Transcending human body. Q&A during surgery. Not concerned about her own pain, but the visual pain and disturbing the viewer. The viewer was also encouraged to participate as they could buy phials of her bodily fluids.

Spence: The photos she took she described as 'photo therapy'. Do we see this as more authentic? Because she was genuinely ill, did this make a difference. She was able to offer a critique of mainstream medicine, co-opting her illness as art. She was seen as more vulnerable, trying to make sense of her body. 

Finally we asked whether they would have fitted in with Spectacular Bodies exhibition? My instinctive response is no. I would ask where was the bodily wonder within their art. 

This module is shaping up to be absolutely fascinating and is obviously leaving me breathless in the face of the number of possible essays to write. As it gives me an opportunity to dive straight back into Renaissance science, who knows where I'll go; somewhere spectacular, no doubt.

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