featured gallery for March 2006
The body has an ambivalent status as a figuration of self. The flesh we inhabit is cloaked in, and conditioned by, structures of feeling, legally-enforced categories, political ideologies, religious beliefs, cultural appurtenances. Family histories, national histories, global histories, and the random, accidental conjunctions of individual life, shape our sexual practices, eating and drinking, work, athletics, even the most profoundly existential experiences of breathing, touching, moving in space. Our bodies are put together by forces beyond our control, beyond our immediate knowledge and consciousness. And the resultant productions -- the bodies we inhabit and operate -- are extravagant, prolific, only partly domesticated.
So we live inside a discrete package of skin, but are estranged. We have divided selves. More various than just conjoined mind and body. Divided and subdivided. Territories and sovereignties that are sometimes overlapping, sometimes discontiguous.
In Western culture, the familiar division between spirit and matter has always been problematic, in antiquity, the early Christian era, the Middle Ages, and after Darwin. Ernst Haeckel and other 19th-century evolutionary theorists posited a sedimented self: the human body was made up of an inner vegetative core, consisting of a plant-like skeletal structure and tropistic internal organs. Arranged around this central and evolutionary primal pith were pulsating animalistic parts: the heart, lungs, circulatory system, muscles. And atop the evolutionary hierarchy of the self: the brain, itself divided into a reptilian or even more primitive limbic system, and the higher order cerebrum and cerebellum. In this view, each human being not only recapitulated phylogeny in embryonic development, but also within the mature adult, and within the brain.
Another 19th-century order of division: the cellular organism described by the medical reformer Rudolf Virchow and his fellow microscopists. In this vision, the body is a mass of primitive cellular individuals, governed by the brain. Virchow interpreted this as a democratic or parliamentarian dispensation, a representative democratic bio-politics. Other writers looked on the body as a socialist bio-politics -- insofar as the body was depicted as a cooperative entity, a harmonious economy, a fair division of labor. And still others gave it an autocratic reading: the body as a seething, rebellious mass, only operational via command from above, toiling on behalf of a sovereign neurological self, the propertied estate of the brain.
Nowadays, we have other orders of division: behavioral, hormonal, immunological, pharmaceutical, etc. Underneath the division of our bodies into organs and cells are chromosomes, genes, molecules. Between the parts are transacted lawful exchanges of nutrient-bearing fluids, chemical messages, reproductive flows, but these are disrupted and hijacked by viral and bacterial and prionic interlopers that upset the internal balance, take us apart, shut us down.
So our divisions themselves are superimposed or inscribed on other divisions. All this layering gets out of hand. Our divided selves are incoherent. And yet each of us has an "I" and, in varying degrees, social and cultural and legal conventions enforce the principle of unitary identity. Based on a unifying principle: "I exist inside a single bag of skin." (Even if this denies a collective social principle, in which humans form gene pools and germ pools, are configured into vectors of reproduction and infection, or collaborate to cultivate and cull the herd.)
It's hard to figure: Where is the "I" in "the house I live in" (the body)? Where is the comfort of home? We want to repair the alienation between self and body. We believe that sanity, happiness, healthiness require an "integrated self." Which is the goal of religion, physical fitness, vegetarianism, psychotherapy, meditation, etc. Art is also sometimes offered up as a unifier, but has a more ambiguous function. Art is a mirror of self, a body double: We are never the thing represented; we are always the thing represented. We recognize and don't recognize ourselves. In sculpture, on canvas and paper, in the art installation and film and video, the body is turned inside out, against itself. Which models the human condition.
Death, and the knowledge of our own mortality, forces us to confront this proliferating, cascading estrangement of selves and body parts. Traditionally, the iconography of death and monstrosity derives from our material afterlives, our residual skeletal remains: the dancing skeletons of the danse macabre. In 20th-century popular culture, these have been joined by the "blob," the "tingler," the "alien," the "re-animator," etc. In our most iconic horror and science fiction films, the figure of the anti-self derives from an interior view. The monster is born from us, literally and conceptually, modeled on the viscera and other organic formations, but emancipated, externalized, turned against us. The body is me and not me.
To be honest, I don't know whether the artists who created the works selected here would have recognized or agreed with my interpretation. But in these pieces I see readings of the body and readings into the body, unto death: residues of the body, barren desiccated cores, extrusions and transplanted body flora (Richard J. Treitner, Frank Green, Robert Flack); anatomical self disclosures and self dissections (Wilmer Velez, Alberto Velasco); an unsheathing of the flesh and the revelation of an inner danse macabre (Kevin Wesley, Paul Thek, Gin Louie, Nancer LeMoins); an attempt to reconcile the flesh with our inevitable disembodiment, a figuration of the body as light and spirit (Eric Rhein, Rebecca Guberman). The body here is a template of self, but also of printed words, political debates, magazines, opera stars, household cleansers, deserts, religious icons, hypodermic syringes, advertisements, medical textbooks, jungles, museums, pills, birds, and human flesh and bone. In every piece on display, the inner view is the outer view -- views imbued with fear, grief, pleasure, desire, a wish to transcend.