Thursday, October 5, 2006

Body Art

Over the course of the last 50 years, artists have investigated the aesthetic frontiers of the body. A central notion of human identity, the idea of the physical body and the human self -as stable - has eroded (think of two world wars, the Holocaust, Viet-Nam, AIDS, plus the redefinition of the body in light of the developments in psychoanalysis, philosophy, anthropology, medicine, etc). Artists have investigated the temporality, contingency and instability of the body within and beyond cultural boundaries. One can generally define several areas of investigation: 1- The gesturing body, or the performing body: A dual role of object and subject that becomes public and gets transformed by activism (here we have the FLUXUS performances of Ono, Klein, Beuys, Nauman, etc). 2- The ritualistic body, as one finds in the Viennese Actionists' use of the symbolic language of torture, slaughter and sacrifice (among them Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch and Otto Mühl, as a way to deal with the horrors of post-War Nazi Austria). Or the self-mutilated body of Gina Pane and Mike Parr and the dying body -as bravely documented by Hannah Wilke. Also the desecrating body (as in Serrano’s Piss Christ). 3- The body as "participatory," as in Chris Burden's symbolic antics, Carolee Schneemann performances and Yayoi Kusama's staged "orgies." 4- The body as identity; whether expanding the idea of gender (the transgender phenomenon), sexuality or race, identity is characterized as a cipher in constant evolution (through the use of props, masks, costumes or any other disguises). In this category, we have the works of Pierre Moliniere, Lynda Benglis, Laura Aguilar, Paul McCarthy and others. 5- The idea of body as boundary: The artist's body is the limit between the private and the public realms and what is inflicted upon that body is inflicted somehow in the social or collective body. These artists examine issues of power, control and intimacy regarding liberties we can and cannot take within our own bodies. In this category we have the works of Dennis Oppenheim, Vito Acconci, Gina Pane, William Wegmann and Marina Abramovic -among others. To better understand the context of body art, take a look at these interesting topics: body piercing, corseting, scarification, infibulation, self-flagellation.


Michele Rowand said...

Our bodies are our first "ready made" objects. So it's only natural that we want to explore them, view them, and express them. We didn't even touch on the topic of fashion and that whole creative industry in yesterday's class. Mixed media scuplture indeed.

The first image I was shown in my first art history class was of the Venus's of Willendorf from 24,000 BCE. Was it a doll, a fetish, a fertility goddess, a religious ceremonial object or expression of some stone aged angst? It pre-dated the Lascaux cave paintings of animals by about 10,000 years so using the body as art has been around at least that long.

An interesting tidbit I found on line at

"Tattooing as a rite of adulthood, or passage into puberty, was another common tattoo ritual. If a girl can't take the pain of tattooing, she is un-marriageable, because she will never be able to deal with the pain of child birth. If a boy cannot deal with the pain of his puberty tattoos, he is considered to be a bad risk as a warrior, and could become an outcast."

With all the reassurances by Prof. Triff that most of the artists he showed us that use their bodies in their art aren't maladjusted weirdos I would like to ask where would he would consider the step off point to be between art and psychosis. If permanently scarring yourself in a drastic way isn't a weirdo thing then what is - amputation? This borderline stuff is also why society has a problem with artists. It's that thin line between genius and madness again. That "being marginal" thing again. I personally found many things hard to watch last night.

Along with this class I'm taking a figure sculpting class. I wonder if there is a way to incorporate the idea of the body no longer present idea in it. Bert Rodriguez gave creedence to the art of pondering the artistic question last night that I might be able to draw on for a project like that.

Bert is the "un-artist" of the group of visitors so far - or should I say reluctant artist. Imagine, we have a whole classroom of people wanting to know how to be better artistis, to be seen and sell their things and Bert makes proclamations that he got a degree in painting without painting and didn't know he was making art until somebody told him that what he was doing was art. It's like some reverse artistic psychology worked for him.

I liked his notion that if we are doing what inspires us on a daily basis then there would be no need for art. I have to agree with that notion - like the John Lennon "Imagine there's no heaven" idea. If each person was fully engaged in the "art" of living then going to see something artistic would no longer be necessity.

I think most modern people have occupations far away from the days of wheelwrights and weavers so their creative juices seldom flow. Even simple things like cooking are often done by others these days so that is not a creative outlet either. Too many members of society are un-engaged.

Anonymous said...

Amazing! Can I take this class? Just kidding, I'm really far but I wish I could.

Christie Llorente said...

The more I think about it and the more I think about last week's lecture, it's very clear that human beings are absolutely obsessed with themselves. But what is it about us, that makes us so compulsive. Why are we so interested in ourselves? Why are we so interested in each other?

It definitely takes a certain type of person to do "body art." Definitely audacious. Listening to the lecture and looking at the images of some of these performers makes we want to explore the nature of body art and why they are doing it.

As for Bert's presentation, I found it to be very amusing. He had a good sense of humor and I enjoyed that fact that he was so lighthearted about his work. He seems to just take it as it comes. I was able to relate to a lot of the things he said about his work and his influences. He's totally making work about himself and his experiences, very much like an autobiography. His concepts are straightforward and simplistically beautiful. Very inspirational. I also loved the fact that he doesn't really consider what he does as "art" per say, but rather just the thing he does. Artists may be wierd, but we're just like everyone else.

Anonymous said...

I’ll begin by saying that our body is the most personal and intimate “object” an artist can utilize in their work. Throughout history, it is obvious that the human body was something of mystery and taboo. This is because there are so many ways one can feel about the human body. Some may admire it and love it, while some may hate and despise it. Some see it as a miraculous creation of God, when others will study it as a scientific object. One can worship their body as their temple, while another may fear it or feel imprisoned by it. It only makes sense that, as artists, we are intrigued with our own human body. It is one thing which belongs to only you; it is a major part of your personal identification.
-J Tao

A.T. said...

A friend told me the other day that Orlan was crazy. "Why? If that's what she wants to do with her body?" I said.

maya aujla said...

I look at body art as a form of self-expression verses self-identification. One of the origins of tattoos comes from the native population in the Polynesian Islands. The tattoos were done more for ritual purposes verses aesthetics alone. Centuries later, sailors discovered this unusual form of art and from then on tattoos became associated with sailors in the Western world. At that time, tattoos were being connected with the uncouth manners of a sailor and were looked down upon by society as something that was dirty or crude. Now a days most people who modify their bodies in the form of tattoos or piercings are doing it for artistic purposes. Tattoo artists have transformed the act of tattooing into a form of art with the creativeness they put into their designs. There are even contests, just like there are art shows, to show off the artist’s best work. Recently, body modifications as an art form have risen to unbelievable levels. Take for example ‘The Lizard Man.’ He has combined silicon implants and tongue piercings because he believes he was a reptile in another life. The implants in his tongue split his tongue into two just like a reptile’s tongue. He then proceeded to cover his entire body with tattoos of scales. I agree with Michele that there is definitely a fine line between absolutely nuts and artistic. Its one thing to cover your body with tattoos, but then to add silicon parts to modify it into something not human is borderline obsessive and crazy. I understand that is it his body and he can do what he wants with it, but at the same time there is the possibility of not making it through such an extreme surgery when your dealing with sensitive parts of the body. Is the modification of one's body really worth the risk of one's life?

Dominic Halley-Roarke said...

The Ana Mendieta retrospective last year was very interesting...the use of moving elements such as smoke and fire in some of her pieces almost gave the impression that she was painting with them in a sense--the dialogue was not only with the lanscape, but with the other traditional elements as well (air, fire, water. earth).
I have one tattoo...i really dislike excessive tattoing; it becomes like clothes one can never take off. Too many tattoes and one can't really ever be naked. Maybe this is part of the extensive tattooing in some cultures--a taboo against the body in it's natural state?
As to self-mutilation, Professor Triff, please tell us WHY you think that those who engage in it in an "artist" context are not "deviants"? You implied that there was a difference, but you never said what that difference was...
I looked at some of the Wikipedia entries on self abuse--not very interesting; I came to the conclusion a long time ago that the elimination from the planet of those who advocate any sort of matyrdom would leave it a much better place.

Jessica Sanders said...

Art can be about many things, but one major idea in art is conveying an idea or expression from the artist to the viewer. This can be done any number of ways, through different media and different subject matter, for example. On a human-to-human level the one thing every person has in common with the artist is a body. No matter where the viewer is from, what his life experiences are, he has a body. The body is the link, the relater, in every situation. If an artist pictures himself cutting his skin with a razor blade, the viewer inherently understands the feeling the blade is causing. There is always a point of reference with the body. If an artist is showing part of his body, the viewer will, even if unconsciously, compare that body to his own. Our minds almost automatically pick out what’s different from our own bodies, and that can be used to the advantage of the artist. An artist can easily convey a message using the body as a tool.

Orlan’s Omnipresence reminds me of Michael Jackson. He is art. If someone does what Orlan does with her body not for the sake of art, is it still art? I don’t know if Michael Jackson is a visual body artist, but his body is art. He has undergone such dramatic physical changes, slowly documented over the years; he is making a statement about body appearances with himself. He has unlimited resources to make himself into anything, and he makes the choice to look like something outside of what our culture accepts as normal, or even beautiful.

A.T. said...

Well, first what’s “deviant?” In early 20th century, homosexuality was considered deviant. The actions of the fakir, tribal tattooing or scarification could be seen as deviant in the context of our Judeo-Christian culture. Though some of these performers have had personal issues of physical and sexual abuse or with a terminal disease, their “body actions” are aesthetic interventions; body art in so far as a “performance.” That’s the difference. If cutting oneself as a “ritual” (as the Shia in Irak and Iran do) is Ok, why not Pane’s “body actions?” Yet, when you read that a 2003 in England shows that more than 2 in 10 15-16 year-olds in the UK have deliberately harmed themselves, and that girls of this age were nearly four times more likely to have self-harmed than boys, you began to wonder if “deviant” is becoming a norm. And no, this has nothing to do with martyrdom.

Ernie Marc Selditch said...

BodyArt: I sing the body electric…

This is an art medium that has been around a very long time; maybe as long as humans have walked this planet. It would be hard to prove the art has spanned this much time, because, “the flesh is weak” and images of body art must be interpolated from figurative art of the ancients that were durable or lucky enough to survive to our time.

Body art is a canvas that follows us around, is always available, and can hold a mixed set of media. The body can be adorned in different ways: clothing, shaping, painting, jewelry, scarification, piercing, branding, and tattoo. Some we are familiar with and take for granted. Our clothing, hairstyle, makeup, jewelry are body art. Conventions change and styles go in and out of favor. Earlier peoples put on their body art that may have fallen with in the context of spiritual belief or a record of their personal victories.

Tattoos were worn mainly by marines, sailors and Hells Angels during the early sixties, now they are quite common. Tattoos were found on a Siberian mummy known as the Ice Maiden. She was from a tribe called the Payryk, an eastern tribe related to the Sythians. She was uncovered in 1993 in permafrost tomb in the steppes of the Altay Mountains in southern Siberis, and dates to about twenty-five hundred years ago. When her enormous larch coffin was opened and they melted the ice from her with heated water, she was well preserved. A student at the site describes the find, “ We pulled back carefully the clothing, and on her left arm, the right thumb, and then again on her left shoulder are these amazing tattoos. Creatures just in immediate action poses, and they are in fact twisted oddly at 180 degree angles. They have amazing horns that end in flowers, fantastic creatures.” The tattoos allow a peek at the symbols of an ancient culture and with their cultural artifacts give a tiny view of an ancient time.

Kelly Flynn said...

People are fascinated with people. Since the beginning of time, artists have used their bodies in art to make expressions. The body is all we have to claim for ourselves – to identify with. When I was 10, my house burned to the ground and we lost everything, but for me the worst part was loosing all of my childhood pictures. I felt like my identity had been erased from past. Sometimes I wonder why most of my photographic work deals with time based self-portraiture –maybe I feel afraid to loose those moments – and feel compelled to constantly capture myself aging through the years.

Francisca said...

I think body art is one of the most pure forms of art. It uses the only tool that we are born with. It is completely relatable because that anatomy of the body has not changed for hundreds of years. It is the universal canvas that every person utilizes in one way or another. The body is a fragile canvas that everyone decorates according to their personality and life decisions. What cloths to where, how to style ones hair, piercings, tattoos, personal hygiene are all ways people decorate themselves. Cloths are a visual manifestation of the “personality” inside. What is interesting is how we decorates ourselves is culturally influenced. The physical appearance created by our decisions are supposedly predetermined by our culture. It is possibly for a synthesis of our culturally conditioned selves and our actual selves to coexist?

Steph Hurst said...

This is a timely discussion given the recent controversy surrounding “Bodies.”

Conception of the physical and mental self has never been stable. It hasn’t eroded; war and plague have always been present in humanity as part of our evolution. The circumstances have changed and we have more definitions, but our conception and expression of the physical and mental self has never been more adequate or stable. That’s why we’re constantly trying to keep up. That said, how is the body phenomenon represented in art, and what new meanings are relevant and savvy and palatable to the artist?

We discussed the ritualistic body, expressed by some artists as the residual effects of childhood issues. Consider the phenomenon of victims who’ve only imagined or embellished (the inherent drama of any trauma lends itself to embellishment) their victimization? But, it’s argued, they completely believe in it and it controls their lives. Does that matter? How would such a factor affect the way we validate art? How is the artist held accountable? Can we assume that what’s instinctual and consequential automatically emerges in art? But—does it matter? Where’s the limit of that freedom? I think it’s a social freedom that curbs people from doing whatever they want.

We discussed objectification, which if often the “default” creation of art performance. That’s not a problem for me. Objectification isn’t always negative. It sometimes brings us back to our basest carnal instincts.

To supplement the elevator explanation given in class, consider that people, when walking past each other, won't look at each other beyond a certain point of closeness. It's because of our social understanding of space and increasing emphasis on privacy and independence.

I couldn't stomach watching Orlan's "Omnipresence," neither physically, nor psychologically. But, it's a great idea, exploring the limits of beauty, given modern society's fascination with cosmetic surgery or any method of self-transformation.

What about an organ transplant as reincarnation of the body; obesity as consumption of the body; cannibalism as recycling of the body; what about starvation of the self?

I respect anyone who has the boldness and acuteness to make a complex artistic statement by hurting themselves.