Material Bodies: Obsessions II talk
I am interested in how memory is located and experienced in the body, with particular emphasis on the ways in which systems of representation contribute to these experiences. Our bodies are shaped and produced through the intersubjective influences and processes we encounter, from birth to old age; through the public and private interstices of (variously) family, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, medicine, law, literature, film and the media.
Systems of representation contribute to our experience in the body, and experience, suggests Henri Bergson, is “a matter of tradition in collective existence as well as private life. It is less the product of facts firmly anchored in memory than of a convergence in memory of accumulated and frequently unconscious data.”
My interest in the nude came about with the recognition that the representation of the female body did not in any way relate to myself as a woman. I felt that something was missing. As my own body became more used, in terms of childbirth, operations, scars, breaks, change of size, texture and age I became aware that I was not, in the main, represented, neither historically, politically or artistically (neither past nor present), nor in the media, or on the corporate ladder.
I wanted to construct my own view of the body, but was concerned that this would indeed be continuing with the prevalent and established forms of representation already in abundance. I was encouraged by Lynda Nead who suggests that “Denying visibility to ‘the female body’ as a universal category perpetuates the invisibility of women whose bodies do not conform to the ideals of the dominant culture and who may be struggling for the right to physical and public visibility.” In other words, the imperfect body, whether old, fat or disabled, is deemed undesirable in that it lacks current perceptions of ‘beauty’, which are measured mainly in terms of youth, health and vitality.
Sir Kenneth Clark , states that “The nude remains the most complete example of the transformation of matter into form”.
The ‘nude’ according to Clark, is the body redefined and transformed into something “balanced, prosperous and confident”. It is almost as if the humanness of nakedness is of itself unpalatable to him. Indeed, he often makes the equation of the ‘epicurean’ with the nude – the connoisseur of fine taste.
What interested me in particular about previous constructions of the female nude was what was not seen. This may sound like a contradiction, since the nude is of itself deemed completely bare. But it is the nude’s very bareness which gives rise to the viewer’s ability to construe his/her own meaning, and impose fantasies and fetishes onto the corpus vile.
Perhaps, because photographs and paintings are of themselves a single dimension it allows for this imaginative process, but it denies the reality of the person, the history of that body – a life experience of emotional, physical and intellectual capacity; in other words, the invisibility of the woman ‘as such’ on view, (or man).
Taking into consideration the work of Cindy Sherman and her use of her body and clothing to change the identity of the persona, it becomes obvious that we can develop a narrative depending upon what she is wearing, her environment and how she is made up. Therefore, we construct a meaning for ourselves, posited in time and space, a perception of a history.
This sense of history is often lacking when we look at the nude, unless of course there are artefacts or background to identify. There is nothing to guide us as to what her (or his) story may be. My intention was to attempt the opposite to Clark’s response – to return form into matter – at least conceptually – to regain some perception of the ‘human’ in the form.
In his studies on hysteria, Freud referred to the “blindness of the seeing eye”. This was in relation to his work with Charcot at the Salpetriere Clinic for women in Paris in the late 1890’s. Charcot used photography as a way of ‘proving’ that the hysterical symptoms of his patients were of a physiological, therefore visible and hereditary nature. Freud went further and concluded that hysterical symptoms were related to unconscious processes, which, because they were repressed, were manifested somatically; if they could be made conscious and expressed verbally, these symptoms would frequently diminish or disappear. In other words Charcot had only been seeing what was on the surface.
What I want to suggest here is that, in the way in which the nude has come to be portrayed and constructed in modernity, it has become imbued with the purely sexual connotations of desire and possession. The nude, in the guise of the naked female/surrogate for sex, has become so familiar – images which we can take or leave – it does not have the ability to move or (even) to shock anymore.
I wanted to look at the limitations of the voyeuristic – to offer a possibility for re-investing the body with the human/humane and to re-instate the person in the image; to jolt the unconscious to conscious processes of the voyeur – both male and female. In other words, to attempt to bring the inside outside, to allow for the nude to be viewed other than as a prescriptive format.
Although my photographic work may seem to repeat themes of representation of the woman (in particular) as nude, I felt that I did not want to be compelled by self-censorship, which has constrained so many women artists. Lynda Nead speaks of the risk of “creating feminist alternatives that are as repressive to certain groups of women as their patriarchal precedents”. (p76 ibid)
I was concerned that I would also be accused of exploiting the female form and of colluding with the objectification of women (and possibly men), in that images of women create the impression that women themselves are commodities. As a commodity, women are denied equal status, individuality and basic humanity.
Objectification also derives from Freud’s concept of sexual fetishism where particular parts of the female anatomy, such as breasts, feet, legs, mouth, etc. function as symbols and replacements (for desire) for the complete woman.
Fragmentation can be used in many ways – often to denigrate – in relation to the female body. Used as a condensing mechanism it became a formula to define sexual availability, particularly within the sphere of advertising.
I have constructed large-scale, close-ups of the female body as landscape. With the use of ‘fragmentation’ and ‘condensation’ I have created a more abstract form so that, if the viewer has to codify which part of the body this may be – which way around – rather like a jigsaw, she might be able to devise a whole, to reformulate the figure. A somewhat androgynous treatment of the body of the male nude has created a sense of morphing from female to male. And similarly, the use of masks on both male and female bodies produces a morphing from human to animal.
Through the use of narrative – written anonymously by the subjects in the photographs – and accompanying text, my intention has been to disrupt the assumptions of the audience and to subvert conventional perceptions of the nude and to re-present a socio-historical identity in the body and, thus, to re-instate the individual. My aim was to address the invisibility of the used and aged body through the pleasures and sensuality of the ‘non-ideal’ and, hopefully, re-investing and re-creating a history in the body. By working through our own personal processes, it is only through perseverance and repetition that we may recognise and formulate a possibility for change.
The gallery space is an important part of the viewing and receiving of artistic productions and this space can be seen as a form of ‘containment’ for audience, artist and art work. Winnicott says:
“This gives us our indication for therapeutic procedure – to afford opportunity for formless experience, and for creative impulses, motor and sensory, which are the stuff of playing. And on the basis of playing is built the whole of man’s experiential existence. No longer are we either introvert or extrovert. We experience life in the area of transitional phenomena, in the exciting interweave of subjectivity and objective observation, and in an area that is intermediate between the inner reality of the individual and the shared reality of the world that is external to individuals.” (Winnicott 1981: 75)
It may be seen that there are similarities to the way in which the dynamics of gallery, audience, artist and artwork can interact. I am concerned to engage the audience in an interactive approach to this work and to provide a playful, creative and imaginative dynamic between the audience, the photographic images and text.