The body never belongs entirely to ourselves but is instead the interface in which subject and collectivity meet and the scenario in which the relationship between the two elements is negotiated.
The body as such cannot be thought
It matters little if one’s sexual orientation, social affiliation, cultural or political image are at stake: in the dialectic between the conditions in which every man is born and the decisions he has to make in the course of his existence, identity remains always fragile and requires constant updating.
It is a process that is equally individual and social: experiences can be had only in one’s own body, but there is also a need for confrontation with and recognition of others so that an idea of the ego and of us can be born. For this reason, the body never belongs entirely to ourselves but is instead the interface in which subject and collectivity meet and the scenario in which the relationship between the two elements is negotiated.
In this light, bodies are never simply there and are never only for themselves, but instead represent a performative act through the meeting with the outside.
The present text examines bodies as places of cultural, political and social constructions. It proposes works of art that make visible the—often unexpressed—rules of the body in a society and show that the potential for change is inherent not in their opposition, but in their variation.
The works presented on the one hand uncover the passages in which the existing images of the bodies become fragile and, on the other, shape representations that challenge social consensus and the balance of power on which this consensus is based.
One starting point is therefore social structure, based on a set of rules for the coexistence in a collectivity, mostly unconsciously effective, and which organizes social hierarchy, thus determining which bodies have weight (Judith Butler) and which do not even appear.
The related exclusion mechanisms are indeed necessary, because the fact of belonging to a community always implies that there are also others who are not part of it. But the more a system is rigid and inflexible, the worse it will react to the changes which it will inevitably have to deal with.
Therefore, this path does not want to aim at what is completely different, but rather asks to work in and with the structure. How is it then possible to shift the boundaries of public debate so as to make social models of inspiration adjustable? Below, seven concise case studies, presented as aphoristic notes, highlight the grounds on which an exhaustive essay could fathom the potential of art in producing more complex body models.
For Jisr al-Zarqa (2002-14), his most extensive series to date, the Israeli photographer Ron Amir dealt with the inhabitants of the homonymous Arab village in the heart of Israel for over a decade and thus developed various forms of interaction between himself, his camera and the locals. In this project, Amir strategically alters the power differences of the characters in front of and behind the lens, as he not only stages the photographs himself, but he is also commissioned by the villagers. The photograph Malek (2004) shows a young Muslim who clearly posed for the shot. It is difficult to assess the extent to which the environment around him has been set up, but the domestic elements of Islamic culture add a definite component to the tension between the photographer as a “trusted enemy” and the youngster. Malek bears the full weight of a rich but also violent history, which extends far beyond his personal experience. However—as the work testifies—from history he also draws an awareness of himself and molds his identity on it.
Invited by Centro de Cultura Contemporánea El Carme of Valencia, the Spanish artist—and young mother—Núria Güell created a new work consisting of a legally binding type of contract. The title is the name of the Greek goddess of sexuality and procreation, Aphrodite, and in theory each Spanish institution could include the Afrodite (2017) clause in its production contracts. The formula guarantees the artist that the institution will take charge of her social insurance for at least seven months, exactly the period needed to receive the government support provided during maternity leave. The museum’s lawyers eventually refused to sign Afrodite, but they allocated the production budget for Güell’s insurance. Like a contemporary Aphrodite, the artist not only demonstrates with her own body the practical impossibility of being both a mother and an artist, but also uses her agency in the art field to create the actual practicability of her job through juridical tools.
The relationship between desire and power in computer generated images is at the heart of Kate Cooper’s work. The British artist bought two animated female characters created for advertising purposes for her closing film at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, Symptom Machine (2017), releasing them from the commercial context. This new world, however, does not represent the opposite of the capitalistic promise of an immediate satisfaction of all desires, but rather embodies its implicit reverse: a physically perfect girl alternately fights in a circular scenario against mental control by a human-like creature and surrenders to the alien that will transform her into a zombie robot devoid of feelings. Unlike Cooper’s previous film, Rigged (2015), in which an analogous ‘ad beauty’ with an affective inner life became an accomplice of her observer, this parable acts ex-negativo on the female struggle for survival, both disturbing and ridiculous: in no case a woman would like to be in that body.
Relying on his captivating stage presence, the dancer and choreographer Niv Acosta combines elements of “high” culture and popular culture in his work to remove the current quality criteria of the educated public. Inspired by Hollywood actor Denzel Washington, Acosta has developed a series of works that ended with I Shot Denzel, in 2014, and made it immediately available to an international audience. In the duet with his mother, Acosta presents himself as a sensitive and conscious young transgender, whose physical imperfection—compared to the Western ideal—becomes the topic and the focus of the performance. And to do so, he knowledgeably uses music and dance tropes that are normally excluded from the genre. Thus, for example, he dedicates to the first verse of the 1965 American cult musical The Sound of Music a repetitive sequence of several minutes that undoubtedly tames the kitsch element of the presentation, but at the same time protects its appeal from a hasty rejection.
In fact, the contempt of simple tastes is a form of exclusion of otherness, as well.
The exact observation of what is, is one of the fortes of Berlin filmmaker Liesel Burisch. The main character of the music video If You Don’t Know, Now You Know (2016), shot for the rock band Dwarphs, shows a group of Icelandic swimmers warming up before entering the water. Soundtrack and movement give rhythm to each other: for five minutes, space expands and the passing of time is on hold. The camera sets up a scene for bodies that are no longer young and look familiar, and focuses our attention on them from which, remarkably, nothing develops: a morning ritual, whose beauty and intimacy is reflected in the faces and gestures, but becomes understandable as an event only by disconnecting it from its context.
By acting as a duo named Insistere, artist Ulf Aminde and actress Sabine Reinfeld work on the meeting points of theater and visual art, as well as on social daily life and its cultural reflection. For Insistere #7 / Don’t Fuck With My Name (Hacking the Curator) (2013) both created the avatar Ellen Bluumenstein, who during the first weeks of my period as chief curator of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin intervened autonomously in institutional everyday activities. The extra (or superfluous) body marked the difference between person and position and created a distance between myself, colleagues and visitors, and our respective “natural” relationship with the curator. A vast archive of typical encounters (from the personal welcome at the entrance, to staff meetings, up to the communication with the press) highlighted the role of the curator as a link between the institution and the public. As regards the body of the Avatara, the project exemplarily negotiated the expectations placed on the figure, but also on the difficult balance between responsibility and power that goes with this job.
Always struggling with her relationship with reality, the Bolivian artist, architect and philosopher Narda Alvarado uses art as a tool to reflect on life and to shape the perception of the world in a more complex way. For her intervention in the public space of the capital La Paz, Olive Green (2003), she persuaded a group of students from the Bolivian municipal police to temporarily block one of the main access roads to the city center, in order to eat an olive together. Olive is the traditional color of military uniforms, so the olive acts as a symbol of both state power and its task of keeping civil order. Within the Latin American public, as well as among people from the liberal left-wing art context (the two central recipients of the work), the police are perceived rather as a violent body than a peacemaker. Against this dualism, Alvarado’s action shifts the attention on the living bodies that wear these outfits, thus weakening the strong separation between “them” and “us.”