In 1922, Bauhaus teacher Oskar Schlemmer created his celebrated Triadic Ballet. An avant-garde dance production that abstracted the human figure into a series of geometric forms, the ballet’s mechanized, staccato movements were determined by the colourful papier-mâché and padded-cloth costumes that Schlemmer’s performers wore. The month of the premiere, Schlemmer wrote in his diary: ‘Life has become so mechanized, thanks to […] a technology which our sense cannot possibly ignore, that we are intensely aware of man as machine and the body as mechanism.’ Documentation of the Triadic Ballet is amongst the 70 works included in the Henry Moore Institute’s exhibition ‘The Body Extended: Sculpture and Prosthetics’, which surveys the myriad adaptations and modifications that human beings have made to their own bodies over the last two centuries. Comprising prostheses and photographic documentation alongside sculptures, paintings and photography, the exhibition’s multiplicitous inclusions are presented in an open yet dense, non-hierarchical display.
Schlemmer served in the military during World War I, as did many of the artists included in the exhibition. The impact of war, as well as the rapid industrialization of the 20th century, hugely affected the ways in which human beings understood and perceived themselves physically. The body became fragmented – often literally disfigured by conflict – or, as technological innovations increasingly replaced human labour, the body’s natural movements were limited to narrow subsets of actions required to operate machines.
‘The Body Extended’, which focuses on the development of prosthetics and its correlation to that of figurative sculpture, highlights this fragmentation. Amongst the most striking inclusions are pieces by the artists Anna Coleman Ladd and Francis Derwent Wood, who worked with facial plastic surgeons during World War I to create paper-thin copper masks that were held in place by eyeglasses to cover soldiers’ disfigured faces. Equating sculptural techniques (moulding, casting, colour-matching) with the development of prosthetic technologies, Derwent Wood was committed to exploiting ‘the skill I possess as a sculptor to make a man’s face as near as possible to what it looked like before’. Nearby, design pioneers Charles and Ray Eames’s revolutionary leg splints, made from moulded plywood, further demonstrate the manipulation of sculptural capabilities for the advancement of medical technology.
In the adjacent room, the relationship between sculpture and prosthetics is examined from a contemporary perspective. Martin Boyce’s Phantom and Fall (2008), which alludes to the mobiles of Alexander Calder, takes direct inspiration from the Eames’ war effort. Consisting of three of their reworked splint fragments, suspended from two horizontal bars, the work uncomfortably conflates a sense of weightlessness with the devastation of mechanized warfare.
Beneath, Matthew Barney’s The Cabinet of Bessie Gilmore (1999) and Rebecca Horn’s Moveable Shoulder Extensions (1971) and Finger Gloves (1972) tackle the notion of prosthesis not as replacement or surrogate, but as extension or exaggeration. Barney’s Cabinet consists of a twisted, transparent torso accessorized with a rock of salt, looping resin cord and two resin rods with plastic feet, all contained within an elegant glass cabinet resembling a casket. The work seems to flit nervously between the organic and the inorganic and has a bizarre, alien eroticism despite its cool, clinical appearance. Horn’s extensions of the female form, meanwhile, deny intimacy altogether, as though probing the point at which the body becomes so supplemented that it can no longer be considered human.
‘The Body Extended’ considers how the factors that lead to cultural modernism prompted a radical transformation of the concept of the corporeal. Appearing almost as a sequel, David Roberts Art Foundation’s (DRAF) concurrent exhibition, ‘Streams of Warm Impermanence’, might be understood as a response to the changing nature of our bodies in the 21st century as well as the ways in which widespread digitization and online networks have affected human perceptions of self.
The show takes the network as a form of contemporary prosthetic. Designating human flesh as a material to be shaped, celebrated and connected, ‘Streams of Warm Impermanence’ moves away from a consideration of the body as a hermetic, sealed being towards a model of interconnectedness that allows us to reinvent and reconfigure the ways our bodies are used. Including over 40 sculptures, paintings, drawings and new commissions by 17 artists, the works selected often contain fragmented and complex organs and body parts, frequently merging or hybridizing with contemporary objects and technologies, deliberately exploding the boundaries of what it means to be human.
Through DRAF’s long, sequential space, the exhibition seems to descend, as though into the depths of the body, becoming increasingly surreal. Flanking the passage between the first two rooms, David Wojnarowicz’s Brain Time/Blood Brain (1988–89) consists of two grey, plaster brains carrying Xeroxed images of, respectively, a handless clock face and a microscopic view of blood cells: a frank reference to the artist’s terminal illness (he died of AIDS related complications in 1992). Close by, Renate Bertlmann’s unnerving drawings Die Liebenden – Leporello (6 teilig) (The Lovers – Leporello [6 parts]), Wurm Gehängt I (Hanged Worm I), Wurm Gehängt II (Hanged Worm II, all 1973) examine the representation of sexuality and eroticism in contemporary society. Drawn on actual tissue (normally used to absorb bodily fluids), Bertlmann’s wormlike creature curls flaccidly in a geometric chamber (Wurm Gehängt I), entangles itself anxiously with a mate (Die Liebenden – Leporello), or lynches itself on a wire (Wurm Gehängt II). Simultaneously vulnerable and clingy, aggressive and smutty, the worm presents ambivalent feelings of desire and repulsion, tenderness and pain, anxiety and calm.
Deeper inside the show, Canadian artist Athena Papadopoulos’s skin-like curtains punctuate the spaces like an osmotic barrier in a digestive tract, while Stewart Uoo’s Security Window Grills (2014) – fleshy silicone street furniture sprouting human hair – seem both to protect and prohibit, forming a boundary between the inside and outside, private and public. A similar blurring of the animate and inanimate occurs in Issy Wood’s A Servant Who’s Not Serving (2016), part of her ongoing ‘objects-with-faces’ series (and a reference to the animated, enchanted household objects in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, 1991). Here, the candelabra’s painted female face suggests a residual tendency to reduce women to the realm of the domestic. A similarly luminous counterpoint can be found in Carolee Schneemann’s Nude on Tracks D and Nude on Tracks E (1975), two hand-tinted photographs from the eponymous 1974 performance in which she walked naked, in dazzling sunlight, along a railway track. With her arms outspread in an almost ceremonial pose, Schneemann asserts the emancipated female body as both desired object and desiring subject.
‘Streams of Warm Impermanence’ considers the social, political and emotional ramifications of the ability to mould, direct and connect – be that literally or metaphorically – our own flesh. As with ‘The Body Extended’, the exhibition demonstrates that, as humans, we possess the desire to surpass the limits of our own bodies –either with physical extensions or via social and technological networks. In both, the prosthetic is presented as a physical as well as a cerebral concern – able to unite or to disrupt our perceptions of self and, crucially, of one another.
Lead image: Ann Hirsch, Q, Picard and Jeannie, 2016, installation view, DRAF, London, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Arcadia Missa, London; photograph: Tim Bowditch
First published in Issue 184