The body is a tricky, messy thing. At once a physical manifestation of self and ego-centred cry of “I,” it is as much vulnerable and open to be subjected to all manner of internal and external conditions. A new display at the Whitechapel Gallery in London is full of these oddly shaped limbs, bits and bobs that, according to the accompanying press materials, propose a challenge to any form of “physical and material cohesion.” Titled “Bumped Bodies,” on view until August 12, and featuring work by 23 artists, the exhibition is the fourth and final display that borrows works from the ISelf Collection, a private collection which was established in 2009 by Maria and Malek Sukkar. Although small in size, it’s a cohesive constellation of individual bodies — or partial bodies — that refuse to be contained by, or reduced to, the usual framework of bone, skin and muscle.
More often than not, the works on display pervert the relationship between material and image. Maria Bartuszova’s sculpture, “Untitled,” 1966, a rounded doughnut shape with a globule — both made of plaster — sprouting from its middle, begs to be squeezed and caressed; the softness and apparent pliability of its curves overwrites the petrifying nature of the medium. This is the body reduced to a hint, the merest whiff of a suggestion. Along an adjacent wall, Sarah Lucas’ “Oral Gratification,” 2000, is a wooden office chair, the vacuum left by an absent body offset by a pair of cigarette-encrusted rugby balls that pierce the chair’s back. It bears Lucas’ trademark humor: we are either facing some anthropomorphic creature eyeballing us, or this is a stand-in for one matron-esque figure, the body itself having gone out for a sneaky smoke. More ephemeral still are the wisps of human hair that flutter softly, caught in the branches of a tree in Bojan Šarčević’s “Presence at Night,” 2010. These are near imperceptible indexes of activity, a bodily presence, of passing time.
Even when the body has not fully disappeared from the premises, it is either disjointed or not quite master of its own self. Paloma Varga Weisz’s “Bumped Body,” from which the current display takes its title, is a copper-plated arm- and leg-less torso, the stomach curved with a bulging pregnancy, the body transformed into a vessel, at the service of another. Only the face of this undefined, androgynous figure is left uncovered by the copper sheen, but no matter, this is not about the individual ego, but about the functionality of the body as object. In a similar vein, Berlinda de Bruyckere’s “Quan,” 2009-’10, made of wax, epoxy and iron — is all sinuous limbs and mottled flesh, the wax figure sinking and melding itself into the cushion that semi-swaddles it. De Bruyckere has in the past delineated her attachment to the figure — with or without a head — as embodying a mental state. This emphasis on the body’s capacity to capture and express emotion and psychology might very well apply too to a small photograph by the Hungarian artist Kati Horna, whose work brings together a strange amalgamation of documentary and surrealist tendencies. In “Prestado,” 1962, a (death) mask lies on a pillow, its face carrying a benign smile, while the white, rumpled bed sheet suggests an imprint of a physical body only recently departed. The pristine whiteness is offset by a human figure kneeling next to it, all shrouded in black, with only a lone hand exposed, clutching at its head.
“Bumped Bodies” is on view at the Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery
77-82 Whitechapel High St, in London, through August 12. More information: http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/
Click on the slideshow for a sneak peek at the exhibition.
Founder: Louise Blouin