Photo: Fenestra Ateliers
The human body in art and glass
Glasmuseet Ebeltoft will be filled to bursting point during the summer of 2014 with international art in all shapes and sizes, making up the summer exhibition, BodyTalk.
All the pieces in the exhibition contain an element of glass, and all of them relate to the theme of the body and gender. But inevitably, that is all they have in common when 52 artists from 20 different countries, with different backgrounds and cultural ballast, all take up the same theme.
This common theme is what binds the group exhibition together. At the same time, however, it is a diversity of individual perspectives and 52 strongly independent statements illustrating different aspects of the same theme.
The body in art
The body is an ideal point of departure for a group exhibition, being universal and individual at one and the same time.
Human experiences are always bound to the body. Experiences and reflection are invariably channelled through the individual, and expressions and thoughts about the body, gender and sexuality are therefore subjective. At the same time, however, the body is the only reference that we know with certainty that everyone has and shares, and is thus a common reference.
The body and the notions associated with the body have been an endless source of inspiration for art and artists in the western civilisation for thousands of years.
In antiquity, the human body was a symbol of the world and the universe being linked in perfect harmony. As the epitome of perfection, the portrayal of the body was therefore a confirming witness to the conceptions of universal order.
This phenomenon recurred at the renaissance, although with a crucial difference: the Christian mythology had now verified that the body was created in the divine image. Thus when the artist regards himself in a self portrait or represents another person, it is not simply a case of an observation of what a person looks like. Embedded in this reflection there is also recognition and the conception of what is outside the body – of beliefs and assumptions about the true nature of things, and of the emergence and transience of life.
Times and beliefs change, and with them the artist's viewpoint. The tradition of portraying the body in art arose in the period when the order of the universe appeared fixed and indisputable. Yet, while this tradition still exists, it is no longer possible to speak of a single order of the universe and a single overarching truth. In the modern borderless and global world it is largely up to the individual to define his or her own view of the world, and artists are free to express individual attitudes to the body. In this exhibition therefore, we recognise some of the older themes, but restrictions are thrown to the winds, so with the body as the unifying theme, we meet a diversity of accounts and viewpoints of modern humans, genetics and science, gender and sexuality, and of faith, hope and love, and all things great and small!
Director of the Museum
Posted 31 July 2014
VANITY AND FRAGILITY
Karen Lisa Salamon
What is a body? Is it the work of the Creator, in God's image? Is it the temporal husk of the soul? Is it a unit of biochemical functionality? Is it just you, and all that you have?
Humans have contemplated questions of this kind for thousands of years. When the world, the sciences and the technical possibilities change, the perception of the body changes too.
In some periods of history it was controversial to study the inside of the human body. In those periods, even doctors had only limited knowledge of human anatomy, and ordinary people were not able to learn much about their own bodies. Even in our age of brain scans, X-rays, blood pressure checks and pulse watches, it is not easy for us to really understand our own bodies.
The body is the position from which we look out at the world – but not something we can gaze into. At any rate, we do not have a clear overall picture of the details and how they interact. In modern times, gazing into the human body is still controversial. We would like to be able to look in to all the cells, to heal and make improvements. But the body is not transparent. In spite of our scanners, X-rays and DNA technology we still cannot really look inside ourselves – neither physically or psychologically.
We dream our science-fiction dreams of getting a clear insight into who we really are, and what will become of us, but at the same time we are uneasy about the potentials of transparency: are there no limits to what we want to see? Or know about ourselves? Do we really want unlimited knowledge about our wished-for children, even before they are born?
In other words, we humans are not at all transparent like glass, but we are nevertheless very concerned about seeing into ourselves – and forming ourselves – as though we were made of glass.
You are your body
Every day, around the world, we humans subject our bodies to extreme treatment in order to live up to the expectations of those around us and to our own vanity: from make-up, tight clothing, shaving, nail polish, hair dye , war paint to decorative scarring, tattoos and piercing, or pointed shoes, wax depilatories, extremely high heels, circumcision or plastic surgery and more. Your body is you, but it is also your instrument, and the basic material you can work on creatively yourself. Your body's appearance tells others who you are, and what you dream of becoming.
In earlier times, people raised marble statues of eternally young heroes with newly pressed capes and flawless physique, while hiding their own aging bodies behind embroidered fabrics, or with powder, wigs and false teeth. In our own times we still dream of eternal, marble-smooth youth, and if we have the courage – and the money – we can buy a little of it through surgery, chemistry and DNA related techniques. Then we can continue the struggle against mortal wrinkles, rolls of fat and limpness, hoping to replace them with firmness and smooth materials. Sooner or later, decay will catch up with us. We are not made of shiny, eternal materials, but of degradable organic matter. The marks of time are the destiny of humans, and of all other living creatures. Our surroundings affect our bodies, and the wear and tear reveals who we have become and how it happened. A creative way to deal with one's own bodily decay and relate to it is to expose other materials – a pane of glass for instance – to the raging of the elements, and see how the supposedly imperishable material is marked by the world, and in a way made mortal just like us.
In a work of art, the fragility of glass can make us forget for a short while that in fact it is ourselves – and not the glass – that one day will die.
As a material, glass shows practically no trace of the ravages of time, unless it is actually damaged. You cannot see whether it was made yesterday or a hundred years ago, and that is why it is such an exciting medium for artistic portrayals of eternity and timelessness, and of the present melting into the past. Like water, it reminds us of eternity, and can mirror and reflect light. In the mirror is self-reflection too. Who am I? And what am I to others? Glass is an obvious medium for working on identity. It can reflect the body (and is the material of mirrors), but in many ways it is the ideal contrast to the human body.
While the vulnerable and uncontrollable carnality of humans is perishable and always bordering on chaos, glass is on the face of it structured and beautiful, seen with human eyes. Precisely because we are accustomed to regard glass as light and beauty in solid form, it is a hazardous and challenging material to work with for an artist seeking to show that there are also darker and less beautiful sides of human existence in body and gender. Even death, deformity, suffering and pain can easily acquire a glow of eternity when embodied in the material of eternal beauty. This must be included in the thoughts of an artist who works with glass. If glass is used deliberately to break away from the viewer's expectations of clear, ethereal beauty, then the artist may be able to create a special awareness through the glass. Glass art is difficult, like a form of acrobatics, and requires strict control of temperatures, tools and chemicals. So glass is easily associated with control and expertise, reason and enlightenment. Glass is the material of windows, spectacles and other lenses, which help us to see more clearly, and of drinking glasses and laboratory flasks that promote hygiene. As a material, glass is also unpractical. It is often costly to produce and easily shattered. Even a small loss of control or fluctuation in the temperature during the manufacturing process can ruin the glass. The duality of glass bridging chaos and control reminds us of the human body's struggle for control over chaos. Effort is required for a controlled, clean and restrained body, with hair growth removed in the right places, supple muscles playing under smooth skin, and all body fluids hidden away. In the real world the soft, hot, human body gives off heat, fluids and other substances, or forms rough and crinkled surfaces in the scabs on wounds or other dried fluids, and in some ways it is hard to imagine anything more remote from the shiny, transparent cleanliness of glass. Still, when subjected by a glass artist to sudden temperature changes, and to elements like earth, sand and water, even glass can take on an almost organic appearance and reflect human skin and scabs on wounds – or dried earth, reminding us of impermanence, the risk of infection and disease or the risk from natural disasters. In other words, the transience of the body and life.
That is why glass is tempting as a provocative medium in art, for portraying the decay of life and beauty, when fine figures lose their form and become flabby or crackled. In that way glass can form monuments from deformed carnality or uncontrollable body exudates. Experiments are known from other branches of art, in which shock effects are achieved through installations where the juxtaposition of varying items transcends the normal boundaries. Something resembling genitalia, for instance, or body orifices may be inserted into decorative items or housewifely crafts (associated with womanly occupations like embroidery or cooking) and joined with soft, organic fusions representing images from different cultures of womanhood and gender, thus pushing the gender-associated daily routines to extremes. Alternatively, mysterious montages and crosses between creatures can result in disturbing plant-or-animal-people, where we cannot see which is which. The shock effect can also be achieved by body-like forms, which at first seem quite familiar, but then prove to be nightmarishly different when we come close to them, like unpredictable fetish objects with strange and uncontrollable powers.
We may also find practical everyday objects alienating or sinister in the same way when they suddenly remind us of death and the frailty of life. In the doctor's waiting room or the classroom we may suddenly meet detached anatomical fragments displayed on stands: human ribs, dissected heart chambers, abdomens or skulls. They may be educational models made of plastic, but they feel like little glimpses into one's own body. They force our gaze to transgress the borders of modesty and stare at the most intimate side of human nature - where we resemble animals most. Depending on the situation, this medically penetrating or sensual gaze at our bodies and other people's can be felt as obscene or clinically sensible, and it can reflect one's own body either as sickly or as elevated.
When we discover similar anatomical models as prostheses on living people (as glass eyes or artificial feet or hands, or as fully operational, multifunctional wheelchairs) it often arouses a mixture of inquisitive pleasure and fear: where does the human start and where does he/she end? When a human is merged with an object, the human becomes more like an object, and the object becomes animated or obscene. How did it happen? Is it infectious? Is it dangerous? Most of us know the shame of staring, feeling delighted and disgusted, and we try to take no notice... but we cannot help being reminded of the body's frailty.
Delight and fear meet in classical works of art too, where a special point was made of including little messages from death and decay amid all the vitality and beauty. We may see lifelike paintings of juicy fruits, attractively arranged with appetising bread, cheese and ham beside pretty decorations, but on closer examination it appears that a fat, shiny bluebottle fly has settled on the delicacies. And in fact the food is slowly rotting.
Behind the ephemeral beauty of a fine bouquet of fresh flowers, there may be a hidden skull, some bones, or the bleeding corpse of a songbird. Less dramatic variations on the same theme could be carefully accurate paintings of the debris dropped by chance – fruit stones, empty shells or bones – left after a meal. Sometimes the decay on these pictures is arranged in contrast with a shining glass object that reflects the light, as perfection and eternity, leading the viewer to think of the contrasts in life. The divine eternity of glass beside the transience of life provides food for thought in the same way as those naturally formed lumps of amber revealing instantaneous images of insects that were trapped millions of years ago in sticky resin, captured as they flew past, and preserved for ever in glowing, transparent amber. Is the insect in the amber the symbol of delicate frailty or of vigorous eternity? Perhaps it is both. And that is why we are so fascinated.
Glass looks like jewels, but it is made from sand.
Alexander Rosenberg, USA
Alison Lowry, Northern Ireland
Amy Krüger, Sweden
Andreeva Anastasia, Bulgaria
Anna Mlasowsky, Germany
Anva Chiazzari, South Africa
Barbara Idzikowska, Poland
Beata Stankiewicz-Szczerbik, Poland
Boris Shpeizman, Israel
Catherine Grangier, France
Cathryn Shilling, UK
Charlotte Morrison, UK
David Reekie, UK
Ditte Johansson, Sweden
Elizabeth Cote, USA
Emma Woffenden, UK
Gaëlle Villedary, France
Hartmann Greb, Germany
Heather Joy Puskarich, USA
Hélène Uffren, UK
Ilse Van Roy, Belgium
Ina Mathiasen, Denmark
Jana Hojstricová & Palo Macho, Slovakia
Jeff Ballard, USA
Jenny Ritzenhoff, The Netherlands
Jitka Havlicková, Czech Republic
Julija Pociute, Lithuania
Katrin Maurer, Austria
Libor Dolezal, Czech Republic
Lisabeth Sterling, USA
Louise Lagoni, Denmark
Lydia Boss, USA
Maria Bang Espersen, Denmark
Marina Ledrein, France
Markéta Váradiová, Czech Republic
Martina Matouskova, Czech Republic
Matilda Kästel, Sweden
Mette Colberg, Denmark
Michael Rogers, USA & Inguna Audere, Latvia
Michal Motycka, Czech Republic
Nabo Gaß, Germany
Nadege Desgenetez, Australia
Nancy Sutcliffe, UAE
Ned Cantrell, UK/Denmark
Noreen Todd, UK
Rebecca Arday, USA
Rui Sasaki, Japan
Silvia Levenson, Argentina/Italy
Susan Silver Brown, USA
Vaclav Cigler, Czech Republic
Virginia Griswold, USA
Yves Jumeau, France