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Bodies in my Mirror

Maybe it’s not such a big mistake to think that the notions Sally O’Reilly addresses in her book The Body in Contemporary Art are somehow linked to the idea that photography barely survives in certain Arab countries. In them, photography is still compared, by the majority, to the image reflected on a mirror.1 One of the principles upheld in O’Reilly’s book is considering the human body –from the social, cultural, emotional and intellectual point of view– an entity that surpasses its numerous contexts, that reflects them and are reflected on them.

Sally O’Reilly’s work initially sought to study the relations between contemporary art and the human body by analyzing works by artists born or living in different countries. The collection of materials (251 illustrations, of which 202 are in full color and that go from painting to installation, from sculpture to video or performance) reveals a concern over the body as a continent that shows the place of the subject, representations of time and space, her notions concerning identity and/or her recurrent concern over differences.

The study covers the period from the 1990s to our days, although more than once it is forced to go back to earlier times and the imbrications of the past. Like some sort of preamble, the art critic, who collaborates with Art Monthly, Frieze and Time Out, agrees that the subject in question, treated in multiple ways and impossible to be removed from the world of art and viewers, must be re-studied and re-valued in its role of generator of artistic practices, in its fragility and power as means of expression and hence a tool for aesthetic and sociological research. It’s no wonder then O’Reilly recalls in her introduction the roads that in that sense were drawn by feminist works from the 1970s and turns the spotlight on ironic and neo-conceptual clues or those loaded with the “heroic formalism” that developed later.

It’s interesting how she reviews works boasting very personal poetics, the enriching bond interweaved between one and other and the door she opens as she admits beforehand that she wouldn’t be able to take up the work of lots of artists and that the most common element shared by the pieces in the book is the impact of the human body on the world in general. According to the analyst, artists were selected taking into account the points in common of certain works –or their artistic practice in general– and the broad topics addressed in the different chapters. She puts forward lines for reflection so that readers have the joy to explore them in the light of other examples that she didn’t analyzed. It’s rather about providing possible reading guides.

It’s worth noticing, along the six chapters making up the book, the firm belief and proof provided that the limit between the human body and the world is highly changeable and often pretty hard to identify and/or define. Truth is that these demarcation lines must be established taking into account roles, relations and social contexts. That is why the assay disregards analysis by gender or employed means, exploring instead relations with myths, technology, spirituality, psychology, history…the human body of the artist, the subject or the viewer.

The first chapters focus on the different ways the body is expressed and perceived in relation to time and space as an efficient representation tool. The radical repositioning of the body –of models, as well artists and viewers– is highlighted in a way that the exposed elements abandon their immobility becoming active and the axis of change and authority.

Interesting in this section is the series of Melanie Manchot’s photos of nudes of her mother, which powerfully question the ideal nude and invades the private space through the creator’s theories about “upset” that can always be translated not only as discomfort or shock [sic]. The study of Ursula Martinez’ politically incorrect work and its theatrical effects, especially Hanky Panky, the strip-tease that toured the world thanks to the Internet and which she was careful enough not to reproduce it in strip-tease clubs or before a fully male audience, have also found a place in these pages. Ethnographic Series by Pushpamala N. and Clare Arni, shatters myths about ethnicity and unveils discrimination and colonization processes on individuals who have been exiled, cast aside, or judged based on western patterns for a long time.

Worth noting are also the analysis of the fantastic-realistic work of A. Goicolea, a Cuban-American photographer whose many possibilities from numeric duplication and the different expressions typical of adolescents create an atmosphere at least very disturbing; and the distressing performance by Yugoslavian Marina Abramovic. Her periods in the MoMA have made her known as she inflicts pain and involves her body in rituals that shake the physical and metal potential, going from flagellation to the loss of conscience with the purpose of documenting protests. Guatemalan Reina Jose Galindo is also brought to the limelight, with her feet covered in her own blood after submitting herself to hard tests bring out the most evident metaphor of political violence. In this section, we miss the presence of one part of Teresa Margolles’ work, who also denounces, frequently through minimal and overwhelming practices, intimidations, aggressions and codes of horror in Latin American scenarios.

The common element in the following chapters is the multiple trasvestisms that show the impact of social, psychological, cultural and political factors on the experiences of the body. O’Reilly analyses the way artists tackle social political problems, particularities, multiplicities and remarkable differences within certain groups. She brings to her pages Judith Butler’s conclusions endorsing that gender is a never-ending performance. O’Reilly’s reconstruction of feminist discourses of the 1970s and her explicit goal of finishing with totalizing ideas on race and gender is quite lucid.

A Time to Love by photographer and cultural activist Sunil Gupta appears as a symbolic exercise of a fragmentation in which there is a multitude of artists whose identities are never revealed and find their meaning just in pieces of bodies and hurting corners that evoke what O’Reilly has called “a secret way of life”. A Time to Love is the continuity of other series that are not included in this book, such as Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology, 1990, and Pictures from Here (2003), almost an autobiographic work and, at the same time, the bridge that leads to Wish You Were Here: memories of a Gay Life, 2008, and that shows the integrality and coherence of this artist.

The analysis of the body in close contact and interaction with sociocultural and historical strings can be found in the image of the representation of Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña.

Fusco’s personal work could have been chosen to demonstrate the different theses of the analysis under the title “Difference and solidarity”. Rights of Passage designed for the Johannesburg Biennial or The Last Wish for the Tejadillo Gallery, in Cuba, both in 1997, could be good examples. Nevertheless, O’Reilly selected Two undiscovered Amerindians visit Madrid, made jointly with Gomez-Peña (whose personal work is represented here). The celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of the Americas might have influenced her choice, very wise certainly. Or perhaps the importance just lies in Fusco’s sharing of his work with Gomez-Peña, who is a legendary artist in the performance field, and the social scope of the exercise as such. I hope a future extended edition of the essays includes, along with this one, Fusco’s project around women war interrogators.

Archetypes, political stereotypes have a strong presence in the work of Cameroonian Samuel Fosso who had previously paid a heartfelt homage to great African figures in his prized African Spirit. The images selected by O’Reilly make up the universe now in color of the artist who, at the beginning, was defined just by black and white. In the same section –to call it somehow– falls the work of Santiago Sierra: “Economical study of the skin of Caracans”, 2006, in which from pictures of people’s skins who said to have, without distinction, a thousand dollars, a million or zero, different tones in the scale of grays were established, and black and white shades were reached in a radical geopolitical context, thus revealing some of the possible social roles of the artist.

The works grouped under the title “Nature, myth, technology” take a course that shows at times the body’s oneiric capabilities mixed with several believes. An example is Más fuerte nos protegen mejor by Marta Maria Perez that O’Reilly interprets as a call to greater spirituality in life through the performance of certain rituals.

Further down, the book goes into the work of artists like Marta de Menezes, the Portuguese woman who has centered her art in the biotechnological field. It shows the brain representation of an art historian as he contemplates a Renaissance painting. The bonds between art and biology have been featured by the artist in some other of her works. Let’s recall Nucleart (not included in this essay), in which the creator displays DNA fibers filmed in motion, showing a very peculiar relation between the object and the viewers.

Bio-arte, still young, continues to emerge, polemical. Within it, like inside the realms of transgenic art, telepresence, etc, it makes reference to Genesis by Eduardo Kac, where a passage from the Bible is translated along a DNA sequence. Let’s keep in mind that two years before producing this work, Kac had had an implant –in a procedure broadcasted life on Brazilian television– of a microchip so that his body were registered in a data base for animal identification. Of course Kac’s “Biblical passage” is well-nigh unbeatable in the technological sense but regarding inner and sociological movements, in a certain way it could remind us of Leon Ferrari’s, absent as well in this book, “catholic rereading” polemics.

The world of irrationality, monstrous bodies, histories of half-human half-animal creatures, petrified human beings looking for beauty or the deep symbolization of grotesque figures have also a place in the study of hyperrealist, fascinating and controversial sculptures by much-admired Patricia Piccinini where social powers, communication and human condition reach high artistic value, and the works of brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, iconoclasts, perpetuators of grotesque. The Chapman brothers, creators of plastic and fiberglass works mark the history of what has been created under situations of tortures and pornography, exploring the universes of pain and pleasure, sometimes mixed.

The use of ketchup and chocolate as symbols of addictive consumption used to simulate blood and fecal materials are linked to Santa Claus figures and other characters from Paul Mc Carthy’s work who sets them in acts that are neither innocent nor festive at all, on the contrary, they are quite wicked.

In this chapter centered on “monstrous bodies” the author shows and analyzes A perfect Day by Mauricio Cattelan, which shows, also in an iconoclast approach, a gallery owner crucified up against a wall, “nailed” with scotch tape in an open act of change of role. Interesting–no wonder– that precisely this was the image chosen for the cover of O’Reilly’s book.

The last section leans towards the observation of the body as an acting agent, producer of sensations and emotions, in interaction with the environment. The author studies the means of communication and spreading handled by the artists to achieve double meaning relations between the work of art and its context, between the creator and the public. The empathy linked to physiological order and used to produce an impact on the audience, the performances related to collective experiences, complicity, a look to theatrical gestures, are exemplified in Lazaro Saavedra’s work.

The analysis sections are rounded up with O’Reilly’s viewpoints on the reactions induced in the viewers. She sets her eyes on participative performances centered on provocations by the artists to create a two-way street that the creator and the viewer can take in order to break down assumptions of an impassive public, carrying on their shoulders the burden of ambiguities and re-readings of intellectual and sensorial experiences.

One could have guessed Sally O’Reilly’s conclusions in The Body in Contemporary Art by since the beginning of the book. Nonetheless, the fact that the author documents them once again in the last pages is neither trivial nor cheap. Her study proves that all the different ways in which the body is used in art can work –and do work– and have a powerful impact, provide evidence of an effect that can be compared to what this critic calls “lived experience.” We all certainly know what she is talking about. We should agree in that though it’s impossible (not that it is in our interest) to draw an exact lineal, chronological map of the representations of the body from the origins to the present, it is quite clear and explicitly demonstrated by O’Reilly, that we have always been –and will always be– directly involved in all the eventual sketches and symbols of those bodies that even when they are not our own, they too are.

Laura Ruiz Montes