At museums, we are used to only involving our eyes and our feet. We walk from painting to photograph, passively keeping art at a distance; we keep our arms folded, casually lingering at each work long enough to seem like we really see it. In this way, our bodies are safe from the art: we see photographs, figures and realizations of others, while we remain voyeurs only. Exquisite Corpus: Interacting with the Fragmented Body, however, an exhibition by the History Art Majors’ Society (HAMS) which opened at the Johnson on Saturday, tries to explore definitions of the body beyond the breadth of other collections. In its exploration of the body through art, Exquisite Corpus seeks to pull us, the visitors, from our bleary non-involvement — that usual mindless walk. Through the chosen works and selected interventions, the exhibition affects a self-consciousness of our own bodies.
The HAMS Exhibit, run by nine student curators, attempts firstly to frame the body with traditionally non-interactive works dealing with dissection, sexuality and reflection. The art chosen for the exhibit spans a variety of styles, eras and mediums. Some of these pieces are especially effective in soliciting involvement from the visitor, such as Joey in my bathtub, Sag Harbor, a photograph by Nan Goldin. The photograph portrays a female friend of the artist masturbating in the bathtub; however, the actual act is obscured by the cloudiness of the water. The photograph’s unexpected intimacy contrasts with the graphic nature of stereotypical pornography, somewhat eliminating the visual shock of genitalia. The accompanying essay, written by Society members Alexandra Olson ’09 and Laurel Garber ’10, suggests that “Joey’s act of pleasure is hidden from the viewer which heightens the sexuality and eroticism of the entire piece.”
Rem Koolhaas, the architect obsessed with popular culture, has written about censored Japanese pornography so that genitals are pixilated and unrecognizable. To him, this obstruction is like an architectural “void”— what is missing is actually more poignant than full disclosure. Other works in the exhibition explore this theme, such as video art Conversions — in which, as described by Olson and Garber, “Vito Acconci hides his genitalia in order to obscure his masculinity.” Both pieces involve the visitor directly: it is art in conjunction with our own imagination that reveals the body, not the art alone.
The comprehensive essays by the Society fully explore this scenario; the visitor is personally, rather than passively, affected by the art. Stefanie Hirsh ’09 writes in introduction, “These works directly confront the spectator, […] because it helps to remind the visitor that he or she has never been able to perceive his or her body in the way that it exists in the real world; one cannot simultaneously view front and back sides of the body.” She speaks to another aspect of the exhibition — the dissected nature of the “exquisite corpse” which allows for a new understanding of the body.
In John Coplans’ shocking Self-Portrait (Frieze No. 3, Two Panels) we see the naked, hairy, bulging torso and legs of the artist from the front and from behind. Commenting on the traditional Greek heroic bodies and modern, flawless tanned models usually on photographic display, John Coplans forces us to consider ourselves — what flaws must exist at 3:1 scale? Similarly, Black Mirror, by Sherrie Levine, has us gazing at ourselves in warped, colorless reflection. The accompanying essay by Marie MacDougall ’08 tells us the black mirrors were historically used for landscape painting; we find that our own unlikely image is now a part of the narrative work.
However, the stated intent of the curators goes beyond the choice of body-related art. HAMS also provoked self-consciousness through two interventions that required touch and interaction. Vote, the first work by Blue Couch Collaborative, poses a question: “Are you A) a construction of molecules, or B) a heart and soul in a bag of skin?” Replies were in the format of colored slips in a plexi-glass case. The second intervention, Snap, comments on the original surrealist exquisite corpus exercise. The exhibition prompted visitors to photograph a part of their own bodies which would be compiled over the length of the exhibition to become composite bodies of joined Polaroids. During the opening, a pair of girls in bright skirts and leggings photographed each other smiling — from the self-conscious, closed smile of someone who knows this documentation will be up on display, to the toothy grin of shared disclosure. This intervention was the most likely to make the visitor self-conscious of his or her own body; it moved art from a work on the wall, and inverted it full-frontal to gaze upon the voyeur.
At Exquisite Corpus, we move from being uninvolved observers, arms crossed and eyes glazed, to being provocateurs ourselves — snapping pictures of our feet, our smiles, our hands and eyes and muffin tops. The exhibit is successful in its efforts to move beyond a traditional exhibition: from art that provokes us into self-consciousness of our own bodies, to interactive exhibits that leave us intent on viewing the body in new ways.
Catch Exquisite Corpus at the Johnson through June 15th.