Friday, December 17, 2010

Boundaries of the Body ?

Margolles, 'Aire,'

It has become both fashionable and necessary to talk about the body - its capacities and its limitations. The study of material culture debates the possible symbolism of the tattoo, biochemistry examines cancer cell growth under a microscope, or psychological studies measure and try to comprehend instances of anorexia. We can view the body as a vehicle, both physically and mentally, towards understanding the way we interact to create meanings in relation to issues of life and death. Teresa Margolles' art works focus
more on death, but in doing this, she makes the viewer more aware of what comes before it - life. During a weekend trip to Bristol I stumbled upon an exhibition at the Arnolfini gallery called 'What next for the body?' and Margolles' installations left a residue. 

There were no actual bodies present in the gallery spaces used by Margolles, just markers that deaths had occurred, leaving our imaginations to wonder how and why - or what these bodies may have looked like. In 'Aire' Margolles uses a whole room of the gallery to install two humidifier machines filled with disinfected water which was used to wash bodies before autopsy. Once inside the room the viewer feels and breathes in the vapour and through this kinaesthesia, becomes aware of their own sentient present state and of the absence of former lives. There is no 'piece of art' in formal or formalist terms here but the action and subsequent reaction of the viewer constitutes a uniquely evocative experience. We are forced to engage with death. I thought I could smell something putrid or unfamiliar but I wasn't sure if it was the disinfectant or something incidental. What was most disturbing was not knowing either way. Arguably, art works which work with dead people cross boundaries which need to be explained and justified. But the explanations in the accompanying leaflets were kept to a minimum. It is possible that in doing this Margolles was gesturing to the ambiguities of death itself and of how our understanding of death cannot be confined by language systems. It felt like she was trying to shock.

The ethics of using dead bodies for the purpose of art works seems to be a blurry issue. In '37 Cuerpos', Margolles uses another room of the gallery to hang a long line of 37 different pieces of string which have been tied together. Each piece of thread had been used to sew up a corpse after autopsy but in this case it was highlighted that these bodies had suffered violent deaths. The threads appeared to be blood stained if you looked closely but without the accompanying text you wouldn't know their origin. No confirmation was provided that the relatives of the deceased had given their permission to use these threads and, needless to say, the deceased themselves could not have granted it as their dying wish (as they could if they had been terminally ill). Again, this adds to the shock factor of the art work. The body's boundaries are explored in multiple ways: the physical parameters in terms of the whole body and its associated or dismembered substances, the separation of the physical and the mental including the memory of the dead in the minds of the living and the ethical concerns around preserving these memories and of human sanctity. Margolles appears to ask whether there is such a thing and she asks it coldly and almost silently, reinforcing the chilling nature of the exhibits and their possible
meaninglessness. This is her artistic style. It is Conceptual because as well as considering the body's boundaries she also challenges art's boundaries. Some visitors would rather she didn't. I wasn't impressed at the time but I discussed it at length with a material culture scholar this week. This must mean that there's a place for it and the questions it raises for contemporary culture. Art used to be sacred. But this was only allowed via the bodies or icons depicted within it. Art in the 21C gives all art forms and all bodies a chance.

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