Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fluid Flesh: The Body, Religion and the Visual Arts

Fluid Flesh: The Body, Religion, and the Visual Arts (Lieven Gevaert Series), Barbara Baert (Ed.), Leuven University Press, 2009

One of the things about [Christianity] is, it is a religion that’s about making things physical, about taking emotional and spiritual ideas and making them physical.
Kiki Smith – from "Kiki Smith," Helaine Posner, 1998

Based on an international cross-disciplinary symposium, this slim volume is composed of essays and several response statements divided into four chapters: the visual as a spiritual medium today; iconophilia/iconoclasm: pro-body/anti-body; the human body, religion and contemporary lifestyles; and premodern and postmodern perspectives on anatomy and the visual arts. Adding weight to the discussion is an introduction by James Elkins whose 2004 book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, has set the stage for the current upsurge of interest in this topic, from a variety of camps. Elkins offers a set of four questions as a guide to the discussions that follow. They are questions that we would do well to recall whenever we confront the body within visual art.

Jan Koenot’s essay When the Body Speaks Louder than Words launches the first chapter. Though the author begins with a comparison of the tragically peopled paintings of Francis Bacon with the sublimely sparse color fields of Mark Rothko, these are just a starting point for the thesis. A spectrum of twentieth century and contemporary artists—from Matisse and Beckmann to Laib and Viola—is summoned to support the claims of French postmodernists Derrida and Lyotard. For them, the unreliability of texts has been supplanted by the presence (or absence) of the figure. The relation of the viewer to the human elements in art, both physical and perceived, is what Koenot claims provides the religious or transcendent. Jan De Maeyer’s response to the essay probes Koenot’s ideas with a new set of questions; much like Elkins. De Maeyer wonders whether or not the human body is all we have left, after the attempts of philosophers have left us back at square one. De Maeyer even questions if there ever was or could be a true "religious art." The religious framework has more to do with a time and place, but all art consists of elements that reside outside of the religious.

Diane Apostolos-Cappadona leads off the second chapter with a compelling contrast of the role of the body within the Christian religious art traditions of the East and West, through the formats of icons and relics, respectively. In both cases, the presence of the human figure in religious works gains credence from the incarnation of Christ himself. Grace is imparted through the "window into eternity" of the icon, but also through the effluvia (blood, milk, and tears) related to Christ and the saints. These elements run through the entire essay, though related topics of gender conceptions and northern and southern European body images in art are intriguing side notes. The response by Ralph Dekoninck focuses more on the problem of body representation in Judeo-Christian tradition. He also comments on the contemporary uses of effluvia by artists, often in ways that are meant to replace the conference of grace with debasement.

The third section, by Regina Ammicht-Quinn, emphasizes the peculiar relationship contemporary cultures have with the body. The essay starts with an analysis of a couple artworks from the late fifteenth century that explore the dual roles of the body as the vessel of sin and redemption. This moves into a discussion of how the ideas of duality from antiquity impacted Christian thought, which in turn has influenced contemporary views of the body. This vacillates between a disregard for the health of the physical body on one hand, with an inordinate attention to the body through obsessive dieting, exercise and cosmetics on the other. Renaat Devisch’s response pays particular attention the gender disparities mentioned in Ammicht-Quinn’s work, both in contemporary lifestyles and religious traditions.

Catrien Santing’s essay in the final chapter connects the traditions of anatomical reliquaries of premodern Christianity with the work of several contemporary artists. The emphasis on the actual body, as found in the performative body art of Orlan, complements the theories of French philosopher Michel Onfray, whose work Santing claims welcomes the carnal. Santing delves into the relic-like objects by artists Kiki Smith, as well, finding in them a link from our postmodern times to a mysticism long past.

The final chapter is finished, not with a response, but another fresh essay by Ann-Sophie Lehmann. This fascinating text explores the subject of the lack of prominent female genitalia in the Western tradition. Even fully nude female figures, according to Lehmann, lack representative anatomy. The essay, like many in Fluid Flesh, attacks the subject from outside the field of art history. This approach, a cornerstone of the symposium, makes the dialogue of the book engaging and more wide reaching than theories posited solely from the art historical community.


techne said...

sounds like an intriguing addition to the conversation around images and spirituality...

reminds me of some of the subject matter found in zone books' fragments for a history of the human body as well as iconoclash: beyond the image wars in science, religion and art.

Musings on Contemporary Art & Artists said...

Yes, "Iconoclash" is a wonderful compilation of essays. My copy is currently in storage, so it may be some time before I write a review on that book.

techne said...

lucky you!

i'm still trying to find a copy for myself that is affordable...