Royal British Society of Sculptors

My feature on current trends at the Royal British Society of Sculptors, written for World Sculpture News. (Some of the picture captions have not translated into the PDF, sadly)

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Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan at the Wellcome Collection

Somewhat belatedly, here is my feature, written for Asian Art News, on the Wellcome Collection’s “Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan” show which ran from 28th March – 30th June 2013.


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Descartes at the Circus: Views of the Brute Creation in Performance

Marius Kwint Circus Symposium image 880
I have vivid memories from my childhood of the television adverts for PG Tips, featuring anthropomorphised chimpanzees drinking tea and talking, voiced by actors. These adverts were first aired in the 1950s and ran, perhaps surprisingly, until 2001, despite complaints in the ‘70s from animal rights groups. In response to new sensibilities, the becostumed simians were replaced ten years ago by claymation versions and more recently a puppet. Indeed, the PG chimps would hardly be tolerated now, at a time when “No animals were harmed during the making of this film” is a familiar disclaimer.

These cultural indices suggest how the attitude to the treatment of performing animals has shifted in the last 70-odd years and more generally how our relationship to animals has – in some respects – become ever more ‘enlightened’. The same may be said of the evolution of the modern circus. Increasingly, major circuses touring the UK focus on human acrobatic and gymnastic skills, and animal-free circuses seem to be becoming the norm globally.

With these developments in mind it is hard to conceive that the early development of the modern circus in the last quarter of the 18th century has been credited not just with reflecting an increasingly sympathetic attitude towards animals, but with actually shaping it. This intriguing thesis was the subject of a symposium hosted on 13th November by London’s GV Art gallery, organised by the charity Art and Mind and presented by Marius Kwint, Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture at the University of Portsmouth.

Dr. Kwint outlined the foundations of the modern circus as a product of late 18th century England, emerging primarily from the racecourse – trick riding was at the centre of this burgeoning form of popular entertainment. Despite the traditional connection between horse riding and the nobility, the circus performers tended to be from a plebeian background, including the widely acknowledged ‘father’ of the modern circus, Phillip Astley, who opened his first riding venue in 1768 near the present Waterloo Station. Trick riding was soon supplemented by other elements that rapidly became familiar staples of the circus – clowns, ringmasters, dancers and performing animals.

Anthropomorphised animals became an increasingly common feature of the entertainment. Putting the tea-drinking chimps to shame, examples included the marvellous spectacle of dogs dressed up to perform a canine re-enactment of the storming of the Bastille. The Learned Pig was another member of the circus cast, who appeared to read from cards placed on the floor of the stage. Though this prompted the symposium guests to chuckle it had apparently provoked a profound realisation in one contemporary witness, as reported by children’s writer Sarah Trimmer in 1788:

“I have,” said a lady who was present, “been for a long time accustomed to consider animals as mere machines, actuated by the unerring hand of Providence…but the sight of the Learned Pig, which has lately been shown in London, has deranged these ideas and I know not what to think.”

‘Deranged’ is a telling term that suggests how the normal hierarchies of nature were reversed, wherein brute nature was apparently raised above its usual status in creation. Here was a confusing vision of animal/human relations that no longer conformed to the simple order in which animals were firmly set within man’s dominion. Dancing dogs and erudite swine seemed to destabilise the still widely influential account of animals, expounded by Descartes, as nothing more than insentient automata.

Dr. Kwint discussed how cultural production, in the form of the circus, both reflected and shaped a more sympathetic sensibility towards animals, which was partly mirrored in the enlightened rationalism of the age and the development of the brain sciences. Animals were increasingly understood as more than mere machines programmed to behave according to divine dictate. Moreover, cultivating a humane sympathy with animals was becoming an index of good citizenship.

The age of Romanticism, with its emphasis on nature as sublime and untamed, further encoded the changes in the human appraisal of animals. Artists such as George Stubbs, Gericault and Delacroix showed an aestheticised appreciation of the primal power of these unbridled animals. The horse, regarded as a noble species, was used as a metaphorical expression to depict emotional states – racing, in flight, or being attacked by wild animals. Once more, a form of anthropomorphisation further emphasised the affinities between man and beasts. Mazeppa, Byron’s Romantic narrative poem featuring a young man punished for his love affair by being tied to a wild horse which is then let loose, found its expression at Astley’s Amphitheatre to melodramatic effect. Other equestrian dramas flourished, including productions of a variety of Shakespearean plays such as Macbeth, Othello, and, aptly, Richard III.

Intriguingly, the early circus did not only employ animals as performers; it also provided demonstrations of good practice in animal training and husbandry. In so doing the circus conveyed its credentials as a civilising form of entertainment for an enlightened age (with respect for land and property, and all the power and authority invested in them). This contrasts with other popular forms of entertainment of the age such as football and fairgrounds which were regarded with suspicion and hostility, associated with vice, disorder and laziness. Such demonstrations, particular those relating to the care and instruction of horses, were intimately bound up with a system of symbolic values that helped to provide the circus with the cultural legitimacy it needed to survive. Excellent care and breeding of horses were signifiers of a sophisticated hierarchy of social status, wealth, gentility and style, and the horses themselves were symbols of the nobility of such values.

The circus appearances were therefore invested with polyvalent meanings. On the one hand trained and tamed by man to perform obediently, on the other increasingly understood as more than brutes subject to domination: animals became endowed with their own kind of intelligence, their affinity to mankind promising harmony, yet simultaneously suggesting a stable hierarchy turned upside down. Learned pigs, dancing dogs, noble genteel steeds or wild tempestuous stallions: circus animals (and their depictions in visual culture) performed within a complex web of connotations reflecting contemporary tensions in the understanding of human/animal relations.

It seems that these relationships are destined to become ever more complex and ambiguous. Whilst contemporary attitudes to domestic animals suggest that the relationship has developed into a role involving emotional support akin to that of a friend or family member, at the same time, scientific and technical innovations are changing animals’ roles in the field of biomedicine, particularly in the sourcing of organs and cells for researching, controlling and curing human disease. It would make a fascinating subject for a future symposium: the consideration of how such developments are altering the symbolic representation of animals and, indeed, vice-versa.

This article was originally published in the Journal of Wild Culture.

Image credit: Oberlin College Archives

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Sculpture Shock at the Royal British Society of Sculptors

If the Royal British Society of Sculptors “Sculpture Shock” award is anything to go by, the contemporary British sculpture scene looks to be in rude health and its future bright. Last Wednesday, 7th November, the RBSS announced the winners of its Sculpture Shock award, a prize of £3,000 to the winner in each of three categories (‘Historic’, ‘Ambulatory’, and ‘Subterranean’) and a three-month residency spent in the late Dame Elisabeth Frink’s former studio in Chelsea. Each residency will culminate, as the RBSS website states, in a “surprising spatial intervention in one of three non-traditional spaces”.

‘Spatial intervention’ is a deliberately more expansive term than the more conventional ‘sculpture’, and testifies to the much more elastic and often highly invigorating practices now common in the realm of 3-dimensional art. Certainly two of the winners produce works that push at the limits of what we conventionally understand to be sculpture. The winner of the Subterranean category, David Ogle, whose piece Linear UV Drawing was amongst the most exciting and compelling at this year’s Kinetica Art Fair, has been making works from fishing wire and ultra violet light that seem to incarnate drawn lines, travelling weightlessly through space. The Ambulatory category was won by Amy Sharrocks, whose recent work includes participatory events such as Swim, in which 50 members of the public swam across London from Tooting Bec Lido to Hampstead Heath Ponds. Nika Neelova, who won the Historic category – where an intervention will be made on a “historic and illustrious building” – makes sculptures within more traditional parameters such as her spectacular Partings (pictured below), shown in Somerset House as part of the Crisis Commission earlier this year. Her installations, often using reclaimed, ruined or burnt materials, are saturated in memory, history, loss and dissolution.

08005. David Ogle, 2011, flourescent fishing line and ultraviolet light, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the RBSS

SWIM. Amy Sharrocks, 2007. Image courtesy of the RBSS

Partings. Nika Neelova, 2012, Somerset House door cast in concrete, reclaimed and burnt timber, wood, 200 x 300 x 400 cm. Image courtesy of the RBSS

The themes of the three residencies are wonderfully broad, polyvalent subjects offering the prospect of exciting, wide-ranging interpretations. Indeed some of the most intriguing and challenging sculptural works of the last few decades would sit easily within these frameworks – the ambulatory work of Richard Long; the intervention upon the historic Reichstag building by Christo and Jeanne-Claude; the bold “Monument against Fascism” by Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz which was lowered underground over time until it disappeared entirely.  The assured and compelling nature of the three winners’ work suggests that they will realise similarly exciting and thought-provoking outcomes.

The jury, including the President of the RBSS, Terry New and the art critic and author, Richard Cork, emphasized the extraordinary strength of the shortlist, the engagement and eloquence of the nine finalists and the difficult challenge of having to choose the winners. I would identify one of the other finalists, Joanna Sperryn-Jones, as another one to watch closely. The experience of breaking her collarbone inspired her interest in the themes of making and breaking and the fragility of the human body. Her fascinating works often involve destruction as part of their evolution and execution, in which the public themselves are invited to participate in the violent process of destruction –an uneasy and discomfiting role inspiring all sorts of questions – amongst them about received wisdoms about the value of art and the sanctity of creative production.

Breaking (at the beginning of the artwork), Joanna Sperryn-Jones, 2008, bone china cast twigs, 240 x 400 x 30 cm. Image courtesy of the RBSS

Sculpture Shock is curated by Claire Mander.

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Exploring Gypsy and Traveller identities: Roma-Sinti-Kale-Manush at Autograph ABP

In February of this year, a storm of controversy raged around Channel 4’s poster campaign advertising the second series of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”, which featured the strapline “Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier.” The London Gypsy and Traveller Unit expressed their concern – and that of those it represents – that this crass slogan was a pejorative and vulgarising depiction of the Gypsy communities, and furthermore argued that the first series was far from the nuanced exploration of Gypsy lifestyles that Channel 4 claimed it to be.

These debates highlight the importance of Autograph ABP Gallery’s new exhibition, Roma-Sinti-Kale-Manush. It aims to offer a subtle exploration of these diverse communities, their cultures, and the conditions in which they live. Several of the artists exhibited here, notably Nigel Dickinson, Cristiano Berti, Alfredo Jaar and duo Yervant Giankian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, achieve this aim in compelling and moving photograph and video work. Others, such as Elisabeth Blanchet, Josef Koudelka and William Ropp, offered more problematic representations of their subjects.

Nigel Dickinson, David, his brother and brother in law, at the dinner table for Orthodox Catholic Christmas meal, Belgrade, Serbia. 7 January 2004

Nigel Dickinson’s series of photographs are highly individuated portraits with detailed captions, offering a three-dimensional perspective on Roma people across the world. These portraits are very direct portrayals of ordinary people in ordinary situations, shown confidently on their own turf. They feel true to life, and real – to the degree that any photograph can be said to depict the ‘real’ – and unmediated by a mythologizing or romanticising lens.

Cristiano Berti’s work Lety, composed of both video and photographic work, documents the voyage undertaken by two Romani singers, siblings František Ďuďa and Martina Ďuďová, to take part in a commemoration of the Holocaust held near the site of a concentration camp where 1,309 Romani were interned during WWII. The video piece, whose subtitles conveyed the sometimes melancholy reflections of the brother and sister on their life – made all the more challenging by physical disability – and their relationship, also included footage of them singing some traditional Roma songs. It was a great pity that – at least when I visited – the soundtrack was not turned on, as this would undoubtedly have enormously enriched the poignant story of these two singers.

Video still. Alfredo Jaar, Du Voyage, Des Gens, 2011 Film with sound, 3’ 23’’ Courtesy of Galerie Kamel Mennour, Paris

Meanwhile happily Alfredo Jaar’s video piece, Du voyage, des gens, was equipped with headphones. In this short work the camera focused on an anonymous Roma woman sitting on a busy square playing a violin-like instrument, with the soundtrack looping the monotonic lament with unremitting repetitive urgency – at times almost unbearable to hear. Passers-by ignore her while close-ups show her impassive face. Towards the end the camera pulls out showing the front façade of the Pompidou Centre, filling the screen, while the Roma woman is reduced virtually to a pin-prick, dwarfed by the Pompidou’s imposing architecture. This powerful depiction of the ignored outsider takes its name from a twist on former President Sarkozy’s description of the Roma people living in illegal camps on the Parisian outskirts (‘Les gens du voyage’, or people who travel) whom he ordered to be repatriated in 2010.

Four video works by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi are compelling, dreamlike montages featuring four different traveller communities. Nocturne, shot in Yugoslavia in 1995, shows a community/family party where music is playing and women dance amongst seated guests. The handheld camera jerkily and surreptitiously records the events from outside the building, blurred through apparently rain-spattered glass or plastic. Here the roles are reversed as we, the viewers, are the ignored outsiders, exiled from the cohesive group within, looking upon the vision of a community unified in celebration. In the three pieces that followed, from the Frammenti Elettrici (Electric Fragments) series, edited and manipulated archival footage feature people on the move in pre-war 1970’s Afghanistan, a colonial hunt along “Gypsies Road” in India from the 1930’s, and Gypsies returning to post-war Italy in the 1940’s. In all three the heavily slowed down frame rate, tinting and framing adjustments all serve to compel the viewer to really examine these images, to carefully observe the usually ignored or disparaged people on whom they focus, to reflect upon how they portray their subjects and the often nefarious ends to which such images have been put, exoticising their subjects as an alien ‘Other’ or emphasizing prejudicial attitudes.

The exhibition features a number of magnificent works by Josef Koudelka, a Magnum photographer who spent 8 years taking portraits the Gypsies of his native Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s. These black and white portraits are masterful and exquisitely beautiful; they give a uniquely personal insight into the community they depict but their romanticized, aestheticized perspective on people living impoverished and downtrodden lives is unsettling. One portrait, Gypsy, Svima, Slovakia, is a painterly photograph of an uncommonly beautiful, naked child with tousled black hair, which irresistably put me in mind of a Renaissance putto.

William Ropp, Untitled, North Slovakia Spring 2011

William Ropp’s portraits, pigment prints on aluminium, are also highly aestheticized portraits with a quasi-religious sensibility which left a bad taste in my mouth. I fail to see what such images, whose unusual technique rendered them unnecessarily melodramatic and impotently contrived, tell us about their subjects.

Elisabeth Blanchet’s photographs of Romany Gypsies and Irish travellers in the UK, were equally troubling. They immediately reminded me of “Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”, which I had not seen but the furore surrounding which I was well aware of. Subsequently I have learned that Blanchet’s photographs were those used in the poster campaign – but as she explains on her website, the slogan was added without her prior knowledge and to her absolute dismay. But even without the slogan I find these images problematic. Unlike Nigel Dickinson’s work, Blanchet’s portraits focus attention on the stereotypical and superficial aspects of their subjects, who play so knowingly and exaggeratedly to the camera, that the pictures possess an outlandish, pantomimic feel. Rather than gaining insight into people’s lives, I feel these photographs offer a theatrical spectacle that only distances the viewer from the subjects.

Despite its less edifying elements this was an absorbing, thought-provoking exhibition with compelling work of real substance. At a time when, as Amnesty International reports, Roma people are ‘existing predominantly on the margins of society [and] are among the most deprived communities in Europe’; at a time when the disparaging terms “Gippo” and “Pikey” are still used freely in both school playgrounds and amongst adults alike, it couldn’t be more pertinent.

Roma-Sinti-Kale-Manush is open from 25 May – 28 July 2012 at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place.

This review was originally published on Urban Times here.


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William Utermohlen Retrospective, GV Art

The last time I wept at an exhibition was probably at the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust display a decade ago. I don’t recall ever being moved to tears by an exhibition of art; this unprecedented event occurred at last week’s opening of the William Utermohlen retrospective at GV Art.

William Utermohlen is best known for the late work produced after his devastating diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 62 (his family suspects the first signs were already showing some 6 years earlier). Against clinical expectation he continued to draw and paint for 7 years after his diagnosis, encouraged by the clinicians in whose care he was placed. The work has proved to be an invaluable source of insight for neuroscientific study and has been widely exhibited at institutions particularly within the ‘art/science’ realm.

Blue Skies, William Utermohlen. Oil on canvas, 152 x 122 cm, 1995. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

But much more than this, the late works have an enormous and enduring power to move. The painting Utermohlen completed after his diagnosis, Blue Skies, shows a man whose world has become untethered; the furniture blends seamlessly into the mustard background, offering no weight or stability; he clings to the table and coffee cup as if in a desperate effort to anchor himself; the skylight opens onto a dark, forboding, featureless sky, offering no sense of solace or liberty from the prison in which the beleagured figure is trapped. The sketch entitled Desperate Figure from the same year is exhibited nearby, showing a man in a similar but even more inconsolable pose. It is a truly distressing portrayal of psychological agony.

Desperate Figure, William Utermohlen. Pencil, 1995, 29.5 x 21 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

The drawings exhibited in one of the lower galleries from 1995-6, Self-portrait with cat, Double self-portrait and Self-portrait (scowling) are intense studies of Utermohlen’s emotional state soon after his diagnosis, revealing resignation, anger and a deep sense of loss. Other sketches, such as Car Driver (1996) and Twisted Figure and Chair (1997) show his steady physical deterioration through the loss of motor skills. He represents himself like a featureless dummy, whose soft, twisted and useless limbs can no longer be properly manipulated. They speak of a body almost at war with itself as it becomes increasingly crippled by illness. These works bear witness to a slow, excruciating fragmentation of mind, body and spirit, leading to the eventual and complete effacement of self, most evident in Erased Self Portrait (1999). The angry scratchings out evident in this work possess, like Self Portrait (Green) a powerfully Baconian resonance, an artist who intrigued Utermohlen throughout his life and whose figures inhabit a similarly hellish world as Utermohlen’s.

The arrangement of these works alongside those from the decades before his illness shows with great clarity the fragmentation of both body and soul which preoccupied Utermohlen throughout his career. Physical and mental traumas sustained through war, political repression and – in the case of the great Dante cycle – deviation from a medieval moral order – are on view throughout the gallery. Displayed upstairs is Utermohlen’s response to Canto XXIV of Dante’s Inferno, The Dust Again, portrays a key sinner – thief Vanni Fucci – in Dante’s epic poem, whose punishment is a snakebite that causes him to be incinerated, but whose form is then reconstituted in order to suffer the same punishment for all eternity. At the figure’s feet the disintegration into ashes has already begun. Here both the identity of the sinner and his physical form is attacked as divine retribution for the sin of theft, which, for Dante, represents an assault on the human mind. The centre-piece of the upper gallery is the monumental Old Glory from the ‘Mummers’ cycle of paintings, which also depicts fragmented bodies. Here participants in the Mummers parade (a traditional celebration in Philadelphia, where Utermohlen lived as a child), dressed in patriotic costumes, are all but subsumed by the American flag, leaving only their heads and hands visible. The way in which these disembodied body parts, some in gestures of desperation, are subject to a downwards gravitational pull is eerily reminiscent of a descent into hell, an element of the Last Judgement often seen on medieval church tympana. These patriotic figures – doubling for the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War – are menaced by the presence of the skeletal Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, just discernible at the top of the painting and partially obscuring the Stars and Stripes behind them.

Old Glory, William Utermohlen. Oil on canvas, 1970, 180 x 301cm. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

In the downstairs gallery is the most literally visceral portrayal of the human figure racked, disfigured and dismembered. Canto XXVIII An Eye for an Eye for all Eternity depicts the terrible punishment meted out to sinners who used words to foment violence. The sowers of discord are slashed, beheaded, disembowelled – this is the preeminent example of the Dantean ‘contrapasso’ or divine retribution, wherein the punishment is made to fit the crime through its resemblance to the form of the crime itself.

Canto XXVIII, An Eye for an Eye for all Eternity, William Utermohlen. 1966, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

The Earth-bound hell of war is visualised in the adjacent gallery where Utermohlen’s commemorative painting of the Vietnam War hangs alongside his lithograph illustrations for an anthology of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poetry. The style of the latter has an exquisite simplicity but the figures are tragically depersonalised, lacking all or most of their facial features as if wholly shorn of their identity. Bodies are injured, bleeding, fragmented, falling, or assailed by Death in the shape of a bullet-spitting skeleton. In Bird of Paradise the pity of war is embodied in the dead soldier lying dead between two guards. The handling and pose of the human figures have the beauty and monumentality of Mantegna, amplifying the tragedy of its subject.

Not all the figures on show are subject to these physical and mental torments. Utermohlen’s portrait paintings, of which two are included in the exhibition, are warm, psychologically penetrating and deeply individualised depictions. Portrait of Rosamund Fokschaner is a rich and resplendent painting of a woman whose pose and direct gaze speaks of a strong inner confidence, its luxurious decorative background and highly patterned dress clearly evidence of Matisse’s influence. Penny Mather, painted two years after Bryan Organ’s portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales of which it is reminiscent, also shows a woman in self-assured pose, relaxed yet upright (emphasised by the verticality of the format), and despite – or because of – the minimalism of the décor around her there is a strong sense of class and affluence imparted to the portrait. Meanwhile Utermohlen’s life drawings study and celebrate the beauty of the body. These are sensuous, often erotic, depictions of bodies at leisure, supple and relaxed, with strong outlines reinforcing their solidity and wholeness.

Portrait of Rosamund Fokschaner, William Utermohlen. 1982, 101×101 cm. Image Courtesy of the artist and GV Art

The compelling and deeply moving story of William Utermohlen’s descent into and battle with illness, chronicled in his late works, is not as widely known as it deserves; the work predating his illness even less so. It is to be hoped that this retrospective can not only bring his name to a wider audience, but can also ensure that the illness and the works produced in its wake do not obscure the man, the artist he was, and the continuity of themes, stylistic range and quality of his oeuvre as a whole.

William Utermohlen (1933-2007), Retrospective, runs at GV Art London until 26th May.

This piece was originally published on Urban Times here.

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Polymath Exhibition, GV Art, London

Polymath is not only the title of GV art’s latest group exhibition; in many ways the word is an expression for the gallery’s raison d’etre, championing as it does artists whose work exists at the nexus between art and science, exploring the overlapping relationship between the two and thus of necessity exploiting knowledge across the disciplines. At its most literal level, the exhibition proposes the artists as polymaths – intensely heuristic, well-versed in broad realms of knowledge across the art/science boundary, and interrogating how the two fields can inform each other in subtle, creative and thought-provoking ways. On a deeper level, many of the works exhibited here explore and reveal different forms of knowledge itself, and whilst polymath is an ennobling term celebrating knowledge, it is interesting that many of the works on show actually scrutinise the limits, loss, discrediting and even misuse of knowledge, how knowledge or pseudo-knowledge can be used to construct narratives that are often damaging and destructive.

Reassembling the Self 1, Susan Aldworth Lithograph, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

On the upper floor, Susan Aldworth’s Reassembling the Self 1 and 2 are lithographs from a new series of work, born from her residency at the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, and based on her collaborations with schizophrenia patients and the scientists researching it. The works consist of a collage of medical images – drawings, diagrams, scans – of human body parts, including organs, skeletons, tissue, crania – distributed disjointedly over the picture surface. It gives a sense of the discombobulation produced by this most anguishing of mental illnesses. The cranium visible in lithograph 1 is divided up diagrammatically and numbered, according to the phrenological ‘discipline’ of attributing certain regions of the brain to specific human characteristics. It is a suggestive illustration, identifying how one (now completed discredited) branch of medicine produced a specific series of narratives entangling quack scientific evidence and human identity. In its time, the pioneers and followers of phrenology believed that their knowledge could neatly classify the physical brain and thus explain the self. If any disease disproves this simplistic categorisation, it is schizophrenia, about which so many public misconceptions (and much stigma) still exists.

While the enormity and complexity of the disease of schizophrenia and its many jumbled narratives is the subject of Aldworth’s lithographs, placed adjacent to those works is a tiny, jewel-like work by Katharine Dowson, a paper-weight sized laser etching of her brain encased in a glass cube entitled My soul in your hands. This exquisitely diaphanous work, appearing like a tiny, brain-shaped cloud, is a world away far from the viscous, grey jelly reality of the physical organ and all its neural complexity. Here Dowson inscribes the brain in a material denoting visibility and transparency, yet here it represents her soul, an ineffable, evanescent object, an unknowable thing of beauty that contains the kernel of her self.

Milk 9 (Paper Bark), Helen Pynor C-type photographic print face-mounted on glass, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

This Dowson work has something in common with the Helen Pynor works downstairs, Poisonous Sores, Constipation, and Headcold, three of her red sea blue water series, and Milk 9 in an adjoining room. Like Dowson’s My soul, these photographic works are breathtakingly gorgeous, poetic renditions of the body’s interior landscape (or in this instance seascape would be a more appropriate term). In the first three works, Pynor has photographed organs suspended in fluid (more or less life-sized and placed roughly contiguous with their physiological place in the body as you stand before them), above which a cursive text, drawn from traditional medical folklore, is handwritten across the image and whose ink appears to dissolve down through the liquid in sinewy, smokey lines. These real organs, floating in a delicate blue aquatic environment, could not be further from our usual experience of the interiority of the body – bloody, gorey, ghoulish. Here the organs possess individual, ethereal beauty, they are things to be looked upon, engaged with and contemplated, not objects of repulsion. They are designed, says Pynor, to explore our somatic reactions to our own interior, to focus attention upon the inside rather than the exterior – on which we expend so much energy and preoccupation. They explore the tangle of narratives – cultural, biomedical, social – that determine our relationships with the subcutaneous world. The conjunction of physical organs and folkloric remedies throw up some fascinating meditations. While the organs seem to exist in a timeless, dreamlike state, the remedies seem to hark back to a time when people were more directly in touch with their bodies and how to deal with infirmity or disease. Are we now more distanced from our bodies and the conditions that affect them? Are we losing touch with the medical lore possessed of our forebears to ease their bodily pains? Have we relinquished control over our own well-being in favour of the all-powerful corporatized pharmaceutical industry – who themselves mine and distil many traditional treatments for their products? If such baldly political concerns can be drawn from Pynor’s work it is achieved in the most delicate, subtle and sublimely beautiful way. In Milk 9 Pynor has photographed an indigenous Australian plant, paperbark, used by the Dharawal people to ease headaches. The green leaves of the plant, soil still adhering to its fine, delicate root tendrils, floats before a pinky red plume, which could be confused with a flower-like organism and yet could also indicate the red of the pulsating blood vessels provoking the headache pain against which the plant is employed.

Hung nearby to Pynor’s three red sea blue water works, are two pieces by Annie Cattrell, Pour and Brink. Like Pynor, Cattrell’s work is also preoccupied by aspects of the body and the natural world that are usually invisible and thus largely unknown to us, the unseen movement of life at a cellular level. At a certain distance, the thick white paper of which these works consist appears to have metamorphosed into animal fur, as if tiny individual hairs have somehow pierced the surface of the paper. It is as if the surface of the paper is becoming animated; a sense that something is stirring beyond the visible layer. It is only when you approach the works very closely that you discern that the patterns have been produced by incisions in the paper. The patterns take on a particular direction and flow, as actual fur would do if brushed with or against the grain, but these are unplanned beforehand and it is only as the work is underway that they emerge reactively. The rhythms and flow of the cuts is an attempt to portray visually the physiological properties about which we generally know little and see even less, the constant movement and change at the microscopic level.

Stelarc, Nina Sellars Pencil Drawing on paper, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

When the word polymath is bestowed, it invariably brings to mind the greatest exemplar of them all, namely Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in an era during which the acquisition of knowledge across the boundaries of the arts and the sciences was a commonplace and highly prized method of learning, unlike our intensely specialized knowledge acquisition today. For all the show’s contemporary feel, and much cutting edge technology employed in the service of art, two practitioners exhibited here seem consciously to hark back to that époque and could hardly be more appropriate for the polymath theme. Rachel Gadsden’s Anatomical head 5 and 6 are reminiscent of the visual conceit, introduced by the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius, of depicting skeletons, écorchés and partially dissected bodies as if they were living, feeling beings. Anatomic head 5 is a profile portrait of a skeleton, whilst 6 depicts a flayed head grimacing as if still a feeling, sentient being. Nina Sellars’ splendid drawing of Stelarc, unlike so much of the art elsewhere in the show, is resolutely focused on the body’s exterior, in the depiction of the living, individuated face through fine draughtmanship. This portrait exemplifies Sellars’ current research into the role played by light in the visual representation of the flesh, and the relationship between light and anatomy. Central to her work, she observes, is how knowledge is enacted and conveyed – a theme, I would argue, at the root of much of the absorbing work on show at Polymath.

This piece was originally published on Urban Times here.

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