Under and Beyond (the Skin): Artistic process, trauma and embodiment in image-making.

For this presentation of my thesis project, Under and Beyond the Skin, I will be introducing and expanding on the most recent developments within my practice, which includes Beyond the Skin, a project explored in its early inception within the thesis essay. To briefly outline my intentions, I will first discuss the prosthesis and the ways in which I take up what I refer to as a prosthetic metaphor in my practice; this is informed by considering the prosthetic device beyond its conventional applications toward an evolving and adaptable investigation of bodily possibilities. While the subject of embodiment and embodied knowledge is frequently referenced in the essay, I would like to take this opportunity to delve further into the theory, and lastly, present examples of artists influential to my own development during this thesis investigation. I will conclude with some thoughts on the direction I believe my practice is taking, and what lies beyond this degree.

As outlined in the essay, the primary focus of my thesis project has been largely determined by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant I received in the fall 2011, titled The Fashionable Prosthetic: investigating the visibility and new fashion of prosthetic research. With the aim of contextualizing the impact of prosthetic developments on the body and the potential for greater embodied sensibility and awareness, the intention was to investigate the literal and figurative image of the prosthesis and its capacity to transform identity and the body itself. The choice to delve formally and artistically into prosthetics, trauma, adaptation and extension are of both personal and general interest. My experience with bodily trauma and its long-term effects has brought my own fallibility, fragility and capacities into view, and allowed access to what I have come to interpret as the potential for embodied knowledge.

Engagement with the subject of “prosthesis” develops equally from medical and grammatical discourses to describe an “addition” and/or a “replacement.” Whether operating in the realm of metaphor or as a complex medical apparatus, the “prosthesis” has expanded and transformed – within imagination and reality – the possibility for what I perceive as adapted embodied experiences. Influential to the direction of my practice and the ongoing project, Beyond the Skin, are paralympian sprinter, model, speaker and double below-the-knee amputee, Aimee Mullins and media theorist, cultural critic and amputee, Vivian Sobchack. The early stage of my research into prosthetics involved the more familiar reference to the prosthetic leg and arm, each with multiple variations in appearance, complexity and function. Prosthetic devices can also include eyes, the face, knee joints, feet, hip replacements, artificial hearts and lungs, cosmetic and dental implants – the list continues. The prosthetic metaphor, explored and criticized by scholars, cultural anthropologists and theorists, further enables an expanded definition or cultural trope which includes any human-technology interface resulting in the sci-fi image of the cyborg or posthuman, described by Sarah Jain as “a prosthetic creature cobbled together out of various organic and cybernetic sub-units.”

The complex and manifold image of the prosthetic, whether taken up in its literal or figurative form, raises questions of technofetishism, displacement of materiality and embodied sensibilities. Enter Aimee Mullins. Delivering an inspirational lecture at a 2009 TED talk, Mullins challenged the audience to imagine infinite possibilities within the field of prosthetics, presenting several different pairs of legs designed by prostheticians and artists alike. For Mullins, the prosthetic limb no longer stands for loss and disability, but the possibility for augmented human form and function. In an article for WIRED Italy, she wrote: “Humans can become the architects of their own identities by designing the body to supersede the pace of nature’s adaptation” quoting Darwin’s vision of human evolution: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” As my project has progressed, my interest is not to illustrate a prosthetic device, nor am I invested in entering into dialogue with the image of the cyborg. Imagining and embracing the prosthetic metaphor, as Mullins does so extraordinarily, has become the inspiration to look beyond the literal image of the prosthetic, replacing it instead with the unfolding, infinite possibilities for conceiving and representing an expandable, adaptable body.

In a number of articles, Vivian Sobchack often candidly and anecdotally describes her amputation and prosthetic experiences. One particular essay titled “Real Phantoms/Phantom Realities: On the Phenomenology of Bodily Imagination” was particularly influential as a way into the discourse of embodiment. The first of two questions: What is embodiment? As a method of describing and interpreting human experience, phenomenology seeks to reveal the world through attentiveness, wonder and awareness and offers an account of our perceptions of the world as we live it. Emergent to an embodied experience, a phenomenological approach engages with the body’s primary mode of ‘being-in-the-world,’ and as such is always embodied. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes: “The phenomenological world is not pure being, but the sense which is revealed where the paths of my various experiences intersect, and also where my own and other people’s intersect and engage each other like gears.”

Embodied knowledge draws upon the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty and his undoing of the Cartesian mind/body split which located knowledge and intellect definitively within the mind, therefore not in the body. For Merleau-Ponty, and others who engage in the notion of embodiment, all knowledge is generated through lived experience, which takes place in and through the body. References to embodied knowledge appear within postmodernism, feminist epistemology, philosophy, anthropology and cognitive sciences, to name a few. Though each area of study engages with embodiment differently, what remains consistent is the agreement that knowledge is bound/generated within the body. Within my own practice, I have struggled with embodied knowledge, its definition and application. This emergent understanding has become a core element in my learning. I have challenged my methodologies, the way in which I research my subject matter and day-to-day acknowledgment of corporeal experience all in an attempt to engage in an embodied practice. Only more recently have I come to better – but not fully – understand the scope of embodiment.

This brings me to the second question: How to embody an Other body? As I mentioned earlier, one intention of Beyond the Skin has been to investigate embodiment via corporeal representations. Originally, this line of questioning was directed toward the traumatized, prostheticized body; however as the work progressed, the question of embodied experience now centers on the capacity for the representation of a reconfigured body to resonate for the viewer. I have often asked myself how can I possibly know how another body lives? In “Real Phantoms/Phantom Realities,” Sobchack wrote of her experience with Phantom Limb phenomena. Seemingly beyond the scope of my embodied capacity, Sobchack levels the ground explaining that however idiosyncratic the experience, phenomenological inquiry aims to describe “the general or possible structures that make that experience resonant and comprehensible to others who might “imaginatively” inhabit it” (Sobchack). She writes: “Even an instance so seemingly personal and generally anomalous as the bodily trauma of losing a limb and experiencing its invisible “phantom” finds us […] ‘reeling on the faultline’ where Personal History and General Existence collide” (Sobchack).

As postmodern literary critic, Katherine Hayles remarks: “Embodiment makes clear that thought is a much broader cognitive function depending for its specificities on the embodied form enacting it” (Hayles xiv). The notion of what constitutes a physiological body has begun to shift and transform – technologies, culture, environment all contribute to a continuous adaptation of the body within our current cultural moment. Contemporary applications of embodiment allow for the possibility of expanded ways of being in the world, requiring a heightened awareness, and an adaptable embodied experience. In negotiating the terrain of embodiment, I have had to acknowledge fluctuating boundaries, corporeal assumptions and the historical break from fixed notions of the physiological body, realized in the most recent drawings from the Beyond the Skin series. What I found particularly intriguing as I research the subject of embodiment is the potential for knowledge to not only be generated in the body, but within a system of brain, body and environment. Where, then, does the body end and the world begin? This question fascinates me as I continue to investigate the potential for the transformable, adaptable body and its various representations within my practice.

During this degree, my practice has undergone its own series of transformations and adaptations, including materiality and drawing processes. I was searching for the words to express the ways in which my practice has in turn changed and challenged me, when I came across an excerpt from author Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life (1989): “In working-class France, when an apprentice got hurt, or when he got tired, the experienced workers said, ‘It is only the trade entering his body.'” Engaged in what I hope will prove to become an embodied practice, the work has entered my body, forming an ongoing dialogue between my physical presence/awareness, and the ways in which bodily representations manifest in the drawings. Taking up notions of embodiment, and the expandable/adaptable body, Beyond the Skin has developed as a series of drawings that explore ensembles of shifting body forms. My intention is to push beyond representations of bodily realities, challenging the boundaries of embodied experience: can I, or the viewer, engage with an image which points to corporeality, while also appearing fictional, surreal and foreign?

In my thesis essay, I discussed artists Rebecca Horn and Matthew Barney, as their practices pertain to notions of the expanded and adapted body, and the relevance of their work to the overarching themes of my own research. During the last few months in the studio, and since writing the thesis essay, I have become increasingly aware of the significant influences two artists have had on the aesthetic direction of my work. This presentation affords me an opportunity to acknowledge their precedence, as well as illuminate the evolving nature of this thesis project. I first encountered the work of Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s 2010 exhibition Visceral Bodies. Uterine Pathologies, a series of collaged and decorated works constructed on images of female genitalia, depict fragmented mutated, grotesque bodies while also evoking expressive black female faces. Influential to earlier collage methods, current materiality and my engagement with bodily representations, Mutu’s work is powerful, beautiful and affective. Past series established the artist’s interest in adaptable female bodies, taking up issues of fashion, race, gender, trauma and African identity. Collecting images from fashion and pornographic magazines, nature and wildlife books, and decorating with fur, glitter, paint and ink, Mutu describes her collages as embodied narratives: “All of their history is written upon their bodies and in their hair. It’s very clear where they’ve been. Some of them are missing parts, or have gained a new part […] as they’ve gone along.” While Beyond the Skin does not expose traditional collage techniques, the bodily representations are created by gathering disparate parts which are then wrapped, covered, unfolded, peeled and draw out as a singular subject.

Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere takes up the fleshy, suffering body in both drawing and sculptural practices. Also represented in the Visceral Bodies exhibition, De Bruyckere’s work is moving, visceral and highlights the common and communal experience of the body in pain. Though the physical pain of another cannot be transferred, De Bruyckere’s distorted yet believable bodies evoke empathy from the viewer. The Wound, a watercolour and pencil drawing, suggests torn and bloody flesh. Though anatomically vague, the drawing affects a sense of vitality. Bodily fragments are ambiguously pieced together, and unusual orifices penetrate through the flesh as a result of the casting process. Though the figures are rarely whole, with body parts duplicated, fused and intertwined, De Bruyckere’s drawings and sculptures, while undeniably morbid, are almost animate. I am mesmerized by the materiality of the wax sculptures, the looseness of the drawings, and De Bruyckere’s ability to convey a moving representation of the body in pain. In my own practice, I am attempting to generate a response in the viewer that is at once empathetic and mystifying, and maybe – if I’m entirely honest – even slightly averse, deliberately choosing a colour palette that evokes the flesh of the living body, moving between recognizable and ambiguous anatomy. Trauma exists within my drawings, the body interrupted, turned inside out, expanded and adapted. It is not my intention however to create a traumatic viewing experience, but rather one that rouses curiosity, questions our knowledge of the body, and encourages a receptivity to an expanding notion of embodiment.

For this presentation of Beyond the Skin, I have chosen to focus on the subject of embodiment and the adaptable, expandable body as they relate to my practice. What the essay and project have exposed are various avenues of research worth pursuing as I continue my work, including further inquiry into embodiment theory, the psychology of empathy, and posthumanism. A sustained practice has the potential to expand Beyond the Skin as an ongoing drawing series. I am investigating possible internships and residencies at anatomical and medical museums to further inform my practice with a wealth of image references and historical knowledge, and to satisfy my morbid curiosity. The practice of drawing is itself a method of revealing new directions by adapting materiality and expanding my practice as I carry on beyond the structure of this degree program and thesis project.

View thesis here
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