The following was written for Compendium, an exhibition that details the interchangeable qualities of art and science. The artists featured in the exhibition are firmly planted in both disciplines.
On view from October 4 – December 27, 2015 at Islip Art Museum in East Islip, New York.
Corporeality speaks louder than words. Though in our current day many of us are increasingly detached from our bodies, experiencing the world less physically and more through screens and automation, we nonetheless understand that we are made of blood and flesh when confronted with them. Often artists use the body to place the ethical or psychological questions they are dealing with in relatable context for the audience. Some choose to depict personal experiences somatically, exactly as they felt them. Yet others explore the body, its functions, and interwoven social constructions as a site of taboo.
The thing with taboo, ethical and psychological questions, and past experiences is that we don’t always want to deal with them. When decorum is disturbed, many people have a tendency to turn away. Part of this may have to do with how our brains process information as opposed to our bodies. Science-based art in particular tends to fall in the category of “brain” rather than “heart” or “gut.” What is intriguing is how often science-based art also deals with difficult or uncomfortable subject matter not proper to discuss at the dinner table. Yet while the brain is necessary for processing information, the heart and gut are also needed for difficult subjects to resonate. What the brain can turn away from, the body cannot always ignore.
So how do different artists approach that which we don’t want to look at? How do they negotiate our fears of, and distance from, the body?
To say the least, shock is a frequent tactic used to engage the audience in difficult subject matter. Take, for example, French-born artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010). Best known for her sculptures and installations, Bourgeois provocatively dove into the psychological landscape of the domestic during her long career. Often a challenge to Freud’s domineering psychoanalytic theories, her anatomical references resulted in simultaneously seductive and repulsive works.
Sculptor Eva Hesse (1936-1970) alluded to the body with form, yet created less graphic imagery than Bourgeois. Her works use texture, scale, and color to resonate in a more abstract, though still bodily-familiar, way. Her frequent use of almost-transparent materials appear like skin and her tangled lines like limbs or guts. Fluidly working with the language of Minimalism, she hinted at sex, the body, and psychology without making overtly political statements.
Artist Kiki Smith (b. 1954), who trained as an emergency technician, challenged our perceptions of figural sculpture by experimenting with bodily fluids in the 1980s. Her work Game Time (1986) displays 12 pints of human blood on a shelf labeled with the following phrase: “There are approx. 12 pints of blood in the human body.” This seemingly cold and sterile approach to human representation reduces our bodies to a collection of fluids, a notion that was further provocative during the AIDS epidemic. At a time when there was little public understanding of the syndrome, her use of blood was an alarming shock. It forced viewers to confront their fears while relating each of us through our shared “12 pint” composition. Its excessive quantity also seems dangerous in its waste.
Contemporary science-based artist Laura Splan takes another approach. Rather than employing shock, the artist plays with subtlety and domesticity in order to make the body and its biology more approachable. In doing so, she highlights the tension between what’s socially acceptable to talk about and the seemingly “gross” biology we pretend isn’t a part of civil life. Similar to Eve Hesse in her gentle approach, though more like Bourgeois and Smith with her graphic references, Splan works to ease her audience members into a challenging discomfort.
The artist often paints with blood, though does so in an intricate and fragile way reminiscent of lace. What appear to be decorative terracotta wall hangings are instead 3D printed plastic forms stained with actual blood. It is only once the viewer is close enough to read the wall label that they realize what they are looking at.
While Smith’s pints of blood may immediately turn your stomach, Splan’s indirectly tactile works lull viewers into a false relaxation that transcends decorum. With blood as her pigment of choice, Splan’s work exposes the interior of our physical selves, which we otherwise protect in skin, clothing, and what the artist referred to in a recent interview with Liss LaFleur as “socially constructed perceptions.”
Splan’s references to feminine craft, best seen in her detailed drawings of doilies, suggest the safety of a home, while underlying imagery of syringes and microbes interrupt any cozy appearances. Within this juxtaposition, Splan visualizes the danger of our denial.
In a society that so highly values proper etiquette, the recognition of disease is often subtle and whispered. Splan’s Host, on view at Islip Art Museum for the Compendium exhibition, shares her experience growing up in a 1980s Southern home during the rise of AIDS and HIV. Doily drawings, which reference the tradition of hiding a blemish under something decorative, most directly argue against the ability to cover the existence of anything. Drawn in blood, their ornamental aesthetic creates immediate tension with the indisputable and biological reality of virus and disease. Furthermore, Splan’s Potpourri (pills) (2014) spells out our inability to cover what cannot be ignored. The delicate, porcelain-constructed rose petals wilting amongst large blood-colored tablets serve as a potent reminder of an inevitable end. Indeed, they remind us all of our own mortality and fragility.
While Bourgeois shows the uncomfortable, frightening layers of the domestic, Hesse poetically explores the body’s interior, and Smith blatantly calls attention to what we are composed of, Splan uses craft and textile-inspired work to create a more accessible side of such dark biological realities as disease. She works to separate discomfort from vulnerability, thus ensuing a closer approach by the audience. Though more often than not we still want to turn away from our bodies and their impermanence, a little delicacy can go a long way.
Both shock and gentle leading resonate deeply with us, yet we remember each in different ways. One is a slap across the face while the other is a slow and creeping revelation.