The Body De-Ployed
Philosopher and Professor at the Hong Kong University
Among theorists of contemporary art and culture, the human body is a hotly contested space. Every faction, it seems, wants to appropriate the body for its own purposes - it is a concept in crisis, they insist, a construct in urgent need of subversion, reconfiguration, deconstruction, denaturalization. As these disputes rage, one is apt to wonder: What is at stake here? How did the human body come to be such an ideological battleground? And what relevance, if any, does this have to the practicing artist? The roots of the current "crisis" - going along with the hyperbole for a moment - are usually traced to a deep and unresolved fissure in modern philosophy. This fissure is the separation of mind and body, of subject and object, of human being as agent and human being as thing. The original sin, on this account of intellectual history, was committed by Descartes when he separated - at least for explanatory purposes - mind and body, and in doing so rid the body of life, reducing it to a mere thing, a mere object, a mere machine. The intellectual legacy of this view, we are told, is that we today conceive the body as separate from ourselves, as a machine, a container, a vehicle, a tool. We do so at the cost of recognizing our lived experience - not our experience of the body, for to describe it that way is already to accept a separation between ourselves and our bodies, but our experience as embodied creatures. The visual arts, the argument continues, conspire in this by taking the body as subject - matter for study, to be examined, investigated, looked at; for the artist, on this view, the body is less than a machine, it is a mannequin. It is difficult, against this background of critical scrutiny and contention, to address the body without falling into one or other intellectual camp, or worse yet, falling into one or other artistic cliché. Both intellectually and artistically, the terrain of the body is, it seems, too closely mapped. But in the series of works on display in this exhibition, Cristina Bonucci manages to do exactly that. She offers a perspective on the body and bodily experience that is fresh and unhampered by these stale controversies. The elements of Bonucci's paintings are not unfamiliar; what is striking about them is her particular means of intimating physicality. Their directness of expression - achieved through the appearance of direct contact between body and canvas - brings us face to face, cheek to cheek, knuckle to knuckle, with the lived body. In their physical immediacy, they remind us - if reminding we needed - that in art as elsewhere, the body is lived, it is not just looked at. At the same time, these works are neither exhibitionistic nor voyeuristic; their realism is psychological rather than graphic. Her juxtapositions sit easily on the pictorial space; the images are recognizable - even obvious - yet there is no contrivance in the way they are interposed. There is no overt effort to signify conflict or harmony, opposition or fusion, desire or distance. This reticence, this deliberate denial of narrative in the face of familiar subject matter, is perhaps what, gives these paintings their psychological impact. For there is something dis-satisfying about their restraint, something psychologically incomplete, something abortive. They record particular moments of action and sensation but they stop, as it were, in mid-feeling-not in mid-action or in mid-thought, but in mid-feeling. Their reticence invites - indeed compels - us to meet them halfway. But we can't do in the usual way of imaginatively completing the story, by filling in the actions and motives and impulses that drive the narrative. To "complete" the arrested feeling we must look elsewhere. One is compelled to plumb one's own past, to look within oneself for the traces - however faint, however fragmentary - of lived sensation, to look within oneself for the imprint of one's own lived experience. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Bonucci has cut through, in these works, to the core of philosophical concern about the body. She addresses bodily experience at precisely the point at which traditional philosophical categories cross and threaten to break down: the point at which the individual stands in position of both subject and object; the point at which one is, at the same time, passive and active, actor and acted upon. These are not images of bodies brutally thrust against a resistant surface (as, for instance, in certain works of Sue Arrowsmith); these are not images of bodies into or upon which a camera has been brutally thrust. This is the living body described at the very moment it inscribes itself upon another, these are the marks of flesh upon flesh; these are marks left by the act of marking. It is often said, usually as a barb directed at those who try to explain art, that the only things that count in art are the things you can't explain. There is some truth in this claim, perhaps, but it is also leaves something important out. The universe abounds with things we can't explain; what makes art special is that it puts before us things we can't explain and at the same time makes us want to explain them. It brings us face to face with things we can't explain, but it does so in a way that holds our gaze, in a way that makes us keep looking, in a way that makes us want to understand. That it awakens this desire in us, that it makes us try or struggle to explain, that is what matters, and that is what makes art count.
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