Where: Vancouver Art Gallery
When: Free to Sunday, Feb. 28. After the Winter Olympics are over, the Cultural Olympiad exhibition continues to May 2.
I had to be honest with him. I said there are a few squishy things but only one that is really disturbing — and I’m someone who can’t stand the sight of blood or needles piercing the skin.
Visceral Bodies is indeed full of bodies. They’re in video installations and collages, sculptural works and paintings. Curated by Daina Augaitis, the VAG’s chief curator and associate director, the exhibition of contemporary depictions of our fleshy architecture is intelligent, a little shocking and sometimes funny.
It couldn’t be a better accompaniment to the VAG’s exhibition of the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci.
The works in Visceral Bodies show just how much we’ve changed since Leonardo sat down with ink and pen to draw the human body 500 years ago. The rational and empirical world that was rediscovered by Leonardo and other artists and scientists during the Renaissance is still with us, but all the cultural and technological change of five centuries has added to and changed our ideas about our bodies.
Visceral Bodies and Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man are both on the gallery’s first floor. By starting with Leonardo’s drawings, I passed through an intermediary room before Visceral Bodies that helped to outline the last five centuries of Western anatomical drawing.
One published illustration from the mid-18th century shows the back view of man who has been flayed to reveal his musculature. He’s standing with his arms outstretched in a pastoral setting as if he doesn’t know he’s dead.
At the time, the convention was to show lifelike cadavers who weren’t shy about being willing participants in their own dissection.
The works in Visceral Bodies are grouped into three themes: the body as fragmented and no longer coherent; the various ways science and technology have reconceptualized the body; and how emotions, politics and gender have influenced depictions of the body’s material reality.
Wangechi Mutu’s collages are beautifully shocking examples of bodies that have been compartmentalized and fragmented. She is a Kenyan artist living in New York, and her digital mixed-media images are portraits of women on top of historic medical drawings of diseased sexual organs.
Uterine Catarrh has huge Rolling Stone lips on the lower portion of an African’s face. Between the eyes is a pair of pliers or calipers squeezing an illustration of a uterus.
Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors mixes huge lemur-like eyes with a big open human mouth.
There’s an anger in the collages that show how women’s bodies have been separated, classified and compartmentalized under the guise of science and anthropology.
Next to the collages is Luanne Martineau’s Dangler, which was part of the How Soon Is Now exhibition last year at the VAG.
Dangler looks like a woman’s body as interpreted by Francis Bacon. Like a prisoner or torture victim, it hangs from the ceiling, but the harshness of its jumbled form is softened by its materials and colours: homey wool and silk in pinks and greys.
Antony Gormley’s Drift II is a delicate construction of interlocking stainless steel polygons. From one angle it’s a recognizable human being falling headfirst to the floor at a slight angle. From another, its human form is completely obscured. Since it’s hanging from the ceiling by a single cord, the sculpture gently turns in response to air movement in the gallery.
What made me laugh out loud when I first saw it was Hiroko Okada’s Future Plan #2. It’s a print of two guys in white underwear with big broad smiles. They have bulging midsections, as if pregnant.
Future Plan #2 is part of Okada’s exploration of an imaginary future where science and technology have transformed human reproduction. What first looked humorous became upsetting as I thought about the possibility that something as fundamental as motherhood and pregnancy could be so radically altered.
Gabriel de la Mora’s Memorial 2, 24.10.07 comprises 17 skulls attached to rods extending from the wall. They’re copies of the skulls of members of his family, including that of his father, who died in 1993, and a stillborn child who died in 1971.
The Mexican artist had to get permission to exhume their bodies so he could do MRI scans on them. Each skull is placed at each person’s height.
At first, I couldn’t figure out why the tiny head of the stillborn child was above the other children’s heads. Then it struck me: The wee skull is exactly where it would be if its mother were cradling it in her arms. The positioning of the infant’s skull to suggest such intimacy made my heart stop. It transformed Memorial from a collection of white plaster skulls into a contemporary version of a Madonna and Child.
From a distance, Mona Hatoum’s installation looked harmless enough: a table set with a glass, knife and fork and plate.
When I got closer, I could see that the round centre of the plate had been removed and replaced with a circular screen showing a video of the inside of a body — Hatoum’s digestive tract.
The piece is called Deep Throat, which not only refers to the famous X-rated film but is also an accurate and humorous description of having a doctor rooting around inside your body with an endoscope.
Glottis, by Valie Export, is a video work on four flat-screen TVs. The nearly circular images are of the interior of the body, which initially looks like the delicate, fleshy face of the tough alien warriors in Predator.
But, no, they’re very human. They’re images of Export’s vocal cords as she recites a text in German called The Voice as Performance, Act and Body.
By far the most disturbing work in the exhibition wasn’t visual. It was aural.
I came up to a pair of headphones hanging from the ceiling. Before reading anything, I put them on and heard the squishiest sounds I’ve ever heard in my life.
Then I turned to read the wall text. The piece is called Sonido de la Morgue/Sounds of the Morgue. The artist, Teresa Margolles, recorded the sound of an autopsy in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The recording was so good it was easy for me to imagine human flesh being cut up. It sounded much too much like something I might do in the kitchen with a sharp knife and a hunk of meat. Of all the works in Visceral Bodies, it really got under my skin.