A work was exhibited in the Serpentine Gallery in 1995 entitled ‘The Maybe’ in which a figure lay on a bare bed in a glass cabinet for eight hours a day and seven days a week. The figure in question was the actor Tilda Swinton, ten years before she would become the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia franchise, and twelve before she wins an Oscar for Michael Clayton. At this point, Swinton is fresh from making a series of films with the artist Derek Jarman, with her most prominent being Caravaggio (1986). It is fair to say that she was by no means in the limelight but was simply a young artist trying to make something new. People could come and watch for twenty minutes at a time, with a sign politely asking them not to disturb her. Now, having exhibited the same work two more times – the last being at MoMA in 2013 – she continues to question the limits of art. Her latest film, Suspiria, the remake of the 1977 surrealist Italian classic, sees Swinton as an avant-garde choreographer of a prestigious and mysterious female dance troupe.
[…]simply a young artist trying to make something new
The human form as art has been a contentious subject since the very beginnings of our developing visual culture. There have been waves of iconoclasm leading to the destruction of countless works of art because of a supposed idolatry – the crime being the desire to appreciate works which were not specifically relating to religious texts. One would imagine that Martin Luther would have an even worse tantrum if he could have seen a room of critics praise Tilda Swinton in a box. Bizarrely, in recent years the gap between this ‘body art’ and religion has been bridged.
The pioneers of body art are attempting to break the strictures of the art world from within
The Florentine gallery Palazzo Strozzi held a recent exhibition in which there is an intricate and heart-wrenchingly realised wooden sculpture of the Penitent Magdalene by Donatello (1455). Looking back at it in research for this article I was struck by the same pathos and horror from the glare of my laptop screen as I was in the dimly lit gallery. Look for it yourself. Imagine that you are shut in the gloomy exhibition with her, Mary; every bone of her wooden frame jutting out from under the skin, and sunken eyes gazing onwards. Then you turn around and realise that behind you the whole time was a woman in her middle age crying, and she’s naked. Pouring over her is a shower of water from no discernible source. This is Bill Viola’s Acceptance (2008). It is on a discreet screen within the wall and the video of the woman stepping forward into the water and performing a hunched and muted scream loops continuously. The works talk to each other across a 500-year gap. Viola’s work asks for us to look at the female form in a completely new way to what we see on billboards during the walk to these galleries. Acceptance depicts raw emotion conjured in our minds by a human form miming some kind of indistinct pain, with the Penitent Magdalene being a supreme analysis of grief.
Viola’s work asks for us to look at the female form in a completely new way to what we see on billboards
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest written story that we have. It dates from about 2100 BC. It also has a very early example of human shame. The character Shamhat is characterised as unique for not being embarrassed to show her body to others. It appears that the shame we feel for our bodies, the same that would force Adam and Eve to make fig leaf knickers, has been intrinsic to our human nature since we started expressing thoughts in literature. This is what makes body art so important. It is playing upon an uncanniness that we perhaps are not even aware of. Not that the figure might be naked or vulnerable; but that they are so in a purpose-built public space.
It appears that the shame we feel for our bodies… has been intrinsic to our human nature since we started expressing thoughts in literature
In the same way as the abstract expressionists of Greenwich Village sought to make the purest kind of art – one which does not need a devout upbringing to comprehend the symbolism – the pioneers of body art are attempting to break the strictures of the art world from within. These are people like the choreographer Pina Bausch (said to be the main inspiration behind Swinton’s character in Suspiria), the ‘living sculptures’ Gilbert and George, all of those who collaborate with Bill Viola, and of course many more. There is a vitality to this form of art, especially in installations. They retain the essence of a gallery piece while harnessing the immediacy of theatre, and the cumulative effect is something entirely unique. If you’re in doubt I implore you to check out a local installation wherever you may be. You may be euphorically converted or immediately angry, but, like the best art, rarely somewhere in between.