So begins a rather ambitious press release for the Whitechapel Gallery's current Bumped Bodies exhibition before going on to claim that by "placing figures in states of metamorphoses, artists rupture our sense of physical cohesion to reveal new possibilities that lie beyond selfhood".
It's an intriguing premise for sure. Who hasn't, at times, felt a disconnect between their body and their self, their sense of how they feel they look and how others perceive how they look? Of course, body horror is a fascinating area and one definitely worth exploring but despite bringing together over twenty artists from across six decades and three continents very few of the works on show really hit the mark.
It was a pity because it was a well intentioned, and free, show in a really rather lovely gallery space (that has a good bookshop and does a decent coffee). Perhaps if the curators hadn't pitched in with such lofty ideals I'd have enjoyed it more, in a simple 'here's some interesting pieces of art' way.
When I'd seen works by Huma Bhabha before (in Mayfair's Stephen Friedman Gallery back in January last year) I'd come to much the same conclusion writing, at the time, that "Bhabha's works weren't disgusting or even particularly grotesque. Sure some of the body parts appeared mutated, dismembered even, but if she's trying to shock that's not going to work at all. My reaction was more one of 'oh, that's quite nice'".
Bhabha was, without doubt, one of the most interesting artists showing at Bumped Bodies. Her Untitled from 2013 had some of the fierce energy of the abstract expressionists whilst keeping a figurative edge. The blood red of it, too, gave it a raw, maybe even menstrual, feel.
Huma Bhabha - Untitled (2013)
Cathy Wilkes - Untitled (2015)
Huma Bhabha - It's Me (2013)
In the middle of the room, there's only one medium sized room in the show, there was a plinth with a scattering of sculptural works on it including another Bhabha, It's Me, that looked totemic if inscrutable. Curious enough as was Belfast's Cathy Wilkes spindly legged lady that seemed to peer out at us visitors in an unsure way.
But Cologne's Alexandra Bircken's Simone was remarkable only in its sheer ordinariness and Tony Cragg's Big Head Green, though initially acting as a neat little visual trick, was nowhere near as impressive as some of the quite wonderful stuff I'd seen the Liverpool man showing before.
Alexandra Bircken - Simone (2013)
Tony Cragg - Big Head Green (2009)
Nicola Tyson - Song (2010)
Nicola Tyson was one of the few artists in the room to really use colour and because of that alone her twisted, contorted, and somewhat illegible forms caught the eye. Her work owed a debt to Francis Bacon but also reminded me a little of the recent Glenn Brown show I attended and wrote about.
Unsurprisingly twists and contortions proved to be a very popular theme throughout the exhibition. Prague's Maria Bartuszova's Untitled work from the mid-sixties may, to the untrained eye, initially look not unlike a plaster cast of freshly curled off turd but apparently it's inspired by her awareness, at a time when Czechoslovakia was relatively cut off from the Western art world, "of the work of abstract forms of Constantin Brancusi, Lucio Fontana, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi" so you can pop those ideas in your dog poop bag and put them in the nearest available receptacle. How puerile of you!
Maria Bartuszova - Untitled (c.1966)
Paloma Varga Weisz - Bumped Body (2007)
Paloma Varga Weisz's Bumped Body is the work that gives the show its name and it's a curious mix of bling, solitude, Brancusiesque sculpture, and an unsteady mix of female empowerment and female enslavement. It made me think of The Handmaid's Tale for some reason.
It certainly proved to be far more thought provoking than the uninspiring Sun Leak by Ancona's Enrico David or, indeed, Daniel Silver's equally dry Untitled. These are works you forget almost as soon as you see them. Maybe I'm missing something, I do go to a lot of galleries. Perhaps I've become art-blind and can no longer see the wood for the trees.
Sometimes there are just too many works that look too similar displayed together and it all becomes a much of a muchness. I think that was part of the problem with this show. Sarah Lucas has been showing cigarette sculptures, bucket fannies, and fried egg tits for a couple of decades or so now and they've long lost any of the shock value, or humour, they once held. But in this show, situated amongst so many dry academic pieces of work, her Oral Gratification took on a new life. An office chair, a rugby ball, and some fags and still far more interesting than more than half the other work here.
Enrico David - Sun Leak (2014)
Sarah Lucas - Oral Gratification (2000)
Daniel Silver - Untitled (2008)
Wael Shawky - Cabaret Crusades II:The Path to Cairo (2011-12)
Wael Shawky was another one who stood out. I'd seen his work, and written about it, obvs, back in 2016 in Soho's Marian Goodman Gallery's Animality show. It was part of the same Cabaret Crusades series and if it only just about fitted into a show about animals and our relationships with them it was even harder to fathom how it fitted into a show about 'extreme states of the human condition'. Unless the idea of taking a walk through the desert to Cairo may be a fairly extreme human experience. That's probably it. Can't think of anything else. Looked nice though.
The same could be said for both Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist's Iris Ruggel Kinked and Belgrade's Bojan Sarcevic's Presence at Night. Rist inserts little video screens in unlikely places like bits of a tree (and, er, museum toilets) with the idea that you'll have to contort your body to look at them (not that you can make out much when you've done so) and Sarcevic has laced the branches of a tree, protruding from the wall, with some human hair with the aim, it's claimed, of unsettling. It didn't. People just said it looked 'interesting' and even then not so interesting they bothered contemplating it for more than a few seconds. So, yeah, looked nice but so do lots of things and that wasn't really the premise of this exhibition.
Pipilotti Rist - Iris Ruggel Geknickt (Iris Log Kinked) (2014)
Bojan Sarcevic - Presence at Night (2010)
Mark Manders - Vertical Bed (2007-2012)
One of the best things in the exhbition for me was Dutch artist Mark Mander's Vertical Bed. It had something of the Rauschenberg about it. He creates 'conceptual self-portraits' and is known to claim that all his work should be viewed together as a 'self-portrait as a building'. It sounds quite pretentious, as does his claim that he's referencing ancient Greek sculpture, but it actually works pretty well. Who'd have thought some old socks would be one of the best things in an art gallery?
The Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere's Quan certainly did have something of the classical world about. A classical work distorted. It fitted the remit for the exhibition and was actually pretty powerful. I read that she'd taken influence from 'European Old Masters and Christian iconography' and I certainly see that in Quan. The fact she uses hair, wax, and skin in her work too neatly ties up with the idea of the body playing a dual role as both subject and object. Are our fluids part of our body or not? Certainly they serve a role while they're in us but once I've urinated, defecated, or ejaculated I've never felt a desire to hang on to the urine, shit, or spunk dispensed.
Berlinde De Bruyckere - Quan (2010)
Ruth Claxton - Postcard (Mary I) (2006)
Mary I has got something come out of her eyes and bearing in mind how I finished the last paragraph I'll try not to speculate just what that is. Ipswich's Ruth Claxton has modified a series of postcards showing Mary, Elizabeth, and other royals I could barely care less about and it proves to be mildly diverting. Much the same could be said for the Hungarian artist Kati Horna's Prestado which sees a hand stretched so that it almost resembles an antler, a shroud, a mask, and some ruffled bed linen. Maybe in 1962 it looked in some way 'classic' but to me it looked a bit tired, the sort of postcard an unbearable, and self-consciously 'creative', person would have Blu-tacked to their wall to impress you with how deep they are.
Kati Horna - Prestado (1962)
John Stezaker - Untitled (5 Nudes) (c.1980)
And John Stezaker (who has something of the Warhol about him) has gone for straight out titillation, or as near as this show gets to it. That's okay really. Perhaps with the idea of 'extreme states of the human condition' they could have gone for hardcore pornography or even torture. I'd have been uncomfortable looking at it but then that says a lot more about the human body and our sometimes uneasy relationship with both our own and other people's than a plaster cast or a piece of tree with a little screen on it. It seems to me that our human physicality, sexuality, and our ambiguous relationship with our own living, breathing, eating, drinking, fucking, shitting, pissing, sweating, vomiting bodies is so complicated that art's yet to catch up.
It was a nice try and a few artists, notably Bhabha, Stezaker, De Bruyckere, and Varga Weisz, came close to making a good fist of it. But for now stick with the music of The Pixies and the films of David Cronenberg for the best cultural expression of the ‘tension between self as subject and self as object’.