Bumped, bruised and sometimes barely even there. The bodies from the I-Self Collection at Whitechapel Gallery come in all shapes and sizes - from the formless to the viscerally real and confronting. Last week I attended the Bumped Bodies Curator's Tour to observe the artistic ways in which our bodies feed into our identity and expressions of selfhood.
The intriguing collection is part of Whitechapel Gallery's 'I-Self Collection' - a carefully curated series that features sculpture, photography and mixed media collage. Composed of 23 artists from across the world, including Egypt, Germany and Pakistan, the collection was founded by married couple Maria and Malek Sukkar. According to Maria, identity is at the 'core' of her collection where each piece thoughtfully traces the relationship between bodies and their many extreme states - birth, death, sex as well as physical, emotional or even psychological transgression.
Although focussed on bodies, the exhibition explores as much the presence of the human form as well as its absence. I was particularly struck by the emphasis on human transience and how the bodies from the collection were each, like objects, amassed from various mixed-media materials - distorted and re-invented. Immersed within a range of different contexts, locations and states of experience including pregnancy, migration and sexuality, each piece tackles the innate vulnerability of the human form within a world we often cannot control.
Tian Doan Na Champassak's ‘Corpus’ particularly embodies this duality of presence and absence. Champassak's series of aged and obscured photographs, which feature female bodies from pornographic contexts, explores themes of identity, censorship and anonymity. By presenting the erotic and sensual capacities of the human form through such a visually unique approach, Champassak demonstrates how fleeting and often transient human exchanges can be.
Therefore, although taken from pornographic contexts, Champassak thoughtfully re-imagines the female body through a new artistic lens, whilst almost managing to de-sexualise these highly eroticised images by focussing upon the anonymity and obscurity of the human form. In some instances, the photographs have been so distorted by light, shadow and darkness to the point where they no longer really look like bodies at all. Through his powerful manipulation of light, exposure and perspective, Champassak places the 'body' and 'sex' in two distinct and separate spaces - both working in harmony as well as in isolation with one another. Thereby, Champassak questions the role of the human body as the object of our voyeuristic gaze.
However, for me Belgian artist - Berlinde de Bruyckere's waxwork sculpture 'Quan' was the most striking and intriguing of all. The disturbingly realistic piece showcases a despairing human figure crawling into the depths of a mattress-like heap on the floor.
Bruyckere’s sculpture exposes the body in a truly desperate form. The bruised, mottled skin and sinewed limbs accentuate both the fragility and susceptibility of the human body to the extremeness of its own condition. However, what Bruyckere’s sculpture never reveals is what ailment this body is suffering from. Could it be age, illness or casualty? Nonetheless, whilst engulfed within the mattress, the absence of the figure's head further dramatises the relationship between its sense of internal disaster, and the disaster of the world it is surrounded by. As if attempting to escape the human world entirely, Bruyckere's waxwork sculpture perhaps exaggerates a psychological state of mind through use of the body as its primary vehicle. Commenting how 'the figure as a whole is a mental state,' De Bruyckere reminds us of the inextricable connection between bodies and minds, as part of an intimate, fragile, and sometimes toxic relationship.