Landscape and Angel
Throughout western history the human body has had a wide range of ideological and philosophical meanings; in Greek and Roman art, for example, the male body has symbolised potency and political power. Where women’s bodies were seen as earth-bound and corrupt, Greek male bodies, in imagination and art if nowhere else, transcended the boundaries of materiality to symbolise the higher realm of reason or soul. Similarly, in Renaissance art the male nude signified public virtues, while the female nude signified sensuality and the realm of private erotic pleasure. However, whatever the fantasy, the actual biological body imaged by art and worked upon by medical science is mortal and it may be that, irrespective of our fantasies of transcendence, finitude is a crucial condition of being human.
I have always been fascinated by the human body and the ways in which it has been represented historically in both art and medical science. The picture of humanity that emerges from a study of bodily representation is one of fantasy and pathos. While actual human bodies are subject to disease, dissolution and death, we continue to try to overcome the limitations of biology in fantasies of transcendence, whether these be predicated on more and more extreme medical interventions into the human body or on developing virtual bodies which might allow us to become undying gods. The desire to transcend the limits of the biological body and to become one with (a) God, or, indeed, to become a god oneself has been constant throughout western history and reappears, albeit in transmuted form, in contemporary cyber-discourse and biomedical engineering.
Historically in the Christianised west the biological body has been denigrated in favour of the soul/mind. Given the paradox that, for the Christian, humans must die in order to live, the paradigmatic image of Christian art is not the beautiful god or hero of Greek sculpture, nor the powerful worldly emperor, but the martyr who gladly yields up his or her body to violent death. For both Early Christians and later Christian mystics, preparation for a life beyond the biological body involved a life-long ascetical program, which might include the mortification of the flesh and the redirection of libido from the human world to the divine.
Their Eyes Are Soft and Sightless
Fantasies of biological transcendence historically have taken varied forms. For Florentine mystics such as Maria Pazzi and Umiliana de Cherchi the final destination in the mystic odyssey was the falling away of the biological body and the union with God in a spiritual marriage. For Renaissance humanist thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Cornelius Agrippa the earthly body was a tool to be manipulated in the service of a transcendent end in which it would become dematerialized pure spirit. In the occult magical doctrine propounded by Ficino, Agrippa and Giordano Bruno the human individual could through magic literally become God through the exercise of intellect and creative power. As in the beliefs of the Christian mystics, here too this result is imagined as post-biological, with the effacement or dissolution of the mortal flesh.
Angel and Pantheon
After having visited the cathedrals and catacombs of Europe, I became fascinated with artistic representations of the saints’ and martyrs’ bodies and with their articulations of faith and desire. The works in Beyond the Flesh Dress are inspired by my encounters with these historical images and ideas.
To view the installation of Beyond the Flesh Dress at the Blackberry Gallery, Port Moody Arts Centre, click here.