Thursday, 28 March 2013

Metaphors for embodiment; Or I'm really losing it this time

This is a work in progress taken from my latest essay but it works quite nicely as a standalone piece, I think. This series of Janice Gordon's work was on show at La Specola, Florence's Natural History Museum and I've talked about it in a previous post Hearts of Florence.

The Materia Medica/Metafisica series of portraits are described in the catalogue;
© Janice Gordon 
Gordon has constructed “portraits” using images from antique anatomical drawings, art history and nature, creating them on original 17th century materia medica manuscript pages. The beeswax that has been used contains virgin wax from the apiary at the Benedictine Monastery of Torrechiara near Parma, Italy. While “materia medica” refers to medicinal substances used to heal the body, “metafisica” refers to the aspects of spirit, mind and mystery, which transcend the body
In order to draw out some of the complex iconography, I want to concentrate on one image in the series. The most recognisable feature is the face of Leonardo da Vinci's 1477 portrait of Ginevra de Benci which sits within a profile dissected head, surrounding her face like a halo. A skeletal orange torso with arms folded is affixed to her forehead. The serious austerity of her gaze takes on a sadness due to her slightly tilted face. The lines of her neck continue downwards towards the head and arms of a sleeping foetus which lies over her upper chest, whilst figures in old fashioned diving costumes surround it. Snippets of red musculature, a curved spine, cut ribs and coloured nerves form her shoulders and truncated arms, in a parody of a stiff renaissance costume. The three quarter pose with cropped arms is familiar from other fifteenth century portraits. The beeswax marks the manuscript parchment at the top and bottom of the collage.

This image presents so many questions regarding embodiment that it's worthwhile staying with it to discuss a couple of Erwin Panofsky's theories, followed by observations on emotions of the body.

In a famous essay Panofsky states that without the early anatomists, there would have been no renaissance art as we know it.1 He argues that the rise of anatomy cannot be understood in isolation from the renaissance in art; the history of anatomy is deeply embedded in art history.2 He lists a number of painter anatomists, Pollaiuolo, Michaelangelo, who he suggests took more of an interest in the bones, muscles and tendons than the intestines, 'placing anatomy in the service of art'. As artists looking to depict the human body faithfully, an understanding of the muscle structure would be more important than the internal organs. He continues with the ultimate observer of nature, Leonardo da Vinci, whose faithful recordings of dissections 'placed art in the service of anatomy and thereby [he] became the founder of anatomy as a science, based on [his] extensive research' from life, or indeed death.3 

As Panofsky can occasionally be master of the sweeping statement, Martin Kemp elucidates saying da Vinci 'was not undertaking 'descriptive anatomy' in the sense of Henry Gray's famous and enduring text book of 1858 [but] pursuing what we might call, anachronistically, physiological anatomy'.4 So when Gordon brings well known renaissance artists in her collages together with medical manuscripts and anatomical images, this is I would argue is Panofsky's view of renaissance art/science history embodied in a piece of contemporary art. Or indeed an example of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Gestalt psychology. Gordon is reimagining a time 'where an untold variety of mixtures of interpenetration which seen in retrospect, may either look like synthesis or like chaos'.5 This modern revisiting of a renaissance 'decompartmentalisation', I suggest endows the portraits with extra psychological depth, enabling them to actually embody an emotion.

Given in the title of this exhibition, I wouldn't expect that this 'portrait' is a new reading of Ginevra de Benci; it's merely using her as an association or metaphor. Instead here I return to Ian Burkitt and his investigation into social relations, embodiment and emotions. This aspect of embodiment is probably one of the most slippery simply because of the variations; cultural, historical, psychological and individual. Although 'individuals are are trained in the emotional habitus from infancy, and through this, develop emotional disposition that can be expresses throughout a person's life', emotion is very much held together in the 'weave of behaviours that make up our social lives'.6 So for me - with my personal emotional behaviours - to interpret the expression on Ginevra's face in the Gordon image as distant pensiveness or sadness is ill advised without using other bodily clues provided. As Burkitt says, 'what shows itself on the outside, for instance on one's face, is merely a derivative or else a [distorted] expression'. 

Further information should be taken from the symbols around the face, such as the skull 'brain halo'. This could suggest that 'she' is deep in thought, unsure of an outcome of an illness or condition. The body language of the skeleton with folded arms is in keeping with a person to whom she is talking who isn't receptive, or is unwilling to hear/see her point of view. The divers in her upper chest surrounding the foetus, I imagine to be both her lungs rising and falling, inflating and deflating. Or perhaps they are the life support to the sleepy foetus? In Gordon's 'Surrender' (2012) video she used the diver as a metaphor for anxiety, so it might suggest maternal worries. Given its position over the heart, I read this as her love for the child. 

Thought, preoccupation, anxiety, love; these are incredibly abstract ideas to convey but this is what Janice Gordon's art does so well. She uses metaphors such as falling or drowning to make sense of her own medical unknowns, turning an individual body event into a shared embodied experience. Given this, I don't think my interpretation of the image is overdrawn.

1Erwin Panofsky 'Artist, scientist, genius: notes of the 'Renaissance-Dammerung' in The Renaissance: Six essays, (New York: Harper Collins, 1962). He defines 'renaissance' broadly, from 13th - 16th centuries
2José van Dijck, The Transparent Body: A Cultural Analysis of Medical Imaging (Washington: University of Washington Press, 2005), p49
3 Panofsky, p142
4Martin Kemp, Leonardo: Experience, experiment and design (London: V&A Publication, 2006) p51
5 Panofsky, p128
6Ian Burkitt, Bodies of thought: embodiment, identity and modernity (London: Sage, 1999), p117

No comments:

Post a Comment