A Fixation With Non-Conforming Bodies Is Pervading Contemporary Art. Here’s How Two Shows in London Capture the Trend

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What does a human body look like, and how is it meant to feel? This question serves as the lynchpin for two exhibitions currently on show in London—”Support Structures” at Gathering (until July 21) and “Unruly Bodies” at Goldsmiths CCA (until September 3)—both of which celebrate contemporary artists that look far beyond conventional understandings of our flesh.

At Gathering, the show’s title serves as an umbrella for ideas of nurturing and care, as well as the physical sensation of being in our bodies.

The show opens with a sculpture by Berenice Olmedo, a Mexican artist whose practice is informed by her work at a Mexico City children’s hospital. (2020) is named after the child who once wore the leg brace that forms the majority of the piece. The medical equipment is suspended as if a pair of human legs occupy it, in a ghostly balance of fragility and utilitarianism. Lilac-colored straps and a polka-dotted pattern soften and gender the object, something that Olmedo compounds by adding a pair of pointe ballet shoes—surely the most unnatural manifestation of beauty.

Berenice Olmedo, <i>Isabela</i>(2020). Courtesy the artist and Jan Kaps, Cologne Photography Sprengel Museum.

Berenice Olmedo, Isabela(2020). Courtesy the artist and Jan Kaps, Cologne Photography Sprengel Museum.

Physical aids are also prominent in several prints by Louise Bourgeois. A crutch is seen holding up the bent and falling branches of a tree, and again supporting a faceless amputee. These etchings allude not only to memories of her sister’s physical impairments, but the complexities of the artist’s relationship with her family, which caused considerable mental anxiety.

Alina Szapocznikow also grapples with the existential challenges of sickness in her photographs of the sinewy, elastic remnants of chewed gum. These works were made soon after the artist was diagnosed with breast cancer and convey the inextricable nature of our physical and mental self, something that is often compartmentalized within medical care.

Redefining what a body actually means naturally leads to the boundless possibilities of science fiction. An early work by Nam June Paik conceives of a “robot brain” formed from an old diary and a rudimentary computer, while an enormous—and rather chilling— sculpture by Ivana Bašic presents a vaguely humanoid figure with a yolk of blown glass for a head. The piece is reminiscent of HR Geiger’s xenomorphs, with a body that is held in a foetal state, as if it could animate at any moment. The title, is sensual and caring, seemingly at odds with this nightmarish vision. Perhaps this figure isn’t so horrifying after all?

Installation view, "Support Structures," Gathering, June 22 – July 22, 2023. Photo © Gathering (Grey Hutton).

Installation view, “Support Structures,” Gathering, June 22 – July 22, 2023. Photo © Gathering (Grey Hutton).

At Goldsmiths CCA, the tenets of sci-fi serve as equally vital source material. The principle of the show explores “monstrous” visions of the body, as symbols of resistance and non-conformity, where our physical selves are not defined by a smooth, conventional exterior.

An entire room is given over to Giulia Cenci’s eerie sculptural creatures, which exist as featureless heads attached to dead tree roots, old tubes and moulds of human bones. Presented in a blacked-out interior, with each ‘figure’ housed in a cell formed from reclaimed shower cubicles, this is a chilling vision that speaks to the shadows of trauma and the power of our own dark imagination.

Camille Henrot’s bronze (2019) is another standout piece. She manipulates a material historically used to render the hard, imposing symbols of masculine dominance, yet here it conveys the fleshy folds of a postpartum body, where recognizable elements of a belly give way to an empty cavity. The entire piece is shot through with an electrical cable, in an allusion to the currents of our nervous system, not to mention the medicalization of birth.

Installation view, "Unruly Bodies," Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (June 30 – September 3, 2023). Courtesy Goldsmiths CCA. Photo by Rob Harris.

Installation view, “Unruly Bodies,” Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (June 30 – September 3, 2023). Courtesy Goldsmiths CCA. Photo by Rob Harris.

Elsewhere, the idea of ritual performance and literally “embodying” folklore and myth is explored in Anna Perach’s surreal, tufted costumes. These wearable sculptures extend and confuse conventional proportions, blurring the lines between interior and exterior flesh through enormously tactile and joyfully adorned textural surfaces. These pieces are designed to be worn for performances, but they are just as alluring as inanimate objects.

The notion of clothing the body is also a central concern for Paloma Proudfoot, whose background in pattern-cutting informs her new ceramic commission for this exhibition, (2023). Each piece of this incredible tableau fits together like an articulated doll, complete with golden pins. These figures upend the symbol of the shop dummy, which is defined by unrealistic proportions and a rigid passivity, in favor of a sinister and sensual agency. Both a hairy torso and a flayed, muscular back are rendered gorgeous through glossy glazes, as well as full breasts and a belly that have broken the threads of their body suit.

The presence of enormous sewing needles, complete with a rope of red thread, might be tinged with violence, but it ultimately alludes to a space of corporeal care, repair and collaboration. In this work, the words of the academic Susan Stryker that inspired this exhibition feel fully realized: “I want to lay claim to the dark power of my monstrous identity without using it as a weapon against others or being wounded by it myself.”

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