Lactating breasts and farting bottoms: unruly bodies run rampant in exhibitions across London


Summertime is always accompanied by some flesh-baring, but this year a throng of myriad bodies in multiple modes have been unleashed across London. The vagaries of climate change may be sending temperatures up and down, but the heat was—and still is—decidedly on in a number of shows where pretty much every bodily preference and practice is allowed to run riot, with no orifice left unexplored. We all inhabit these leaky, creaky, capricious vessels and, flying in the face of the timidities of our current cancel culture, it has been a joy to experience such a comprehensive celebration of their variety and vagaries.

“To be hardcore is never to fall into the safe and simple parameters of right and wrong… sex is never identical, it is always unique,” states the artist-writer Reba Maybury in the text that accompanies the now-closed Hardcore at Sadie Coles. In that show of 18 artists, according to Maybury, “thinking has a holiday, reverting itself to the animal” and Hardcore (which closed on 5 August) certainly lived up to its name as its participants grappled with the subjectivity of sex and the diverse nature of intimacy and our responses to both.

These psychosexual explorations spanned from Carolee Schneemann’s Vulva’s Morphia, a 1995 wall of 36 painted and photographed vulvas, to Monica Bonvicini’s motorised lash of leather belts thrashing the floor made earlier this year.

Boundaries between pain and pleasure were also blurred in Tayeba Begum Lipi’s Comfy Bikinis, made from golden safety pins, and King Cobra/Doreen Lynette Garner’s eviscerated carcass hanging from the ceiling, spilling intestines on the floor. Gropings, couplings and pummellings were captured in smoky, fluid paint by Miriam Cahn, and Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s important installation charted the artist’s homage to underrepresented Black queer poet Brad Johnson, who died of Aids-related illness in 2011.

Paloma Proudfoot’s The Three Living and The Three Dead (2022)

© Ivo Faber

Cahn is also a powerful presence in Unruly Bodies at Goldsmith’s CCA, another taboo-busting show in which 13 women and non-binary artists encompass a wider investigation of what embodiment means today. As per the title, bodies are often presented as monstrous, abject and liminal, but this is seen as a positive. “The unruly body is a site of resistance in which monstrosity is reclaimed as a subjectivity that disrupts normativity and contests power,” states its curator Natasha Hoare.

Farting and the pumping of breast milk make few appearances in fine art, but here each are exuberantly depicted in, respectively, Ebecho Muslimova’s paintings and drawings of her bawdy, rumbunctious alter ego Fatebe, and Camille Henrot’s paintings of the ambivalent push-pull emotions and physical transformations that come with motherhood. Cahn also presents tough yet tender images of indomitable, vulnerable mothers and children, many made in response to the migration crisis, while Paloma Proudfoot uses ceramics to achieve an astonishing array of different textures—spanning flesh, fur and fabric—in her series of grotesquely glam mannequins, a wall-mounted parade of leggy lovelies who sport stylish fetishwear and strike elegant poses while decapitating and eviscerating each other.

Also under scrutiny are the ways in which bodies are frequently taken out of the jurisdiction of their owners, both in their use and perception. Shadi Al-Atallah’s raw, confrontational paintings of figures in extremis deal with queerness, gender fluidity and the constraints experienced by the artist while growing up in Saudi Arabia. While the collaged works of Frida Orupabo assemble personal photographs, early cinema stills and images from archives and popular media in order to dismantle stereotypes and one-dimensional images of Black femininity, both past and present.

Installation view of Black Venus at Somerset House

© Tim Bowditch

Orupabo’s work is also featured in Black Venus at Somerset House, which brings together predominantly photographic work by 18 Black women and non-binary artists to counter centuries of othering, objectification and fetishisation. Here, from Kara Walker’s coruscating work of a naked Black woman painting a series of cavorting penises onto a huge canvas to the performative self-portraits of Maud Sulter, social and art-historical stereotypes are challenged and the Black female form reclaimed on the artist’s terms. However, a more comprehensive and analytical show is needed to do justice to these crucial and neglected issues of representation and identity.

For something more participatory, we can explore the limits and potential of our bodies at the Design Museum (from 26 September) using the interactive sculpture of performance artist Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich. In pieces of his installation Antifurniture, such as the vertical three-person Centipede or the Leg Opener Chair, “a body becomes a body of endurance, mistreatment, a political body or even a body of war”. Looks like we’re in for an active autumn.

• Unruly Bodies, Goldsmith’s CCA, until 3 September; Black Venus, Somerset House, until 24 September; Antifurniture, Design Museum, 26 September-29 October


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