Scanning the landscape of local contemporary art practices, the body in motion presents itself in a variety of different guises. As a doing-body that negotiates space in Bianca Hester’s constructed environments; a choreographed dancer’s body in Sriwhana Spong’s videos and collages; and a medium — literally, a communication vessel — in Adelle Mills’ short, edited films. Consider also Shaun Gladwell’s balletic figures performing routines in isolated urban environments; or Daniel Crooks’ stretched, cubistic, video studies of human movement. The body in motion becomes a mode of measurement in Laresa Kosloff’s photographs; an automatic drawing support in Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano’s collaborative performances; and a site of endurance, flexibility and adaptation in Alicia Frankovich’s. In Nathan Gray’s score-based installations, bodies become kinetic sculptures created by the viewers’ improvised movement through the space. Likewise, Agatha Gothe-Snape’s sculptural–conceptual compositions are entirely contingent on moving bodies: they are incomplete without physical activation by the spectator.
Though widely varied in intention and meaning, in many of these instances the body in motion becomes the driver of the artwork. Movement — delicately attuned to the architecture of the body — becomes the artwork’s language or media, its primary means of expression. That said, these physical gestures are performed to very different material or physical ends. Sometimes they are live and public (many of Frankovich’s actions are performed in front of gallery audiences), while other times they are private: filmed in a studio then edited to exist later only as moving images (such as with Gabriella and Silvana Mangano’s durational drawings), or as photographs (consider Kosloff’s formal tableaus). Sometimes they are collages constructed from found stills (Spong’s use of photographs of dancers sourced from old books and magazines), and sometimes they are collages made from recent choreographed happenings (Hester’s photo-collages composed of documentation from live performances that then form material for her artist books). Surveying this small curatorial constellation, it becomes apparent that a large number of the artists making work that strongly figures the body in motion are women.
Efforts to articulate this trend have been made. The curators of the recent exhibition Contemporary Australia: Women at GOMA, Brisbane, acknowledge something of this shift in suitably tentative terms — that is, for an exhibition whose only curatorial premise was to celebrate the plurality of contemporary women’s art practice (in Australia). In the exhibition catalogue under the heading of ‘Embodied Acts: Live and Alive’, Bree Richards suggests that ‘live and performative art forms’ are experiencing a resurgence — particularly amongst early-career and experimental women artists.1 Richards suggests that while many younger women artists seek to distance their work from feminist interpretative discourses, it is in their references to the body that they either directly or indirectly invoke feminist art histories, and that is a priori significant.
Alexie Glass-Kantor (née Glass) has formulated a much more discerning take. In a 2009 article for Art & Australia titled ‘Extimacy: A new generation of feminism’, Glass-Kantor flagged a feminist re-focussing on the body via new technologies in visual reproduction. Here, Glass-Kantor explores the multivalent texture of feminism in contemporary Australian art in relation to new visual media, making reference to the video work of Gabriella and Silvana Mangano, Alex Martinis Roe, Anastasia Klose and several others. Speaking of this new generation, ‘born under the omnipresent lens of myriad media formats’, Glass-Kantor suggests that these female artists’ canny manipulation of the gaze has ‘led to evolved tactical ways to articulate and disseminate their own representation’.2 As such, Glass-Kantor — echoing the auto-curatorial logic of Boris Groys in his famous essays ‘The Obligation to Self-Design’ and ‘Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility’3 — argues that contemporary Australian women artists are making art that actively negotiates the conditions of their self-representation via new visual technologies, and that they do so in a manner that is radically advanced from previous generations of feminism and feminist art. ‘This generation’, Glass-Kantor writes, has ‘unprecedented control as the director, author, performer and distributor’; they are ‘auteurs of their own representation’ — and that is significant.4
The focus of the present essay, however, is on the capacity of the body to not only articulate and disseminate its own representation, but to generate the very terms of this representation: to produce its own language, syntax and grammar, and its own criteria of measurement. This ability is located neither in the ‘embodied act’ nor its technological reproduction, but is rather suspended somewhere in between. It is located in the body’s motion or movement, that which cannot be discreetly contained by the body, nor captured through the lens of a camera.5
It may seem nauseatingly dead-white-male oriented to turn to Duchamp to help conceptualise a formal trend in local contemporary women’s art. However, there is something in David Joselit’s analysis of Duchamp’s interest in gender that is worth extracting for our purpose: that is, elucidating a link between contemporary women artists and the depiction of the body in motion. In his 1998 monograph on Duchamp, titled Infinite Regress, Joselit refracts a number of the artist’s early works through the prism of gender. Bypassing his more explicit engagements with the theme, such as his cross-dressing as Rros Sélavy, Joselit focuses instead on Duchamp’s early paintings: Dulcinea 1911, Yvonne and Magdeleine Torn in Tatters 1911, Network of Stoppages 1914, and, of course, the apex of these explorations in The Large Glass/The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors even 1915–23. Here, Joselit argues that Duchamp is concerned with a ‘gendered opposition between mensurability and immensurability’, which he associates with the masculine (the machinic bachelor) and the feminine (the amorphous, gaseous cloud of the bride), respectively.6
Joselit looks to Duchamp’s interest in the chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey to further investigate the artist’s preoccupation with the gendered body and the dialectical interplay of its mensur-/immensurability. Specifically, Joselit focuses on Duchamp’s studies into Marey’s attempts to understand the body as a ‘graphic system’, one that is able to produce its own raw data — its own writing — simply through the process of recording its movement. Joselit notes that Marey often dressed his subjects in black outfits with white dots affixed to the key points of bodily movement. That way, Marey could literally connect the dots and form a line-graph clearly articulating a notation of the body in motion when he lined-up the reams of photographs in a row or grid. (Remember the famous links made between Marey’s gesture and the dotted semi-circles swarming around the hips of the figure in Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 1912.) Joselit explains that Marey’s objective here was ‘literally to extract a language of the body’,7 linking this desire to a conviction that Marey was ‘deeply distrustful of linguistic signs’ and sought in his chronophotography to form a language that somehow eluded semiotic and economic coding.8 Marey claimed the immediacy of his chronophotographic method created a ‘language of phenomena themselves’, and in this way was ‘superior to all other modes of expression’.9
Ever one to enjoy both folding and poking holes in the fabric of language, Duchamp, posits Joselit, in turn echoed Marey’s scepticism and actively sought out alternative, more esoteric methodologies for measurement apropos the body. ‘What [Duchamp] saw in [Marey’s] work’, Joselit writes, ‘was not merely a mode of capturing movement but a way of representing the body through a graphic system immanent to it.’10 Contrasting Duchamp’s artistic treatment of the body to Picasso’s (for which Joselit relies on the authority of Krauss’ semiotic reading of Picasso’s ungraspable, ‘carnal’, female body),11 Joselit suggests that ‘Duchamp did not disperse the figure into a graphic script but rather disciplined the medium of the body itself into a proto-language’.12 Duchamp’s somewhat futurist painting Dulcinea 1911, for example, depicts a nude female body moving through a diagonally striated and spatially ambiguous pictorial plane. Duchamp’s attempt to convey movement in Dulcinea thus represents for Joselit an effort to ‘develop a graphic script from the body itself’,13 and to then use that script as an artistic method for transposing (or, we might say, for dealing with the art historical legacy of) the nude. As opposed to Picasso’s ‘liquidation’ of the nude into an ‘arbitrary economy of graphic signifiers composed of elements alien or external to it’,14 demonstrated most famously during his synthetic cubist period, it could be said that Marey and Duchamp’s method functions to divert the body from its social fate as a site of externally imposed inscription — whether linguistic (semiotic) or economic (socially coded in terms of an exchange value: the nude as wife, as model/muse, or as prostitute).
This articulation of the body’s capacity to generate its own graphic notation — or to itself be a graphic system — can be conceived of in terms of a resistance, even a type of withdrawal. This, we might extrapolate, is the value of Joselit’s argument to a feminist interpretation of the recent trend in women’s art that takes as its subject the body in motion. In Marey’s chronophotographs, Duchamp’s early paintings, and — I suggest — many works by the artists I have noted above, the body in motion not only articulates and disseminates its own representation through a language system that is immanent to it — movement — but also generates the very terms of this representation, and thus creates a rupture in the broader field of representation itself. Within this field, the body in motion asserts itself as somehow unassimilable, as partially unknowable.
With this in mind, the trope of the body returns not as an art historical icon, but rather as a type of medium — or perhaps its support (the technical support of movement). In this way, the almost automatic invocation of the legacy of the female body as iconic — of the traditional nude model in Western painting, or the live body of more recent feminist performance art practices from the 1960s onwards — is sidestepped in lieu of a methodological approach to form. That is to say, the body (in motion) here is partially abandoned as an image and is instead repurposed as an operational strategy. This shift from image to operation, then, is possibly what is also interesting about the number of male artists making work along these lines today too: under the sign of contemporaneity, it is less interesting to isolate the body as an object, and more interesting to analyse the way it operates, the way it moves — socially and spatially — through different environments.
The social and spatial aspect of the bodies in motion that populate much work made by the artists referenced in this essay cannot be overlooked. For many, including Gabriella and Silvana Mangano, Frankovich, Mills, and — not least — Hester, it is the intersection between the specific site and the movement of the body performed within that site that conditions the work. It is of the utmost significance, for instance, that the bodily gestures transmitted via video hook-up and recycled through the three figures in Mills’ G08 Theatre 2011 are firmly situated within the pedagogical context of a lecture theatre at Melbourne University: the work analyses how gestures travel through social and pedagogical space, how movement is learned. A similar reference to feedback loops, interpretation and learning — this time in the flat space of the Internet — informs the gestures of Frankovich in Abolition of Gestural Restraint; an Anthology of 7 Stills 2011 too.
What connects each of these highly variegated practices is a decision made at some point to represent the body in motion in some way. In doing this, these artists submit these bodies in motion to the realm of art and thus of images. In his beautiful book Confronting Images, the French image theorist Georges Didi-Huberman sketches a paradox pertaining to the representation of movement specific to the medium of photography that is useful here in conclusion. He describes the paradox in roughly the following terms: say you want to photograph a moving object, you have two options: one is to capture the object truthfully in motion through a still or a series of stills (Marey’s chronophotography); the other is to leave the shutter open and capture the movement itself truthfully: in the blurred, ghostly sweep of a long exposure. Both methods have claims to truth (the first to the object, the second to its motion), yet both alternatives ultimately ‘entail loss’, and thus entail for Didi-Huberman also ‘an alienation’.15 This aporia in the visualisation of movement is transposed onto other media too: while the temporal aspect that is compromised by still photography is repatriated in the moving image of film, space is lost — and so on.
This paradox reveals an irreducible quality in movement that renders it, even for Marey, somehow untranslatable into the realm of images.16 This untranslatability, however, need not be considered a weakness. Rather, it can be understood as a tactic. With regard to contemporary art made by women depicting the body in motion, perhaps we could then extrapolate that it points to an impulse to present the body as locked in a dialectical state: of producing and disseminating its own representation on the one hand, and as something intrinsically unknowable or immensurable on the other. In thinking about the decision to depict the body in motion, a gesture that necessarily and knowingly entails a loss, ‘an alienation’, perhaps we inch closer to an understanding of the meaningfulness of its increasing presence in the landscape of contemporary women’s art.
Helen Hughes is a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Melbourne, co-editor of Discipline, and an editor of emaj, the Electronic Melbourne Art Journal.