The body in pieces/ presence (Part 1)

shrine1Nicola Samorì, Shrine, 2012, oil on linen, 200 x 300 cm

Linda Nochlin’s book, The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a metaphor for Modernity (1994) traced developments as they have been expressed in representations of the human figure fragmented, mutilated and fetishised, by looking at work produced by artists from Neo-classicism to modern art. Nochlin discusses how the body has been represented in Modern art:

‘The partial image, the “crop”, fragmentation, ruin and mutilation — all expressed nostalgia and grief for the loss of a vanished totality, a utopian wholeness. Often, such feelings were expressed in deliberate destructiveness and this became the new way of seeing: the notion of the modern. The “crop” constituted a distinctively modern view of the world, the essence of modernity itself.’[1]

The body as a theoretical construct (subject/object/other) and a biological entity (specimen, modified form, material organism) is even more broken today. Whatever Modernism did to the body was further complicated by postmodernism’s remixing methodology and mistrust of the levelling effect of theorisation and semantic interpretation. Today, the relentless taxonomising of the body takes place through an even larger prism—one temporally challenged by the speed of access to images via the media and internet, bio-medical advancements, cosmetic modification and, at a theoretical level, cultural/philosophical posthumanism which ‘strives to move beyond archaic concepts of “human nature” to develop ones which constantly adapt to contemporary technoscientific knowledge’[2]. Along with this is the countering effort to situate knowledge within the body as embodied cognition, imagination or energy —a localised vs cultural construction.

The dissolution of body related binary oppositions so familiar to post-structuralist thought has also changed the way the body is theorised today—the unpicking of the binary as an apolitical strategy (a deprivileging of one arm of the binary opposition over another[3]) is most evident in queer aesthetics, in which the lesser-known or ‘othered’ stakeholder takes the theoretical high-ground, aiming to circumscribe a greater bandwidth of understanding in relation to the endless existential questions that being in/of/with a body produces.

“Queerness is, in my view, an approach to ourselves and one another that makes the bare minimum of assumptions about our own and one another’s bodies, self-conceptions, and trajectories. It is the wilful cultivation of our ability to keep ourselves open to the simple fact that everything, and everyone, changes.”[4]

The fluid movement between so-called binary states—the necessary rejection of what it means to stay still in one, challenges what or who determines how we associate or dissociate with our own bodies.

The stand-in virtual body has also proliferated— Second Life allows ‘residents’ to buy virtual property and has its own virtual dollar (handy in Sydney’s unremitting housing affordability crisis). Check out of life and into a new avatar where you can be rich, beautiful and famous, and still happy (!) Curiously, The word avatar originates in Hinduism, where it suggests the descent of a deity into terrestrial form—deities in India are popularly thought to be formless and capable of manifesting themselves in any form.[5] The sanctioning off of real world concerns is fundamental to the success of any expanded virtual presence—the formlessness of the body awaits alternative incarnation.

Emoticons as ‘icons for emotions’ are another form of expanded presence—the public stand-in and global symbol (since there is relative universal agreement as to their meaning) for the expression of feelings often felt in private. Emoticons seem so convenient, but my use of the smiley-face-big-laugh with tears squeezing out of its eyes is so different to my friend’s use of it; who, being more subtle and discerning than I, intends an entirely different reading. The homogenising effect of these 21st century symbols runs parallel with their novelty.

The selfie could be seen as another form of self-witnessing, an existential ‘I was here’. The selfie could be a biological impulse to mark social territory and to test the limits of the camera lens as mirror, and marker of place— “The usual complaint against the selfie is that it substitutes terrible narcissism for what once was a sense of seeing things for their own sake—that what matters to the eye of the iPhone camera is not the place I am in but the fact that I am in it.”[6] Adam Gopnik goes on to argue that selfie is not necessarily driven by narcissism, “but an odd kind of promiscuity of the self seems to be the causal portrait’s common energy: you can take a picture any time you want to, and make any moment last.”[7]

In yet another extension of human ‘imitation’ and innovation the robotics lab at UNSW Art & Design is currently carrying out research on robot designs that employ futurist aesthetics/motifs. Is this because yesterday’s idea of the future is less threatening having been already usurped by culture? Perhaps, the speculative concept of the ‘future’s idea of the future’ is much more difficult to imagine and more frightening in relation to bodies and their stand-ins. Last year on a trip to Japan I met a robot—a prototype for those that will be ‘employed’ [(!)… are they labouring for free?] at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I looked into its black eyes with green light hovering behind and thought…. ‘Nice to meet you’. The laboratory technician explained that one of the many functions of the robots will be to assist people with directions, and potentially carry medical supplies to those people that might sustain minor injuries. I wondered If I became lost at the Olympics and struck with thirst would I feel genuine gratitude toward a robot for providing directions and a bottle of water, beyond the simple relief one might experience when problem solving with virtual geography in google maps, or coming upon a vending machine (in Japan, rarely a problem). My reaction on encountering this stand-in for a human being was unquantifiable, not in an ‘uncanny valley’ kind of way but in the genuine state of confusion that arose when common courtesy seemed to automatically transfer to the non-human, albeit functionally helpful proxy.

Speaking of Japan, the cute body is arguably a cult phenomenon that has permeated both Asian and Western societiesJapanese Anime/manga, although diverse in genre and targeted demographics (boys, girls, adult, etc.), are drenched in doe-eyed characters. The term Kawaii meaning “lovable”, “cute”, or “adorable” is synonymous with the quality of cuteness . It has been described as a style which is “infantile and delicate at the same time as being pretty.”[8]

Sianne Ngai argues that “Cuteness is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness. It hinges on a sentimental attitude toward the diminutive and/or weak, which is why cute objects—formally simple or noncomplex, and deeply associated with the infantile, the feminine, and the unthreatening—get even cuter when perceived as injured or disabled. So there’s a sadistic side to this tender emotion, as people like Daniel Harris have noted. The prototypically cute object is the child’s toy or stuffed animal.”[1]


end Part 1_________


[2] Neil Badmington, 2000

[3] Deconstruction is the ‘event’ or ‘moment’ at which a binary opposition is thought to contradict itself and undermine its own authority, John Searle, 1983.

[4] Gordon Hall, “Commencement Address.” Parsons The New School for Design Fine Arts BFA,School of Art, Media, and Technology. May 19, 2016.

[5] accessed September 30, 2016

[6] Adam Gopnik , Finding The Self In A Selfie, October 29, 2015

[7] ibid.

[8] .” (Yamane 1990) in Kinsella, Sharon. 1995. “Cuties in Japan”, accessed September 30, 2016

[1] Sianne Ngai, Interview With Adam Jasper, Issue 43 Forensics Fall, 2011, accessed September 30, 2016, Http://Www.Cabinetmagazine.Org/Issues/43/Jasper_Ngai.Php


One Reply to “The body in pieces/ presence (Part 1)”

  1. Helen Piotrowski says:

    Always an enjoyable and stimulating read Chelsea..await more visual and intellectual delight in 2017 Happy New Year..

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