top of page

Body Reality and the Transmutation of the Self.

The immediate aims of this new development of A Body Which Draws Itself is ongoing from the original iteration, to create artworks through the embodiment and performance of verbs in a space. The eventual goal throughout this new development however is to challenge the role of the verbs in the process and consider the key ideas of this when separated from the verb list. What is the intention or task? What are the stakes when the verb list is removed? In the time since the first two iterations of this project and the beginning of this new development, the term 'transmutation' has emerged as a new influence in relation to the work. Transmutation, as defined by the Collins Dictionary, is the act or state of changing something into another nature, substance, form, or condition, particularly in regard to elemental and atomic changes. This term has felt relative to the work as a project which attempts to take bodily experiences in predicament and transmute that information into a new condition, harnessing what I have been calling in the studio the “body-reality” to influence mark making.

I’m keeping close a handful of key references and influences which I think provide a good foundation for the development work. These artists are ones who I believe, across their various art movements and periods, each have an imperative on the body-reality and could be viewed through my lens of transmutation in practice. Carolee Schneemann, Matthew Barney, Ben Denham, and Martha Graham have been deeply influential on my wider practice and this work. These are artists who placed a particular emphasis not just on the body as a tool for making, but on the reality of their individual bodies as an imperative in each of their processes.

Carolee Schneemann, was prolific in the use of transformative action and performance as a mode of artmaking, even though she consistently defended being a painter first. Up to and Including Her Limits (1973-1976) exemplifies this practice of acknowledging, challenging, and translating the reality of the body into an artwork. Staged upon three planes, two vertical walls and the floor beneath her, Schneemann would situate herself in a harness suspended above the ground by a single rope. Using crayons, she would allow the swinging of her body with the extension of her arms to define the marks that would be made on the space around her. Schneemann has stated in an interview that the work was never intended to reflect a personal narrative or an idea of self, but rather as a way of utilising “the whole body as stroke and gesture in this dimensional space.” (REF). This use of physicality separates the body’s reality from the identity of the self. The body, in this predicament, is recording marks that are entirely dependent on her specific flexibility, anatomy, extension, reflexes, and so on. It is these definitive realities of the body which define the artistic outcome. This examination of the work has had a heavy influence on the ideas present in A Body Which Draws Itself


Continuing this train of thought, a similar use of body-reality is employed in Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint series. Barney, like Schneemann, transmutes actions of the body into marks within a space. Through physical challenges of fitness, endurance and repetition, Barney allows his body’s experience of these actions affect the marks which are being made. These site-specific works utilise trampolines, poles, weights, resistance bands, and various other training equipment, in order to create states of physical strain and exertion in the body. This strain alters the way in which the body is able to make marks, it changes the way that energy is transmuted from the body into the artmaking. Again, the reality of the body made integral to the process. In these works, the conscious idea of self in terms of identity, or even ego, becomes less important, however, the body is made more paramount. There is a new tension created here in which the body, which serves a vessel for that very same self, is made ever more central to the work. In some ways, this extension of the body to the forefront of the process allows for the self, and decision-making processes related to the conscious self, to recede. By pushing the body into states of physical strain, exertion, challenge, etc, incidental and instinctual mark-making becomes more prevalent in the work. In other words, knowledge that is held in the body is given the opportunity to operate more freely.

Another artist who utilises this tension but combined with engineering is Ben Denham. The drawing machines created by Denham incorporate challenges and predicaments of the body in a unique way. Pulling Strings (2004-06) is a series of works in which the artist attempts to write two different letters through a drawing machine that operates like some kind of reverse marionette. Denham is suspended in a harness with strings which attach to his four limbs that connect to mark-making implements through a system of wires and pulleys. As he moves his suspended body in this unnatural predicament, he is attempting to puppeteer the symmetrical, ambidextrous implements before him to write the two letters. Denham’s work, particularly Pulling Strings, has a unique point to make about embodied knowledge and body-reality in relation to the previous examples and A Body Which Draws Itself. Where the works of Schneemann and Barney allow the body’s functions and limitations to be the cause of incidental or intentional lines and marks, Denham is focussed on a tangible lettering goal within his predicament. Where the reality of the body is made integral in the previous examples, Denham reduces the body’s capacity to perform natural movement by suspending it upright with unsecured limbs. He doesn’t allow for the float-factor of Schneemann’s movements or the aggressive and intentional functionality of Barney’s work, he has made himself precarious. Alongside this precarious predicament, he is performing a conscious task with a legible goal in mind. The work is attempting to transmute the body’s experience of this predicament into something tangible and objective, not marks which are reactionary only to the performance. This adds a new tension to the act of transmutation, in which the outcome has a desired condition, while the form of this outcome is still entirely dependant on the body’s reality.

The final artist that I've observed as an influence on this project is Martha Graham. Referred to as the Picasso of modern dance, Graham revolutionised the relationship between dancers, their bodies and enacting movement. One of her most notable contributions to this evolution of dance was her contract and release techniques. Firstly, the technique is centred on deep breathing and a connection to the rhythm of breath, as both a function and a ritual. Focussed breathing, and connecting breath to movement, allows the performer to move with more energy, fluidity, and stamina through a space, rather than allowing the breathing to seem in opposition to action when experiencing exertion. The ritualisation of breathing in this technique also has a rhythmic effect, rather than the performer responding to (and being beholden to) a piece of music or exterior sound, the rhythm is defined by the function of the body in the act of breathing. When a collective of performers are focussed on breathing in tandem, they can often rely on the rhythm of the collective to stay in time without any music. The other cornerstone of this practice concentrates on the functions of the muscles, in contraction and release. All movements that we perform with the body are the result of contracting, releasing, and extending of muscles. This technique harnesses and amplifies the contraction-to-release function of muscles as the driving force for movement and, especially in contrast to classical forms of dance allows for more natural and honest movements of the body. Through training and proper technique, performers learn to operate these two motors of breath and contracted movement in tandem with one another. The result is a rhythm of breath that is directly related to muscle tension control, which alters the way that a body moves through the space drastically. Connecting breath with movement creates a relationship in which the functional motor of the body breathing is tied to the output of movement. In a way, the body is able to transmute breath into an artistic expression. If we want to explore this in visual arts terms, we can imagine that oxygen and the body are the materials being enacted upon and the resulting movement is the marks being made.

Over the next two weeks in the studio I'm hoping to continue expanding on this term body-reality, keeping these reference in mind as touchstones on this topic.

Bibliography Cashdan, Marina. 2016. “Martha Graham Dance Company Reveals Never-Before-Seen Photographs of the Picasso of Modern Dance.” Artsy. February 12, 2016. Denham, Ben. 2014a. “The Chopstick Technique (2002-2011).” Ben Denham. June 30, 2014. ———. 2014b. “Pulling Strings (2004-2006).” Ben Denham. October 5, 2014. E-Flux Education. n.d. “Matthew Barney:DRAWING RESTRAINT - E-Flux Education.” Accessed May 15, 2023. Giguere, Miriam. 2018. “Martha Graham – the Graham Technique.” Human Kinetics. 2018. Schneemann Foundation. 1973. “Up to and Including Her Limits | Carolee Schneemann Foundation.” 1973. Schneemann, Carolee . 2011. Behind the Scenes: On Line: Carolee Schneemann Interview by Museum of Modern Art.

27 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page