By Joe Ferguson
A number of years ago the Louvre did a survey and found that the average viewer spent just 17 seconds looking at the Mona Lisa. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that people aren’t taking the time to really see the world’s most famous painting. However, that conclusion would be at odds with what we’ve learned from cognitive science, so perhaps seeing is not the major issue. Cognition—the process of acquiring knowledge—was once thought to be a purely mental function facilitated through quiet, passive reflection. We now know, however, that our motor and perceptual systems influence our minds as much as our minds influence our bodily actions. In other words, the acquisition of knowledge is embodied and not just a mental process.
A paradox of modern living is that digital technology allows us to interact with more information than we have ever had available, but we do so through the minuscule movements required of button pushing. This disembodied attempt at acquiring knowledge conflicts with the neurological mechanisms we use to understand our world. Artist Robert Morris said it best more than 40 years ago, “I’d rather break my arm by falling off a platform than spend an hour in detached contemplation of a Matisse. We’ve become blind from so much seeing.”
The idea that our lives are becoming increasingly disembodied by digital culture was the focus of Body Talk, a recent exhibition at the di Rosa Gallery. Located on 217 acres in the scenic Napa Valley, di Rosa is a unique art space. There are three galleries, a sculpture park, a 35-acre lake, and a wildlife preserve. The collection includes approximately 2,000 works of art by 800 regional artists working from the 1960s to the present.
Body Talk attempted to address “how technology is rapidly changing the human experience by prompting a reengagement with the corporeal.” With an emphasis on interspersed live performances, the exhibit was difficult to take in with a single viewing, but a few notable pieces are worth discussing.
Sophia Wang and Lisa Rybovich Crallé make up the collaborative duo Manners. Manners’ Basic Edition consumed an entire corner of the gallery with hand-drawn gridded paper that covered the floor and ran up the wall—gridded tubes, yellow squares, and a pegboard sculpture completed the space. Wang performed in the space during the opening of the exhibition, drawing attention to how human bodies navigate the mathematical and technical world with which we daily interact.
In another corner, the collective Bonanza’s they know better evoked a minimalist studio—curved and irregular shaped objects were placed on or around a simple wooden platform and gel-tinted skylights added a colorful, meditative tone. It was best to walk around the piece, rather than simply view it from any particular side. The program guide stated the objects “perform,” but to me the objects begged to be performed upon, touched, and explored.
Mads Lynnerup’s Exercising Grill was a sturdy steel structure of squares and rectangles meant to be climbed upon, as was demonstrated in the accompanying video. The work called into question the divisions of space, art, and physical activity.
Lastly was May Wilson’s anthropomorphic Staunch. A giant head--or torso?—sat slightly askew on a perch of three clumsy, fleshy legs. Like a human form, the soft exterior appearance belied the structural rigidity required to hold it up.
The performance nature of the exhibit required human bodies that were absent during much of its run, leading some critics to assert it was deprived of much of its intended impact. That criticism, however, assumes an antiquated perspective that we must passively watch or see art. The uncluttered, sensual nature of Body Talk inspired feelings to touch and move reminding the viewer that he or she has a body that is not absent during the viewing.
I loathe the criticism that an artwork or space, without the artists or performers present, needs to be activated. Performers can be active within a space, but it is the neurological mechanisms of the viewer that must be activated. Body Talk provoked a discussion about the growing disconnect between our bodily means of engaging the world and the ineffectual interface of our immense digital culture—it was an admiral beginning to a discussion that needs to continue.