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I N S T A - S L O W A N D E R L U S T E R

The Embodiment of Art: Human Body Aesthetics and Self-Consciousness

Eye and Mind

This study on the work of the below stated artists and their recent exhibitions in London, is based on the paradox of human vision that takes place when we read a painting or an art piece of any sort. During this encounter we don’t only see the world of the painting, but we also see ourselves in this same world. The body that sees, also sees itself. This assumption is based on Merleau-Ponty's analysis on paintings, while by extending Heidegger’s notion of human reality as Being-in-the-world, he developed an alternative to the representationalist view of visual perception. For him, the human body is an object in the painting’s world that experiences itself as itself, and at the same time, as a part of the world of things that are not itself. When we look at a painting, we don’t just look at a piece of art, but instead we see with it, or according to it.

On the Work of Antony Gormley

The Importance of the Human Body in and out of Art

Merleau-Ponty claims that the human body is the centre of the experiential world: “I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience. The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.”

Our body and senses are the centre through which we experience the world, thus human consciousness is an embodied consciousness. I am my body, I am what is around me, I am the space where I am, I am my world. Our entire being-in-the-world is a sensuous and embodied mode of being, which is the ground of all existential knowledge. It is through our conceptual systems that we are able to make sense of everyday life, and other way around.

This sensory and embodied mode of thinking is essential in all artistic creative work. During the experience of every meaningful piece of art, the boundary between the world and the self softens, art becomes penetrable and allows the world to flow into the artist and the artist to flow into the world; the object into the subject.

Art touches the unconscious mind of the artist and at the same time maintains his vital connections with his biological and cultural past. According to Pallasmaa during art making, the hand sees, the eye makes and the mind touches. Sculpture is a spatial and haptic exercise where the internal and the external, the inner perception and the outer space, become one. As I sculpt a human figure, I feel the surfaces of the object, and unconsciously I sense and internalise its character.

Of Tactile Art

We are not usually aware that an unconscious experience of touch is unavoidably hidden in vision. As we look, the eye touches, and before we see an object, we have already touched it and read its properties. Vision and touch constantly collaborate. This is how art emerges too; the hand sees, the eye makes, and the mind touches.

When we experience an art work, we see, we imagine, thus we reach a haptic sensation, and this stimulation is life-enhancing. Going back to this boundary line between my sense of self and the world that is opened during this experience of art of mine, which is also a line between myself and the other; an intense experiential and existential encounter. If you are not an art historicist then a work of art is not a puzzle for you to interpret, but a composition of emotions, experiences and images which immediately dive into your unconscious. This complex composition has an impact on your mind before it becomes understood.

Eros and Death

Max Frisch states: ‘There is no art without Eros’. In every piece of art there is a prominent eroticism in its widest sense, this that goes beyond the sexual instincts, the one of the very urge to live and the urge to demonstrate one’s existence -the life instincts. Artists try to achieve this more indirectly through their different means of art making; their erotic urge makes them demonstrate their existence to the world and their own physical being is being transferred into art in an almost narcissistic manner.

This eroticism could also relate to the evil and the inevitability of death; it is not simply an expression of joyful passion. Similar to Freud’s drives’ dualist approach, Eros and Death both help define one another, in that one is not the other; the identification of Eros automatically defines an opposite. Eros and Death interact and one can turn into the other, such a flipping of love and hate.

The Appearance of Memory in Reading Art

Collective memory makes its appearance in art. It represents the kind of magma from which we have all come; the things that belong to everyone; culturally, politically, socially. However, there is also the individual memory of the subject, and body consists also part of this system of memory.

In our consciousness, imagination, memory and actual experience are equally of same importance. Art has the ability to create images and emotions that are as true as the actual encounters of life, and can trigger memory by result. During these encounters we experience things in an intensified manner. A genuine artistic experience is primarily a strengthened awareness of self. We experience art through our embodied existence and capacity of projection and identification.

The Ego is First and Foremost a Body Ego; on Lassnig, Bacon and Gormley

A representation of a body in art can never be completely objective as it will always involve a subjective factor; the fact that the artist has a body himself, and as a result the body becomes even more emotionally complicated. As aforementioned, narcissistic factors are implicated in this representation, systematically, such as the way the artist is perceiving his own body image, his thoughts and emotions, his attitude and understanding of the world and of his self in this world.

Lassnig is trying to eliminate through her art any external representation of the body, in an attempt to unlock in full transparency its internal world, end exploit the sense of the way her body feels. Similar to Bacon, or maybe even more, the external body and its realistic representation are rejected so that the inner world and the body image come into sight in full maturity within the consciousness of the objective body. The conscious sense of self is deeply rooted in the unconscious sense of the body and this way of expressing art is a manifestation of this unseen sense of the body.

At the same time, Gormley uses his own body as the base of his artistic experimentations on the body as a place to inhabit; his own body inhabits in them. His art raises the question where do we, human, begin and end; whether it is at our skin, or as far as we can see. Pallasmaa argues that touch is the most important of human senses, and it’s through touch that we primarily see and experience the world around us: ‘All the senses, including vision, are extensions of the tactile sense; the senses are specialisations of skin tissue, and all sensory experiences are modes of touching, and this related to tactility. Our contact with the world takes place at the boundary line of the self through specialised parts of our enveloping membrane.’ Although his art follows a realistic representation of his own body, every figure he creates is yet so unique, with no similarities with one another. And even if his sculptures look very much alike, at the same time they evolve around the notion of existentialism and the unpleasant.

Doug Aitken, Returning to the Real

According to Marx, human existence is not determined by human consciousness, but their social existence is what determines their consciousness. Hence, cities are becoming narcissistic, being drowned in their shallow reality, big shopping malls, theme parks and tourist sites where consumption and leisure are meant to be constructed as experiences. The contemporary city is increasingly the city of the eye, the city of the visual, gradually being detached from the body by rapid motorised movement, or through the overall aerial grasp from an aeroplane. The real experience of cities is lost, culture and tradition are heading towards the eclipse of their original identity and their roots. Besides all good intentions, cities have become a no-place-space in which the traditional sense of culture is decontextualised, simulated, duplicated and continually restyled to fit the economy more than people.

This inhumanity of contemporary cities can be apprehended as the consequence of the neglect of the body and the senses, and the subsequent imbalance in our sensory system. The growing experiences of alienation, detachment and solitude in the technological world today, could be related to a certain pathology of the senses. The dominance of the eye and the suppression of the other senses tend to push us into detachment, isolation and exteriority. Today, our bodies and senses are objects of ceaseless commercial manipulation and exploitation. As a result, art is also trying to reflect reality, experiences of alienation and anguish, violence and inhumanity. But, what is it that we consider at this stage Real? Doug Aitken is crying for help with his body sculptures. Art should be more about enhancing perception and experience and less about showing the misery of the world. This reality, the one that we live in, it’s not real. We shall, therefore, return to the real.


- Antony Gormley is inviting us to identify our own inner world experiences, body and mind, through his latest exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

- Architect and artist Rayyane Tabet is exhibiting his work from the past 13 years at the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art. 'Encounters' is exploring experiential narratives and alternative perceptions in dislocated times and places.

- American artist and filmmaker Doug Aitken explores our 'rapidly changing relationships to one another and the world around us in an age dominated by technology' with his latest installation 'Return to the Real' at the Victoria Miro Gallery, combining sound, light, form and movement.


Donald Kuspit, Signs of Psyche on Modern and Post-modern Art, 1993

Ernst Jentsch, On the Psychology of the Uncanny, 1906

Georges Bataille, Eroticism, Trans, Mary Dalwood, 1986

Jacques Lacan, Some Reflections on the Ego, 1953

Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin, 1996

Juhani Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, 2009

Jyanzi Kong, Geometry of the Unconscious: An Uncertain Truth in Architecture, 2011

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 1945

Sigmund Freud, Das Unheimliche, 1919

Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the ID, 1923

Sigmund Freud, The Unconscious, 1915

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