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Bodies taking up space

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Our bodies are our obsessions. We feed them, bathe them, decorate them. When our bodies break down we fix them. We project our bodies into and through space literally as well as through a variety of media. As Andy Warhol once said, "before media... there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up by themselves. People, I think, are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they're actually in, because with media you can sit back and still let yourself fill up space on records, in the movies... on the telephone and... on television."

          Bodily Space: New Obsessions in Figurative Sculpture, a current exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, examines how 16 contemporary artists represent the figure within the context of addressing contemporary social issues. The exhibition was organized to complement two other exhibitions: an exhibit of work by Auguste Rodin, Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession --- Sculpture from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation (through July 3), and an exhibition of modern and contemporary figurative work culled from the respected permanent collection of the Albright-Knox (opening July 17).

          Rodin, who is often referred to as the "father of modern sculpture," serves as both an end point to what sculpture was --- a site and time-specific monument --- and a starting point for what sculpture has become, a form of self-expression that is both mobile and site-less. It is often not the intention of contemporary sculptors to commemorate any particular place or event but rather to be able to exist in any time and open to interpretation. Yet, for all art to be, it has to come in contact with the body. In this way, art is a trace, or markings, of the physical body, and in Bodily Space, the body represented here is mostly literal, or at least, is quite recognizable. Or is it?

          Peter Sarkisian's Dusted (1998) is a mixed media "sculpture" incorporating video projections. Actually, it's a cube, a three-dimensional surface in space, which languishes in darkened isolation. The viewer enters a sequestered space to find five moving images simultaneously and synchronistically projected onto each of the discreet (and visible) surfaces of the cube.

          At first, you might need to wait not only for your eyes to adjust but also for your mind to register as well, as you watch two nude bodies precariously navigate around each other within a tightly enclosed space. As you meditate on the illusionary space, the "interior" and the bodies within are, in fact, being revealed as they come into contact with the sides of the cube.

          As they move, they literally rub off the charcoal dust that initially completely occluded them. The illusion is further carried out as their "hands" independently reach out of the box and searchingly stroke the surface, while ultimately leaving behind the mark of a dirty palm, a bodily trace.

          The frame has been eliminated, as have the traditional boundaries of time, space, sound, and movement. The elimination or blurring of the boundaries between performance and sculpture is a feature of many of the works in the exhibition. Indeed, it is key to Janine Antoni's work, as is her own body. Antoni takes banal activities such as eating and bathing and turns them into art, as evidenced by Lick and Lather (1993-94).

          Arranged in a circle in the fittingly neo-classical interior of the temporary exhibition space of the art gallery are seven soap and seven chocolate self-portrait "classical" busts of the artists. Each bust reflects some performative act by the artist, such as literally licking or washing away various parts of herself, like the eyes of one bust to the nose, forehead, cheeks, or ears, of others. In the end, the artist has consciously (and conspicuously) left behind traces of her actions, whether it is the swath of a tongue or tiny dried soapsuds.

          The presence of these marks is as crucial to Antoni's work as the element of air is to Antony Gormley's piece, Landing III (1988-89). The materials that make up the two fused bodies include not only cast iron and lead but also the atmosphere both inside the piece and around it. The bodies, which are visually defined, are also redefined conceptually, questioning the borders of the physical and tangible. Where does one body begin and another end? What/where is the individual? Without the concept of the space between us, Gormley's work defies any sort of visualization. This space is imaginary and then again, scientifically, we understand it as definitely consisting of matter --- not seen but still there.

          Through Gormley's choice of materials we are shown the extra-physical fabric that knits us and others (non-humans and objects included) together into a seamless interconnected space --- a space where subject and object are intertwined and, as Allan Kaprow observed, where "[t]he artist, the spectator and the outer world are much too interchangeably involved." And that makes all of this quite interesting.

Bodily Space: New Obsessions in Figurative Sculpture is on display at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, through September 7. Hours: Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday until 9 p.m., Sunday 12 to 5 p.m. $8, $6 seniors and students. Free admission to the permanent collection on Saturdays 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. 716-882-8700, www.albrightknox.org.

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