LENDING YOUR BODY TO ART
At lægge krop til is a Danish expression that means ”lending your body” to something. It can be used in both a positive and a negative sense. About an undignified job, you might say, "I'm not lending my body to this.” In a positive, or merely neutral, sense, we say that an actor “lends his body to” - embodies - the role of Hamlet. “Lending your body” in both cases means submitting yourself. You submit to an order (do this!) or you submit to an assigned role (be someone else!). When you refuse to lend your body to something, you insist on your dignity, thus claiming your sovereignty (or, alternately, just your obstinacy, pride or unwillingness). Entering into bodily relations with other people - when we lend our body to a job, for example - we step into a field of submission, orders, assaults, insubordination, punishment and declarations of sovereignty.
Now, we also lend our bodies to art. The occasion for this text is that we, as viewers, lend our bodies to Maiken Bent's art. Does that mean, then, that we, as viewers, inevitably bring this ethical vocabulary of the body into the art space? That is, lending our bodies to art, do we automatically enter into a symbolic world of submission, orders, assault, insubordination, punishment and declarations of sovereignty? Some of Bent's works offer hints and connotations in the direction of such a vocabulary. Pillories, helmets and whip-like rods, figure at the hard end of the work spectrum. Hula hoops, vaulting bucks and mats, at the softer end of the spectrum, drawing, in mutated and monstrous ways, on the aesthetics and disciplined bodily exertions of the gymnasium. If we simply look at art - if art is simply this Act of the Eye, subtracted the gendered flesh of the body - the answer is no. But, in fact, submission is a necessary prerequisite to even being able to provide a qualified critique of an artwork. You have to (however momentarily) submit to the statement, or the “world,” posited by the work - try it out on your own body, so to speak - to know what is being said in the work, and in turn what we might say about it. In everyday language, we usually say that we are looking at art, just as we are constantly referring to the body in art as the viewer. The disembodied gaze is thus discursively embedded, and reproduced, in the language. Yet, this is, in fact, an ideology.
As we know, it was an ideology that evolved during the 20th century, the ideology of pure retinal art, resting on the idea of being able to get rid of all the ethical “dirt” that the carnal and gendered body carries with it wherever it appears. Retinal art made its viewer possible on the assumption that he would be able to park his body outside the art space, before letting his eye slip in. How else would it be possible to realize a hegemony-free realm of pure aesthetic enjoyment - a realm of retinal purity?
These reflections should (finally!) lead us to the core of Bent's art. Does her work not specifically and exquisitely formulate the struggle between the bound body and the unbound eye? Take her piece, “Untitled 08,” a pillory made from wood. We confront an unpleasant instrument of torture, but we are soon lost in its aesthetic qualities. The shimmering green hues of the pillory look like dyed-in aurorae borealis spreading across the wood grain in wavy color modulations. On the one hand, the debased and shameful body, on the other, the eye's visual abandonment. The pieces in the so-called Sticks series could be used for whipping or beating, even while resembling slick, funky accessories. The mats hanging on the wall are more like oversized face-masks and geometric quilts than actual mats. Where does the functionality of these works begin and where does their aesthetic and contemplative dimension end? Are they even sculptures? Objects? Are they, in fact, props used in initiation rites taking us into a dark and cultic space? At the very least, we can note that these tools, by virtue of their ambiguous functionalities, develop an aesthetic life of their own.
Bent's works are decidedly not dysfunctional. They are aesthetically functional - that is, they prescribe functions that are based entirely on imaginations. Her works are detached from any unequivocal functionality and any unequivocal context. We are not in a gymnasium, an S&M club or making the scene with the new club kidz. Rather, Bent in her work puts forward an object-based, aesthetic functionality that allows for associatively, dreamingly and non-hegemonically playing around with the body's relation to itself and to the Other. Thus, Bent's works can be viewed as “transformers” of sorts. What they transform is the body's own self-image and ingrained routines. In Bent's work, we see, on the one hand, an excessive and painstaking cultivation of decorative devices - patchwork, patterns, ornamentation and patinated materials. On its own, this would obviously lead to formalistic triviality and retinal exhaustion. On the other hand, however, we see an increasing distortion and skewing of the decorative vocabulary toward an intangible experimental field, where runaway mental forces must be tethered and tamed and dressed in a mask-like harness. It is all about riding the storm of passion and giving chaotic energies a common direction.
I initially discussed the matter of “lending your body to art” - in that the occasion for this text is lending our bodies to your works, Maiken Bent. If this is not already clear, I hope any viewer will now be able to see that, in your works, we receive more body than we contribute. Art is always a generous act of abundance, and your works run over with so many wonderful and impossible bodily formations acrobatically unfurling in imaginary spaces. And yet, they tangibly manifest themselves right before our eyes. We gladly submit.
Ferdinand Ahm Krag