The Body without Body:The Creative Imagination of the Absence
By Faisal Siddiqi
The history of art and artists is also a story of an obsession with the human body in all its different connotations i.e. physical, sexual, emotional, psychological and social. Questions as the roots of this obsession of art and artist with the human body, whether genetic, existentialist or sociological, are interesting academic questions but it is not these questions as to this obsession with the human body which fascinates and intrigues a student of art or the audience of an artist. It is the exploration of the human body in its specific historical context through various artistic mediums by the artist is what captures the creative imagination of the audience of a work of art.
When I entered the gallery space of the V.M. Art Gallery to see the work of a little known artist, Seema Nusrat, my first impressions were one of disorientation and discomfort but little did I know that this disorientation and discomfort were paradoxically both misleading and indicative of the presence of a creative thought process. The first impressions of disorientation and discomfort were misleading primarily because of the title [‘There are No two Ways about it’] and the chronological and physical placement of the display of the twelve artistic pieces. In the Pakistani conspiratorial imagination, was it that some body or something had deliberately conspired to subvert a creative experience or was it simply another case of the irrelevance of everything else [i.e. the titles and the display], but the art piece itself. Therefore, as an initial tip in exploring the artistic imagination of Seema, I was wise to ignore both the title and the chronological and physical placement of the display.
It is a cliché to say that an artist’s work is creative. To me such a statement is not only meaningless but more importantly, it is an indication of an intellectual dishonesty. It is an uncritical exercise in describing an artist’s work. In other words, a useless and over usage of the term ‘creative’ for every artist’s work ends up making the term ‘creative’ normal and as a consequence, destroys the essentialist roots of the term ‘creative’. It is precisely for this reason that I would like to tell you why I think Seema’s work is creative. It is creative because it is different in the context of the contemporary art produced in pakistan, it is personally courageous and artistically imaginative. In short, it engages the audience not for the purpose of shocking or for simply e.mailing the message of the artist or for liking the art piece for commercial or sensual purposes or for having a show on the artist’s C.V. but rather engages the audience to think through imagination, giving birth to an imaginative conversation between the work and the beholder.
The dominant axis in unlocking Seema’s work is to realize that it is an artistic exploration of the body without the body. The body is explored in its absence through the use of fabric. This is so paradoxical and counter-intuitive that it strikes you and forces you to engage with the work, and in the absence of the obvious i.e. the body, forces you to engage with the work through your imagination. This precisely i.e. the exploration of the body without the body, is the source of the imaginative energy of her work. My emphasis on imagination should not give the impression that these are highly intellectualized pieces of art but it is rather the opposite. The intellectual context of Seema’s work is an emphasis on an absence of intellectualism in the sense of an absence of a big idea. There is no question which she is trying to answer and there is no answer which emerges out of her work. But the absence of intellectualism is not the absence of a thought process. Her thought process emerges out of the exploration of the body without the body and this thought process raises many questions and raises the possibilities of many answers. Her work is neither a mindless exploration of the body through fabric nor a search for meaning of the body through fabric, it is rather a thoughtful exploration without essentialist expectations but not without imaginative results and consequences. It is precisely for this reason that her work is an ongoing project, a thought process which is not final. If it is Soft [i.e. as the sub-title ‘Soft Sculpture’ indicates], it is for this reason alone and not because of the ‘softness’ of the material used.
It seems absurd that Seema would use the medium of fabric in her exploration of the body. Is Seema trying to blur the distinction between fashion and Art? Does she also believe in the ‘religious’ notion of the enlightened moderates/lifestyle liberals that the vultures of urban capitalism in Pakistan i.e. the fashion designers and their models, are simply an extension of the artistic community in Pakistan?. This apparent absurdity is really an illusion un-consciously created by Seema. On a personal level, her subversive courage is manifested by producing work which contradicts the apparent logic of the elite consumer of contemporary art from Pakistan. In short, she has made sure that her art pieces cannot be displayed in the eloquent and opulent houses of these elite consumers [oh sorry, these art lovers].
On one level, the fabric is used to explore the body and also its interactions i.e. relationship with other bodies, on a purely physical level. On another level, the relationship between the fabric and the body is one of ‘inevitable repressive’ representation. Does not the exploration through representation i.e. the fabric, lead to the emphasis on the absence and repression of the body? Do we really need the body if we have the creation of the body through its representation? Can the body ever be known and discovered without representation? It is on this level that the apparent distinction between the physical self and socially constructed self disappears. The representation becomes the body by eliminating the body. There really is no essentialist body to explore and, therefore, her use of the absent body ends up as a statement of a deeper social reality.
It is on this level of the social construction of the body through representation that her use of the ties as the tool of exploration contextualizes her work as an exploration of a historical body [i.e. as if a A-historical body is possible]. The mass produce of ties, their meaningful representation both in terms of pure colour and multiple images [e.g. cartoons characters etc.], the used and dirty ties and it’s deeply sexual manifestation and use, tells us something about the modern body especially the modern female body. I leave it to the audience of her work to explore the meanings emanating from the mass produce of the ties and colours and multiple images on her ties and the used and dirty ties and it’s relationship with the re-constitution of the body in the modern times we live in. The modernity of our bodies is the key in understanding her ‘tie sculptures’.
For me, it is the deeply, in your face, male sexual nature of the ties which captured the imagination. It exposes through exploration [and not through feminist artistic activism] the domination of the representation of the female existence. These massive and numerous snake like males i.e. ties, tying in multiple knots the female existence, is brilliantly captured on a visual and sensual level. The contrast between the absence of the female body and the overwhelming onslaught of outside representation is visually and sensuously captured. The snakes, the skin and the representation become repressively inseparable. What is most striking of the capturing of the female body by these snake like males i.e. ties, is that the male’s capture and representation of the female body is dominated by sexuality. Has the absent and forgotten body in the form of biology re-appeared as an apparent determinant of the female existence? No, it is sexual politics and construction of the female self, and not biology, which is the real determinant of the domination of the ties.
This leads us to raise the contemporaneous question about the core artistic experiential context of a female artist. Why is Seema’s work dominated by this politics of male domination? She doesn’t come across as a feminist consciously working on issues of sexuality and male domination? Is she allegedly trapped, like all female artists, in this repetitive theme of male domination? This is precisely where the problem lies. Isn’t the structure of the aforementioned questions itself dominated by the monopoly of the ties and it is through this very structuring of the aforementioned questions that the ties dominate? Is Seema, or any female artist, suppose to produce work which is not true to her existence and experience? Isn’t the domination of the ties a dominant part and parcel of her existence and experience? Surely, anything else, would simply be the accepted fashion/fake of our times.