For some years I have been creating a series of works using negative impressions of the body. Directly or indirectly these works have referenced the history of representation of the body, most particularly that of the female nude.
The work Untitled (after Manet’s Olympia) 2002 formed part of a group of works exhibited in 2002 under the collective title Fleshed Out. This group of works was inspired by a description of a performance work by Claus Oldenberg in 1960 titled Foto Death. In this work, Oldenberg arranged a family group of three in front of a backdrop while a photographer prepared to take their portrait. Each time the group was to be filmed they fell to the ground, so defying representation. Like Roland Barthes’ description of photography as ‘flat-death’ in his book Camera Lucida, Oldenberg emphasizes the embalming process of photography and, by extension, representational history itself.
In the exhibition Fleshed Out famous paintings by Manet, Gauguin and Courbet were used as large life-size photo backdrops in which the central figures were digitally removed. The removed figures re-appeared alongside the photo backdrops as negative bronze casts.
In the work for this exhibition, Manet’s famous painting Olympia is subjected to this process. The impression of a female body, that of the artist, re-creates this pose and presents it to the audience as a ‘performance’ sculpture in bronze. In occupying this sculpture, the viewer becomes the ‘flesh’ of the painting, entering history fleetingly as a representation. Like Oldenberg’s performance, however, this experience is not recorded by the camera or historicized, but remains only in the memory of the viewer/performer.
In one sense, there is mischief at play in interfering with history but equally there is liberation of historical works into a contemporary context. All the works chosen in Fleshed Out were controversial in their own time. The transient nature of performance is introduced as an immediate experience of the work. Without the presence of the viewer the work succumbs to a state of absence. In removing the central figures from the paintings, the meaning and composition of the work become inexplicable, while the negative space of the casts of those same figures reduces the heroic tradition of bronze figure sculpture to a ‘pre-stage’ in the casting process.
There is a politics of representation at play here in which the viewer’s participation forms a crucial part of the subversive process.
Julie Rrap, November 2002