Body Language

A new exhibition at the Israel Museum focuses on body parts down through the ages

Exhibit (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The body can be a very strange and wonderful thing. We are by turns fascinated, horrified, captivated and on occasion obsessed with it.
And a few other things.
“Out of Body: Fragmentation in Art,” is the name given to an exhibition – one of four – recently opened at the Israel Museum. The exhibit is themed around works that focus on a specific part of the human body.
Themed exhibitions are currently in vogue, both in museums abroad and on the local Israeli art scene.
Such exhibitions provide museums, often the repositories of large collections, with an opportunity to display diverse artworks that might otherwise remain unseen.
Tanya Sirakovich, the curator of “Out of Body,” has mined the Israel Museum collections, combining pieces with works on loan from artists and museums abroad, and served up what could be seen as a contemporary wunderkammer, albeit one whose focus is placed on artistic representations of the human body.
“Wunderkammer,” roughly translated from the German as “wonder room,” also referred to as “kunstkammer,” is best known by its English translation, “cabinet of curiosities.”
Such “cabinets” first began appearing in 16th century Europe, for the most part in the houses of the aristocracy.
Now viewed as the precursors to museums, a wunderkammer was a room typically given over to a collection of all manner of artifacts, antiquities, fine art and often extended to the downright strange. However, there were men of a scientific bent who would assemble a wunderkammer around a specific subject or theme of their own choosing.
For the owner of such collections, the charm might have been in the amassing and inclusion of whatever object took their fancy. Today’s curators do not have that luxury, but the roles have similarities.
“It was a good opportunity to make use of the museum collections for this interdisciplinary exhibition.
The exhibit as a whole displays many traces of cultural history and speaks to us not only about deconstruction, but also about reconstruction,” stated Sirakovich.
Integrating works from the archaeological department, the modern and contemporary collections, pieces of folk art and religious objects Sirakovich has put together an intriguing show that ranges across time (from prehistoric relics through to present-day artworks) and incorporates various media – sculpture, photography, printmaking, installation and video are all represented.
A host of artifacts, the majority of which are votive offerings, ex-votos and amulets are displayed on pedestals and in standing cabinets. Each are fashioned in, or adorned with, the image or shape of a body part.
Many of these objects have a symbolic or religious significance for their creators; some are the result of cult practices. By dint of their obscure origins and strange appearance these objects still hold a fascination for us, and as evidenced in the works of Annette Messager and Susan Hiller can provide inspiration for contemporary artists.
Housed separately among the array of cabinets are a small selection of the museum’s collection of “Torah pointers.” The catalogue text informs us that “Jewish law prohibits the touching of the [Torah] scroll with one’s bare hands.” Thus, these instruments had a functionary role while also preventing the parchment from being soiled.
The pointers, each adorned with a small effigy of a hand, are among the most decorative and ornate objects in the exhibition. In some cases Jewish artisans displayed a degree of skill, seen in the intricate designs and metalwork on the shaft or body of these instruments.
Sculpture is everywhere in this exhibition. There are striking bronze figures by Auguste Rodin and Germaine Richier and classical sculpture is alluded to in the photographic imagery of Deganit Berest and Bill Brandt.
Over the centuries much of classical sculpture was damaged through neglect. As visitors to museums we have become accustomed to seeing incomplete statues or a preserved fragment.
In this exhibition we never encounter the body as “whole”; limbs, torsos, eyes and hands have been isolated, objectified and fragmented, often resulting in idiosyncratic and bizarre distortions. Such is the case in the works of Hans Bellmer, whose sculpted figures of torsos and limbs are carved in grotesque and perverse shapes.
Elsewhere, as in works by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamps, a rope-bound torso and breast become erotically charged objects. Fusing elements of the unconscious with sexual themes, Surrealist and Dada artists often created works that were disturbing and eerie.
The English art historian, Herbert Read, wrote about such works: “To reveal the significance of the symbols is not a useful activity: they remain most potent in their secret integrity. They come from the unconscious and speak to the unconscious. We unrobe them at our peril.”
Other works of note in the exhibit are by Aya Ben- Ron, Pesi Girsch and Yoko Ono.
As an overview of how body parts have been portrayed over centuries this exhibition comes recommended.
For more info on the “Out of Body” exhibit, visit www.