Representations of body reimagined in student exhibit

By Nicole Brown

I found myself surrounded by art I didn’t quite understand on the first floor of La Specola, a part of Florence’s Museum of Natural History on Tuesday night.

The works in the dimly-lit room were the final projects of eight students at the Studio Art Centers International who took the course Body Archives. The students had studied representations of the body in the past — some that are found in the Museum of Natural History — and present in preparation for their projects.

The projects, featured in the two-day exhibit, were fascinating and personal explorations of the body and everything associated with it.

Professor of the course and curator of the exhibit Dajan Atanackovic explained that when he and students study the body, they talk about a lot of other topics as well.

“When we talk about the body, we also talk about memory, we talk about death, we talk about sexuality,” he said. “We talk about control, about illness, about diversity, about otherness.”

This range of topics was clearly portrayed in the diverse works. So much so that without reading explanations of some of the pieces, I was not sure what the artists were trying to say.

Atanackovic emphasized that these works are meant to ask questions and not necessarily provide answers.

“In contemporary art, we always raise questions,” he said.

Yet, the mystery of not knowing the meanings of the pieces made the exhibit that much more interesting, and two pieces in particular resonated with me.

One focused on the definition of beauty, which is something many women, including myself, are confronted with. The artist placed magazine clippings of women who are thought to have extremely beautiful features based on American beauty stereotypes in glass jars on a table. It was as if the faces of these women were put on display for us to examine and determine their level of beauty. The work reminded me to question what we think is beautiful.

"nancy Leach's Collection of Beauty" by Danielle Burgess, Body Archives 2  Photo by Nicole Brown
“Nancy Leach’s Collection of Beauty” by Danielle Burgess, Body Archives 2
Photo by Nicole Brown
Magazine clippings of faces of women were placed in glass jars on a table.  Photo by Nicole Brown
Magazine clippings of faces of women were placed in glass jars on a table.
Photo by Nicole Brown

The second explored the pain of losing a relationship with a close friend or relative. In the corner of the room, a typed letter lay on a desk. The letter was written to a sister that the artist had felt a loss of connection with. Around the letter were five framed photographs, each with one body removed. This work challenged me to think about ruined relationships in my life and how to adapt to the absence of someone I was once close with.

"Adapt" by Lauren Victor, Body Archives 2 Photo by Nicole Brown
“Adapt” by Lauren Victor, Body Archives 2
Photo by Nicole Brown

Other pieces looked at sexuality, connections between photographs and reality, phrenology — an outdated belief that the shape and size of a person’s skull indicates characteristics of the person — and identity. Each one challenged norms and asked viewers to think about the representation of the body and the mind in a new way.