The bodies in question

Anthony-Noel Kelly has been questioned by police about the origin of human body parts used in the making of his sculpture. But perhaps the charge against the artist should be this: grievous lack of originality. By David Cohen
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Oh dear, artists are in trouble again. This time it is for body- snatching, although as journalists mugging up on their art history have been reminding us, that's nothing new. Leonardo and Michelangelo sharpened the scalpel in their lust for anatomical knowledge, while Caravaggio seized upon a prostitute's corpse dredged from the Tiber as the model of the Virgin in his Dormition. The contemporary artists Andres Serrano and Joel- Peter Witkin have photographed corpses and body parts. But Anthony-Noel Kelly, who was arrested this week, took his quest for expressive realism a significant stage further, by actually using body parts in the physical preparation of his sculptures.

It may be a pedantic detail, but in his defence it should be pointed out that the body parts do not survive as an active ingredient in his finished works; they are lovingly moulded in rubber, from which the cast is then sprayed for aesthetic effect in gold or silver particles. From the point of view of the finished work, therefore, it doesn't make any artistic difference whether the original bits were living or dead: all casts, arguably, are dead, shadows or memories of the things they come from.

But this is probably a fine distinction too far in Kelly's case. He makes no secret of the ghoulish truth in his process. On the contrary, the sensationalism is integral to the work and its succes de scandale. Just as much as he belongs to a distinguished lineage of artists turning to the corpse for information or inspiration, he also belongs fairly and squarely to the art of his time.

Inscribing the oddity of how a work came to be into the effect of the work as it ends up is a crucial aspect of current art practice, at least of the kind of institutionalised avant-gardism to which Kelly seems to aspire. When art was made within the accepted parameters of a received language - of paint, of pictorial representation - the medium was, to a greater or lesser extent, transparent, taken for granted, unproblematic. What was initially one of the great liberating qualities of Modernism was the explosion of these certainties, forcing the spectator to take material and process into consideration.

But at the end a century of such "deconstruction", the once-radical questionings have solidified into tired, hackneyed, academic strategies. Artists obsessed with process and material can seem - pardon the expression - to be flogging a corpse.

An example of anecdotal information about the making of a work blown up out of all proportion to the work itself is Richard Serra's block of steel, entitled Weight and Measure, which was exhibited at the Tate a few years ago. The actual object is unimpressive, and was actually quite dwarfed within its space, like a pimple on St Paul's. But knowledge that the work was, in fact, a solid lump of steel, weighing tons; that the floor had to be reinforced to cope with it; that earlier works of his have fallen through ceilings ... all this gossip is supposed to make the work impressive, to inspire awe, to awaken the sublime. The actual work could just as easily have been made in steel plate, or indeed in nicely painted wood. But then it would have been as flaccid and unexceptional a piece of art as Kelly's sculpture if the latter had been cast from an out-of-work actor charging by the hour.

The same is true, pretty well, of Marc Quinn when he froze his own head in several pints of his own blood: minestrone soup would have done just as well. Mona Hatoum's video exploration of her intestines, a dull and inscrutable film in itself, only derives poignancy from information about its making which has to be supplied separately, like the narrative in programme music. The added information in such work is as extraneous and dispensable and aesthetically irrelevant as the pious sentiments illustrated in Victorian academic art are to the formal value of that art.

But what of Damien Hirst's sharks, cows and sheep pickled in formaldehyde? They do not require explanations on the side for their effectiveness. They are as stridently in-your-face real as Duchamp's legendary urinal, exhibited as Fountain, and all the unmediated, appropriated objects that currently litter the Hayward Gallery in their bland display of official Post-Modernism, "Material Culture".

Hirst stands out from many of his colleagues for the sheer extremity of his willingness to aestheticise death. Just as his animals are "suspended" in formaldehyde, his works are suspended between literalness and metaphor, gore and detachment. Kelly has to go further than Hirst in the nastiness of his materials precisely because he can't approach him in sheer brilliance of his conceit.

Kelly's work entails two of the most predictable tropes of hackneyed avant-gardist art practice: literalness and the cast. The cast, indeed, has become almost as ubiquitous as the appropriated object as a way to evoke the real without the effort or skill involved in drawing. Again, the cast is as much about process as finished result, as much about saying I have been there and done that as the thing itself.

Casts in plaster do have an added aesthetic appeal, a sense of ghostliness and otherworldliness. The cast is the romantic answer to the realism of appropriation. Once, the academies had their students work from dreary casts of the Venus de Milo or the Apollo Belvedere. Today's academicism relates casts not to the antique, but to the antic. When Rachel Whiteread cast an entire house in Bow, east London, the press went to town when Mr Sid Gale emerged, recognising (or not) his old home. Now, apparently, a visitor to Anthony-Noel Kelly's exhibition has recognised an old friend.

The old masters who risked the law to work from cadavers did so from a humanist impulse to understand life and the body. Or, in the case of Caravaggio, from an urgent desire to achieve heightened reality within a moral vision that equated beauty and truth. Thomas Eakins, the American 19th-century painter, whose masterpiece group portrait, The Gross Clinic, depicts a dissection in progress, was heir to both these traditions. But an alternative tradition approaches the corpse as potent symbol of transience, the inevitability of death and decay.

Of course, the greatest subjects of Christian art, the crucifixion, the deposition, the pieta, deal with a dead body, although one that will rise within three days. A transcendental, redemptive quality has been discerned in gruesome images which relish in all the gory detail of death: Rembrandt's Carcass of Beef, Chaim Soutine's depictions of the same subject, Francis Bacon's quotation of the Rembrandt.

The critic Peter Fuller used to argue of Soutine - who like Kelly had run-ins with the authorities after neighbours complained about the stench of carrion hanging in his studio - that "even when the subject matter is morbid, or downright ugly, a good Soutine picture commands, not a sickening revulsion, but rather a giddy exhilaration, a sense of relish in the possibilities of life". A lack of any of the transcending qualities of drawing or depiction in Kelly's casts disqualifies his work from this grace.

The obsession with the body among contemporary artists has taken various bizarre turns. The French performance artist, Orlan, has had extensive plastic surgery performed upon herself in order to deconstruct notions of feminine beauty. This begs the thought: might an artist use him or herself as a cadaver in a posthumous or collaborative work? It sounds desperate, but some people will do anything to get into the Saatchi Collectionn

Comments