Feeling Flesh

Patricia Picinini The Long Awaited (2008) Photo: Shan Crosbie

­­­­In 2014 three major exhibitions were held in some of the largest gallery spaces in the nation’s capital; Canberra Museum and Gallery’s Pulse, Reflections on the Body exhibition, The National Portrait Gallery’s In the Flesh, and After Afghanistan at the Australian War Memorial showcasing the work of 2011 official war artist, Ben Quilty. These exhibitions are all linked through one question: ‘What does it mean to exist in a human body?’. ACT Museums and Galleries Director, Shane Breynard in the introduction to CMAG’s Pulse, Reflections on the Body exhibition presents the paradox that “Our experience of ourselves as corporeal beings is both uniquely personal and common to us all.”[1] It is through this common yet completely isolated state of being that each exhibition explores what it is to be human.

When visiting these shows we are thrown right into the guts of the subjects, of ourselves even, and we are left to dig our way upward and outward. The works in all three shows are physical representations of the body; cells, skin, hair, and bones, yet it is the way in which the mind and emotions reside within these physical vessels that underpins these exhibitions. CMAG’s exhibition Pulse features 27 interstate and local artists and provides the most thorough dissection of the body, and of the question: ‘What does it mean to exist within a human body?’.

The show opens with a poem called The Pulse is a Dangerous Thing by Dr Sarah Rice. This bold multidisciplinary addition lays the foundations on which the visual work can grow from and explore. Pulse, as its name suggests, showcases work from underneath the surface of the flesh, from the inner workings of the mind and body. Rice’s poem explores the mind’s perverse relationship with the body it inhabits. The horror of the backs of knees, flesh covered rocks of the wrist, and the ominous pulse lurking just below the surface of the skin.[2] The mind trapped hostage within a hostile body that it is repulsed by.

 However, when standing before Jude Rae’s Interior series (2004 -05) we find ourselves on the other side of the flesh. Rae’s portraits are simple and traditional portraits of sitters with their eyes closed. Unlike Rice’s intimate confessions of her personal experience underneath her skin, Rae’s unseeing portraits firmly close their front doors to their viewers. We are left staring at the subject like disgruntled peeping toms whilst they enjoy a completely private experience of themselves that we are completely excluded and isolated from.

Jude Rae Interior series (2004-05) Photo courtesy of the Canberra Museum and Gallery website

In the Flesh held at the portrait gallery also addresses this paradox of the human experience being at the same time common and unique, yet it goes about it in an entirely different way. Featuring internationally renowned Australian artists such as Ron Mueck, Patricia Piccinini and Sam Jinks, instead of dissecting the body, the artists have carefully and painstakingly reconstructed it. These reconstructions manifest themselves as highly realistic three-dimensional humanoid creatures. Often presented in the nude, these creatures share the space with their viewer, sometimes unaware or disinterested, other times desperately uncomfortable with their close proximity to us. Some are giant, some tiny, and some unnervingly only slightly too far one way or the other. The lights in the gallery are purposefully dim and standing next to one of Ron Mueck’s or Sam Jink’s impossibly realistic silicone and fibreglass creations one is struck with the terror that at any moment the viewer/work relationship will be broken and there will be some explaining to do as to why you are standing there gawking at their naked body.  There is even a slight draft in the room that gently moves the hair of these creatures, adding beautifully to the illusion of vitality even stronger than your own.

Ron Mueck Wild Man (2005) Photo: Shan Crosbie

 Within each of these figures there are undeniable narratives of emotions and histories written into their bodies, features and posture. Such is the power of these emotional narratives, that upon walking around the base of Ron Mueck’s Wild Man sculpture depicting a giant terrified and naked man perched upon a chair, I have the sudden urge to complain to the gallery staff for the inhumane conditions that he is existing in. “I’d look like that too if I were sitting there naked”, remarked a fellow viewer, confirming I was not alone in feeling empathy for the mortified giant.

 Although many of the works are ‘hyper-real’ the question they evoke is not as simple as what is real and what is not. For the purpose of the exhibition these works are real – more real than us at times. We empathize with the sculptures; we understand their emotions and their stories. Yet despite our close proximity and uncanny likeness, they remain permanently distant and isolated from us, as we remain from them, and even perhaps from each other.

 The trifecta of flesh exhibitions is completed with After Afghanistan showcasing the work of 2011 official war artist Ben Quilty. Quilty painted his portraits of the soldiers he met in Afghanistan back in his studio as they returned home from their service overseas. The portraits are large, yet intimate, with highly emotional mark making with thick, flesh like paint. Quilty unveils the skin to reveal the mind. As he removes the layers of uniform and armor, the viewer witnesses the relief and anguish of the soldiers as the weight of their experiences is laid out before them on Quilty’s canvas. Ben Quilty explains about his painting of Captain S that he “wanted (Captain S) to be naked, showing not only his physical strength but also the frailty of human skin and the darkness of the emotional weight of the war.”[3]


Ben Quilty, Captain S after Afghanistan (2012) Photo courtesy of Art Galllery of NSW website

Quilty’s depiction of the soldiers violently confirms the irrevocable connection between the mind and body. In terminal illness and in war one discovers the harsh realities of being a seemingly immortal mind residing within a mortal and fragile body. The real pain and suffering of the body translates into the real fear and trauma of the mind, and in war the pain and suffering of the one’s own body and that of their fellow soldier is violently tangible and real. The experiences of these soldiers in Afghanistan would have pushed their bodies and minds to their limits. Quilty is very aware of this connection, and in his portraits he uses the flesh to help these soldiers to reveal and decipher the trauma of their minds.

With the advancement of technology, the body is becoming strangely disconnected and obsolete in everyday life. We are constantly connected to our iPhones, wrapped up in social media, and performing the daily tasks of life digitally. With this feeling of disembodiment with our existences online, at times it can be easy to forget that we are an organism like any other made of mortal flesh and bone. These three exhibitions highlight the reality of the irrevocable connection between the mind and body and explore what this tie means to both parties. As humans, we are all in the same situation, and yet our experience is completely privatized and isolated by the nature of the flesh that creates this situation. The three exhibitions are strong, and individual explorations of the human body, and the way the mind inhabits, influences, and fears it.

[1] Shane Breynard, Catalogue Introduction Pulse, Reflections on the Body

[2] Dr Sarah Rice, The Pulse is a Dangerous Thing

[3] Talk by Ben Quilty, School of Art, Australian National University, Canberra, 22 August 2012.


 Ben Quilty After Afghanistan. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 2014.

"In the Flesh." Portrait, September 1, 2014, p.4-17.

Pulse Reflections on the Body. Canberra: Canberra Museum and Gallery, 2014.