The Body Canvas
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The Body Canvas
Body Image and Identity in Contemporary Societies: Psychoanalytical, Social, Cultural and Aesthetic Perspectives
Ekaterina Sukhanova and Hans-Otto Thomashoff, eds.
Routledge
www.routledge.com/products/9780415742917
138 Pages; Print, $49.95

This book contains fifteen essays in which bodies circulate, dance, suffer, decay, and are transformed, reinvented, painted, tattooed, branded, and beautified. This assortment of papers fit very well into the growing popularity on the cultural uses, views, and meanings of the body, known as body studies. Everybody has a body that is a readable site where culture, fears, and anxieties are reenacted. Body images are grounded on flesh, hair, skin, blood, and other fluids that serve as metaphors about identity, articulated with issues of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and social class.

Although most analyses in this text have a psychoanalytical perspective, an interdisciplinary approach crosses the different considerations about the body, its transformative process, and always changing form and content. This book can be read from different angles. Although the main focus is on art, other readings of the book can be centered on body modifications, and the medical body, most of them in Western societies.

Eight articles in this collection deal directly with the relationship between body and art. Innovative approaches create and reinforce this dialogue, inviting new insights. For example, the “body as a medium” has taken an extreme turn in the way cadavers are used as works of art. Céline Masson discusses the controversial and sometimes banned exhibits of the “plastinated” dead bodies, drained of fluids, and embalmed like those that artist [End Page 23] Gunther Von Hagens has manipulated in an effort to stop putrefaction, thus immortalizing them as an spectacle. His technique is seen as sacrilegious and disrespectful and is even more controversial when we learn that some of his bodies come from murdered Chinese convicts. This article reminds us of the cadavers used for dissection in medical schools, except that those are not exposed in museums to the public.

inline graphicThe first chapter in the book is by Thomashoff who opens with a discussion on brains, dreams, and art with the following questions: Why does the brain produce art? How do biology and psychology jointly form art and dreams? And how does art reflect the self-perception of the artist? This is a good introduction that frames the following chapters as he discusses theories of symmetry, beauty, and health. This theoretical discussion continues with a different slant in the second article by Sukhanova “Norms and the Function of Outsider Art.” This chapter deals with art perception and the dialogical communication between the artist, the audience, and the cultural context, which allows for the interpretation and generation of meaning. To illustrate this connection the author presents the case of the self-portrait and the portrait in general as a way to see body image as a “frame of reference for all cognitive functions, and a key element in emotional functioning.” It will be very interesting to follow up on her work, and examine from a psychiatric and other perspectives, the reflections and the realities of the now ubiquitous body images that are found in social media and entertainment, known as the “selfie.”

Two other ways to observe the body in relation to art, is to look at bodies and theater, and at the body of the artist. Mattos-Avril and Vives analyze a post-dramatic theory of representation, examining catharsis and the cathartic in theater. Based on Aristotelian notions, and the dimensions added by Lacan, it is interpreted as a way to “awake the human sense,” as a purification of desire, purging or “curing” fright and pity. Post-dramatic theater creates an illusion allowing a moment of representation of our human condition, which we hate for “its witness of our impossible completeness.” “The Multiple Bodies of Michael Jackson” is the title of the essay by Silke Schauder who sees them as a paradigm for understanding postmodern society. Many fantasies and metamorphoses were played in the life of the late singer and performance artist. This cultural phenomenon and his never-ending transformation is a fascinating object of study. A...