Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Among Other Things; or, Sculpture beyond Identity

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Among Other Things; or, Sculpture beyond Identity

Article excerpt

This essay considers the status of the image, questions of corporeality, and the ethical dimension of aesthetic practice in the work of the contemporary sculptural artist Marilene Oliver. Drawing on Blanchot's discussions of the image, Nancy's analysis of the body, and Levinas's sense of "escape," the essay suggests that Oliver's sculptures expose and challenge contemporary tensions between ethical and bio-political modes of existence.

Marilene Oliver is a British-based sculptor who, since 2001, has been using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), and positron emission tomography (PET) scanning technologies to produce a unique catalogue of sculptures that explore notions of corporeality, movement, texture, identity, perception, knowledge, and digitization. As Oliver herself states, her work is concerned primarily with the ways in which new technologies, particularly medical imaging, "promote a decentralisation of the self." Such technologies and ways of seeing, Oliver argues, allow us to project ourselves into "different spaces and offer us new views of our bodies that belittle being contained in a physical body" ("Artist Statement" para. 2).

The first work in Oliver's continually developing series of sculptures is entitled I Know You Inside Out and comprises a digitized casting of the thirty-nine-year-old convicted murderer Joseph Paul Jernigan (see Plate 1 in the colour section). It is claimed that, before his execution in 1993, Jernigan donated the remains of his body to medical science and, in so doing, became the first phase of what is known as the "Visible Human Project." (1) Having been frozen, Jernigan's body was later cut into thin strips of flesh that were scanned using both MRI and CT technologies. As Oliver has commented in relation to the production of her own work, it was less the anatomical visualization of Jernigan's corpse that interested her than "the virtuality of the Visible Human--in becoming 'visible,' Jernigan's body was converted from flesh to voxel: in order to create the dataset Jernigan's corpse was frozen and sliced so finely that it disintegrated to mush, leaving only digital photographs and scans" ("Resurrecting" para. 1). Oliver's sculpture is formed by printing photographs of cryosections of Jernigan's body, downloaded from the Internet, onto sheets of acrylic and then layering each sheet on top of the other to create an axial outline or image of Jernigan's body. As this suggests, Oliver's sculptural practice here is concerned with a kind of restoration: through her sculpture, the deceased "body" not only becomes visible but also takes on elements of matter and depth; in various ways, Jernigan's body, as sculpture, acquires a "life of its own," albeit one that is inverted, turned inside out. In Oliver's sculpture, Jernigan's materiality becomes one of transparency. This is not to suggest that Oliver necessarily creates disembodied sculptures or even attempts to articulate a poetics of disembodiment; properly speaking, Oliver's sculpture is after a different effect: it seeks to make of transparency, of the subtle and fragile interplay between light and shadow, an element of matter. Like a death mask, I Know You Inside Out turns the physical into something liminal, both here and not here at the same time, something to be seen and seen through. No doubt such a work carries with it inevitable comparisons to notions of the presentation of ghostly figures and apparitions. Yet Oliver's sculptural practice, it seems, suggests much more than this. It is not so much the outline of ghosts that her work seeks as the possibility of bringing the inside outside, of turning what is commonly untouchable into something both visual and tactile, of translating depth into surface and vice versa. This sculpture is not simply a matter of exposure but also of disclosure. The cast of Jernigan's "body" inhabits both physical and virtual space at the same time.

Noticing that the data set produced by the cryosections of Jernigan's body followed similar patterns to the images produced through MRI and CT scans, Oliver, in 2004, used MRI scans of each member of her family to make a series of sculptures entitled Family Portrait (see Plate 2 in the colour section). …

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