MADA2 – contextualization

Essay and Presentation given in November 2009:

Data Bleed: The Human Body as Art in Post War Sculpture.

“Art is viable when it finds elements in the surrounding environment. Our ancestors drew their subject matter from the religious attitudes which weighed on their souls. We must now learn to draw inspiration from the tangible miracles around us.” (Umberto Boccioni 1912)

“…we’re starting to find new ways to sense through these technologies. I’m trying to reclaim that data bleed and find something meaningful in it.” (Nathan Wade 2008)

I’m going to survey several post war artists who’ve used human bodies to make works of art, art that goes beyond being figurative to actually being made of figures. Since the 1950s body casting, body scanning and body digitizing technologies have developed new ways of getting data from the human body and as soon as these technologies became available artists started to use them.

The aim of my MA project is to record the space passed through by human beings in motion, and before I contextualize this historically I’d like to critique the contemporary rapid prototyped art of European artist Peter Jansen, whose work represents exactly what I was aiming to achieve. Peter helpfully contacted me half way through my MA pointing out that he’d already done my project – as a result of this bombshell and the hard cost of the industrial processes involved I’ve been re-assessing my themes and aims.

Peter Jansen (Fig 1)

Peter has recently shown a series of models in a variety of shiny finishes at the Design Show in Milan. The venue is telling and suggests these objects might sit more happily in the craft tradition. As I have found out spending one year to produce a similar but smaller prototype, his work should be applauded on a technical front. The difficulties involved in getting models ready for printing should not be underestimated – none of the technologies fully match up and searching through 30000 meshes for holes isn’t a lot of fun. Peter’s pieces very clearly communicate his ideas and he has chosen simple balletic movements and restricted the motion to about 30 frames. Sizewise he is limited by the rapid prototyping process to about 30cm high. A further efficiency has been made by using the default Poser figures – all perfectly proportioned and muscled, rather than building a figure from scratch. The works have been favourably received by the Design audience so the above restrictions are not a problem – what I think is more telling is a comparison of his version of Nude Descending a Staircase and Duchamp’s original painting. The stiffness of Peter’s work is immediately apparent, which is ironic given he has rendered the motion more completely. Duchamp’s abstracted, messy technique allows the viewer to imply motion more freely – the pieces could be said to take flight in the eye of the viewer, whereas Peter’s are locked eternally into position. This contrast between the subjective scientific ‘cold’ represeantation and the objective artistic ‘hot’ representation is a fascinating one which will weave throughout this essay.

The Cast Body (Fig 2)

Several American artists started using body casting techniques in the 60s but in drastically different ways. Duane Hanson and John De Andrea made realistic body casts. DeAndrea chose to cast mainly women posed as if in a life drawing class – his work seemed to be saying that if artists have spent centuries attempting to capture the human form, now we’ve got the technology, why not just exactly capture it? Undressed and unadorned his art asks questions about the validity of the creative process in a technologically advanced age, why not just render it for real? Hanson’s figures are also super realistic but contain a kernel of political disquiet. His figures, often corpulent Americans weighed down with baggage, address the gluttony of consumption and the adding of yet more weighty stuff (sculptures) into the world. Both artists challenge notions of what is and isn’t art – is everyone a living sculpture? The idea of a statue as life eternally frozen has concerned sculptures throughout history from the greek Pygmalion myth onwards – the desire to see these sculptures in motion (coming alive) is a natural extension from that. Other artists looked to move away from representational accuracy and utilised their figures to point in different critical directions. George Segal inverted the casting process and eventually ended up displaying the whole cast rather than its interior. These shells of humans were positioned in natural settings at tables, bus stops, in diners. The viewer is left to imagine the perfect isolated/trapped? inner human inside us all. Ed Kienholz takes his figures in much darker directions. By fracturing, coloring, contorting and generally fucking up his body casts he directs attention to the disgusting state of the world and the corrupt humans within it. Drawing from real life institutions and environments Kienholz shreds his humans into splattered nightmare scenarios. The bodies here are used to implicate us all.

The Absurd Body (Fig 3)

In one way every performance artist uses their body as material for their art and inevitably much of this art is specifically about the body. Certain artists have looked at the absurd nature of the human body. Vito Acconci, famous for his Wanking under a Plank performance, where he did just that, created several performance pieces in the 60s where he would carry out certain trivial actions again and again. For example stepping onto a stool and then steping back off. These types of work interest me, as they speak of the banality, pointlessness and absurdity of life – or a lived process. This absurdity is often empahsised by repetitive actions, the simpler the better. Bruce Nauman used the medium of video to record over and over series of repetitive dances where he would follow the path of a square – and deal with the fixing of the body in space. His body became a tool of recording a formalised process. Paul McCarthy’s farcical works often mix themes of dumb repetiton, sexual provocation, and the pathetic process of being a man. His piece entitled Cos Nature Will Fuck You Back involves two installations; in the first two men are caught having sex with trees in a forest, the figures mechatronically thrusting in and out. The second room sees the two men dead in a morgue their trousers around their ankles. The punchiness and comedy of these artists interests me as a route out of the sterility of an objective approach though how it would express itself in my work is still unclear. Repetitive (dumb) actions lend themselves well to the types of processes I’m using – the repeats help make the objects more readable as sculptures, and a large part of what I’m doing is a desire to just plain see these shapes. If in the course of a movement sequence too much changes then the 3d models over time can just end up as abstract blobs, better is a situation where some things change and some things stay the same – which is often born out of repetitve actions – hopefully the sculpture looks as if it is trying to escape from the constraints of the body or plinth.

The Narrative Body (Fig 4)

As the casting process has become an acceptable (and highly purchasable) part of artistic practise, artists in the 90s became more playful in the way they used it. Rather than making works about the human body in a universal sense artists have chosen to use the models to create stories. These stories often mock and mutate their characters in unsettling ways. The Chapman Brothers ever confrontational Zygotic sculpture and Maurizio Cattelen’s subversive upside down policemen demonstrate this well. In searching for the artist Robert Gober, whose name I had forgotten so had to type in various combinations of ‘Foot’, ‘Sticking’, ‘Out’ & ‘Wall’ into Google, I came across a contemporary Chinese artist called Li Wei who seemed to literalise what Gober makes casts of. Wei’s acrobatics are used in a critical sense to protest the fragile, imbalanced state of humans in China’s rampant march into capitalism. The UK artist Martin Jenkins creates body moulds using brown paper which he then dresses and wigs up. These are placed in public spaces to see what interactions ensue. Moving the sculpture out of the gallery is an interesting way to bring the work to life in one sense, involving it in a real narrative. Coming from a film special effects background Ron Mueck seems to be the most interested in creating fairy tale like works which viewers bring to life through a shared fantasy. He does this by in the first place making his models indistinguishable from the real thing which takes months of effort, and then displaces this, often through a change of scale. This simple device affords the works a magical quality which is unusual in art and more usual in film. The works occupy an interesting space between art and craft, perhaps the perfection of the rendered surface locks them down too tightly.

The Scientific Body (Fig 5)

Gunther Von Hagens the notorious German surgeon has displayed the internal systems of the human body for the last few years around the world. Literally using preserved human tissues he has extrapolated the post Renaissance practise of observing directly from corpses. The success of these shows has demonstrated the human appetite for new ways of looking at the body, be they scientific or artistic – and he has been criticised from both camps. Early in the history of the internet the Visible Human project allowed website visitors to surf through slices of the human body in incredible detail. This new way of navigating the body can be contrasted to the rise of Virtual Reality and the creating of 3d digital worlds where once the data was in place there was no physical reason why you couldn’t move through it in any direction – as if flying through the screen. The ability to manipulate data in three dimensions is really where the start of my project began. Each frame of a movement could be rendered in 3d modelling packages – in which case why not put all this data together and see what model arises. This reconfiguring of idle data – or data which is gone in the blink of an eye is what my project is all about. A contemporary British artist who uses data in this way is Angela Palmer. By using raw medical scans she is able to reconstruct new sculptures and videos which reorganise this data compressing it in time to produce skeletal reinterpretations of the original objects. These are built from laser etched slices. Given the quotes I’ve been receiving for milling a life size human figure (in the thousands) it’s been good to find out that the college has laser cutting machinery. The idea of building up 3d models slice by slice in cheap materials like MDF or polystyrene is one technique that I hope to use in the following months.

The Prototyped Body (Fig 6)

One of the first artists to use digital scanning & prototyping technology in an interesting way back in the 90s was Dan Collins. Typically (for an artist) he subverted what the machine was supposed to do. Rather than keeping still as his body was scanned Dan turned around creating a Janus like smeared face which was then prototyped automatically after some tidying. This subversion of the technology is an important theme when artists use technology – an attempt not to be controlled by it perhaps. Geoffrey Mann is a product designer who also uses rapid prototyping to capture motion. Inspired by the scientific observational work of E-J.Marey, Mann films the flight of birds and insects and then traces the silhouettes of each frame into a 3d package. These slices are put together and prototyped – again we have rapid prototyping in the service of design (which is what it was created for in the first place). The types of shapes he creates aren’t immediately readable as objective recordings of motion – they could be artistic flourishes, but the uniqueness of form is something I hope to realise within my sculpture. A third artists using rapid prototyping in a matter of fact way if Karin Sander. She digitally scans vistors to her art shows and passes this data to the machine which produces a 1/10th scale model of the visitor. This is then displayed in the next show. The simplicity of this idea is so pure – I’d even go so far as to describe it as a minimalist piece of work which is strange given the show consists of hundreds of life like human models. It is good to see that something so cold in process can be so rich in practise.

Nathan Wade & Conclusion

Taking data slicing a stage further it is also possible to create impossible sculptures which represent an unseen abstraction of data over time. Nathan Wade (whose quote heads this essay) is a young artist working on a Doctorate in America, and his acclaimed work Serial Cyborg does just this. He uses public domain data from a head scanned on three levels; skin, muscle and bone. He then turns the head slowly and takes a slice through it and renders these using CNC milling machines. The slices are combined together in series revealing a slow semi-skeletal relief. This type of technique has been called Digital Archeology whereby the artist is sifting and searching through data and recombining it with software to try and create new meaning. For Wade it is important that he doesn’t get his hands dirty – that is , he only controls the process on an executive level making large scale decisions which then the machine/software will process for him. The human element is the creating of a formal process which sheds new light on his subject matter – or prosaicially looks cool. The conceit of taking yourself out of the creative process is one that has always appealed to me, but I am aware of the dangers of producing something sterile or too manufactured looking. Balancing the machine process and the human is the vital factor, and hopefully by looking at different ways in which artists have used the body in their art I will be better prepared to address this.

Haunted gallery : painting, photography, film c.1900 / Lynda Nead. / Nead, Lynda. / New Haven, Conn. ; London : Yale University Press, 2007.
Digital Art / Christiane Paul. / Paul, Christiane. / London : Thames & Hudson, 2008.
Duane Hanson / by Kirk Varnedoe. / Varnedoe, Kirk, 1946-2003. / New York : Abrams, 1985.
Kienholz / curated by BALTIC, in association with Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art. / Kienholz, Edward, 1927-1994. / Gateshead : BALTIC, 2005.
Moving pictures : 5th International Photo Triennial Esslingen 2001 ; photography and film in contemporary art / edited by Renate Wiehage. / / Ostfildern-Ruit : Hatje Cantz, c2001.
New media art / Mark Tribe and Reena Jana ; edited by Uta Grosenick. / Tribe, Mark. / Ko¨ln ; London : Taschen, 2006.
Principles of art / by R.G. Collingwood. / Collingwood, R. G. (Robin George), 1889-1943. / London ; Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1938.
Sci-art : partnerships in science and art ; top – 40 entries. November 1998. / / [London] : The Wellcome Trust, 1998?

MADA 2 – Project Report

The key event in Unit 2 was being contacted by Peter Jansen, an artist who has essentially realised my primary project already. Seeing Peter’s work, and brief exchanges of information with him have made me reconsider the direction I was taking with my project. Alongside this was the increasing difficulty I was having in rendering the models as I wanted them to be – ie in full continuous detail. I made a rapid prototype in November which was all of 9.6cm high. While this worked as pretty expensive toy – the resolution was somewhat lacking – I felt that scaling this up and the prohibitive cost of doing so meant I’d have to find other means to reach my ends.


I researched ways in which artists have approached art using their own or others bodies as source material. I’m not talking about using the body as a point of study – I’m specifically interested in art in which the body is also a tool used to make the art. So for example Body Casting, Body Art & Body Scanning became interesting methodologies to me. In the course of this research I rediscovered how important the distinction between an objective and a subjective approach are to the final power of any piece I might produce. Whereas an objective scientific finish satisfies broad conceits in me that the art should be done by the machine and not the artist where possible – the resulting motion studies along these lines can possibly lead to a sterile (that is too strong a word – but along the right lines) artistic engagement with the audience – what I have previously named as Zombie Art, an art devoid of human emotion. On the other hand human motion study sculptures which are more crudely finished – rough at the edges so to speak – can possibly deliver a bigger artistic ‘punch’. In some ways it is easier to make the cruder model – I intend to make two comparative studies of the same motion in ‘scientific’ and ‘artistic’ modes next term for comparison. Following on from a presentation on Unit 2, fellow students seemed to find the crude approach more appealing.

The other main conceptual steps I took in Unit 2 was to simplify my generative processes by breaking down the 3d models I had in to 3d pixels (or voxels). This meant that;
1) I had much less stuff to deal with
2) I knew where every voxel was
3) I wouldn’t need to get hold of expensive Boolean Unioning software
Aesthetically, voxelizing my models has made a huge visual difference – one I am still not sure about.
Voxel art has been around in limited form for a while (for a trashy example try the popularity on the internet of Lego sculptures), and next term I need to explore this technique immediately. I’ve made two models of me saying Yes and No over time which I hope to build from crisp laser cut polystyrene and then hand paint. If these tests prove successful both in terms of technique and artistically then this could well be part of the route I take toward my end works.


Crucially voxelising (and the connected ease of then slicing) my models has opened up the door to some different conceptual approaches to my project – as something moves in time leaving a trace – it is relatively easy for an audience to imagine a series of slices left behind by such an action. These slices can then be recombined in new and interesting ways in an attempt to shed some meaning on the action in the first place. This apporach is the one taken by Nathan Wade amoungst other artists – and appeals to me on several levels, not least of which is that it is a pretty understandable way of apporaching complex time interuptions. I have a work in mind made from laser cut MDF, and hopefully given the power of the college cutter, life size, of me turning over in bed, sliced orthogonally to the bed. The resulting figure is somewhat crucifix like which is interesting. I’ve made voxelised models of this action – but these will need clarifying.


Also I finally started to think about what actions I would render in my works. I’ve always been interested in dumb repetitions as an appropriate metaphor for the state of living – and intend to stick with these. If there can be some absurd comedy in there too then so much the better. Peter Jansen had said that the most interesting motion sculptures are often not the ones you would expect from interesting motions – and I’m conscious to find actions where some things are changing but not everything is – these could be the best contenders. One possible final action piece I have in mind is ‘The artist being pushed off a plinth’.


In parallel with my 3d work I have slowly been adding to my video explorations – I ran a trial of Stromotion over the summer and although the software wasn’t pliable enough for my needs it set me thinking about ways in which a larger variety of algorithmic time effects could be introduced into video motion studies. I have been working on processing and java to achieve some of these. I’m conscious that within video a little bit more is needed than just the effected action – and am introducing richer narratives where possible such as Fight Cloud.


Plan for Unit 3
This unit I see as the construction phase – I intend to adapt the small room next to the digital studio into a workroom where I can start to build these models – I’ll be using polystyrene, cardboard, MDF and whatever else is suggested by the laser cutting and voxelisation processes. This construction should go on throughout the unit right up to the final show.

I also need to find places within college in which to site these works for the end of year show. If I can find a method to effectively build life sized figures in motion (perhaps with carboard slices) then I still hold a desire to create a fairly large piece (perhaps 2m high by a 20m walkpath) – but this perhaps overly ambitious piece will be left to later in the unit. I’m also going to be visiting the Royal College of Art who own a full color ZCorps prototyping machine (models up to 20cm high). This printer is much cheaper than the previous one I used and I plan to make a couple of full color models – one action that might be suitable for this is the men ring which I modelled in Unit 1, derived from a Dore print.


Barbara Rauch from SCIRIA has been successfully using this machine and also has purchased a 3d Haptic Scanner for SCIRIA, which it would be interesting to learn how to use. Video wise I plan to develop a software program which allows the user to apply various time based effects to a piece of film – in combination. This idea has been inspired by various artists and technological processes I have come across this year.

Finally a quick run through of the Learning outcomes of Unit 2:

1. An ability to implement practical and critical skills and processes according to individual objectives and in relation to current professional research and thinking.

2_An ability to debate and evaluate progress of work

3_An ability to identify, analyse and address the contextual implications of work

4_An ability to produce a prototype or testable version of any projected digital work

I feel I’ve satisfied all these – and surely I’m one of the only students to have actually made a genuine prototype (as opposed to a sketch or test program or video study etc…).

My blog has been a useful way to present my progress and I’ll be looking to clarify its navigation system over Christmas.


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