2007 SOFA Speaker

By United States

In 2007, Catherine Truman gave a lecture about her work at SOFA NY. This lecture was sponsored by AJF.

For many years now I have been absorbed in the ways in which the human body has been depicted throughout medical history – particularly through illustration and three-dimensional models. I’ve pursued historical anatomical collections around the globe. Anatomy has, in fact, been a long-term addiction.

If I were asked to define my practice in a single sentence I would say that ‘I am a maker of objects about and for the human body.’

My starting point has always been the body, either as a canvas or as a subject in itself. I have always found it to be a very potent vehicle for the exploration of both the personal and the political.

Predominantly, I carve wood. The wood I use is English lime, which is a traditional carving wood from the Linden tree. Wood is a simple organic material, easily understood and it still plays a part in most people’s daily domestic lives. I am seduced a little by its pale, flesh-like qualities but I’m not interested in expressing the material for the material’s sake.

When I choose to carve wood it’s like being inside of a three-dimensional drawing. The experience is absolutely physical and over the years in order to sustain my passion for carving, I have had to learn that every bit of my anatomy is a tool in the process.

In 1995, I succumbed to a strain injury. As a consequence I began to study the Feldenkrais method and became interested in the anomaly I felt between the clinical anatomical images in the text books and my own experience of the body. In direct response I started to make work that was a personal, sensorial recording of the structures of the body beginning with bone, muscle and skin. I wanted to record and carve images of the impressions and sensations I had personally experienced of these structures. I placed them under the microscope in an attempt to hold these sensations still.

In 1997, I traveled to Europe and had my first experience of visiting several important historical anatomical collections in Leiden, Utrecht and London. My curiosity about the history of anatomical representation was deepening. But at that stage I was indiscriminate about what I was looking at or more likely what I was looking for.

I wanted to see everything: pathology and anatomy of humans and animals, and wet and dry specimens. I found I was both compelled and a little overwhelmed by the contents of the jars.

And because I now experienced a greater sense of physical ease when working, my natural instinct was to work with larger tools, involving more of my body and using the larger muscles of my body more efficiently in the action of carving. The scale of my work was beginning to increase in size – that was a marked change.

At this point there was a subtle shift in my aesthetic. My interpretation of the relationship between internal organs and industrial forms gave the work an uncomfortable sensibility.

At the same time I was becoming more and more curious about the history of anatomical representation and I became highly aware that the individual skill and nuances of the anatomist and the illustrator were permeating the images in the publications I was studying. The images display a certain level of personal interpretation and expression and the fact that there seemed to be real people behind these images was an encouragement for me to go on looking.

The work I have here at SOFA NY depicts a series of bodies that are not perfect  – they are indeed quite peculiar.

In her book On Longing, Susan Steward wrote that: ‘The body depicted always tends towards exaggeration  – either in the convention of the grotesque or the convention of the ideal.’ She says that ‘there are few images less interesting than an exact anatomical drawing of the human form.’

It is this slippage between the perfect and the imperfect body that I’m experimenting with now – the levels of distortion that slip into the process of imaging the body and the transformations that occur as a result.

I think we each carry our very own notions of the perfect body and yet always feel that we live in an imperfect flesh. So the body we have sometimes feels like strange, ill-fitting garment.

There is another influence here that stems from another of my passions. That is my passion for contemporary dance or more precisely, the bodies of contemporary dancers in movement.

In solo performance, even the most seemingly symmetrical of bodies become peculiar with the intense scrutiny they demand of the audience. I often find myself scanning for the nuances that sets each dancer apart.

In the same way, anatomical museums make similar kinds of demands upon me as those I experience when I’m a member of a dance audience. I am there by personal choice, to learn something of myself through the body of another. To be given permission to look beyond the boundaries into the interior of something as sacred as the human body. This offers me a new sense of possibility, a new way of seeing the body.

I have seen a number of companies of ‘disabled’ dancers and have been mesmerized by the extraordinary movements compelled by asymmetries magnified under the spotlight – those differences, commonly read as distortions, that we are trained to politely look away from. And I’ve discovered an exquisite beauty in the body’s ability to find balance in movement. This has been a catalyst for the new work.

So, as you can see, I am indeed a driven woman . . . driven by an intense curiosity about the story of anatomical representation . . . how our knowledge of anatomy has been influenced . . . and, in a sense, handmade by others. The skills of the modelers, in particular their personal understanding of the body, has played an essential role in how we image the body today.

For me, I feel this has been very much a story of opening out. I began the journey with a sense of dislocation and alienation and an intense curiosity about the source of my contemporary understanding of the body and I have found that it is, of course, a history located in stories of human endeavor, compelled by the strengths and imperfections and the foibles of individuals. Discovering the human stories behind the history has been liberating in a way, finding out what connects us to each other. For me it is a life-long passion.


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