Subtle Bodies In and Around Works of Art #2

10 December 2021, 12:00:00 am

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Session Convenors

Associate Professor Jay Johnston, Department of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney
Dr Pia van Gelder, School of Art & Design, Australian National University

Session Moderators

Associate Professor Jay Johnston, Department of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney

Session Speakers

Tara Heffernan, University of Melbourne
Dr Victoria Wynne-Jones, University of Auckland, New Zealand
Ella Whateley, Monash University: MADA

This panel presents papers that discuss subtle bodies as content or method in artistic practice. This is a concept of embodiment that understands the self as composed of invisible, ‘energetic’ agency that interpenetrates and exceeds the physical body. Widely found in historical and contemporary cultures from Platonism to south Asian religious practices and including various traditions of esoteric belief Subtle body models have an enduring appeal. In the past twenty years, attention has turned more directly to the significance of esoteric worldviews for modernist artists. In many the same ways as that of popular ‘turns’ in the Humanities, like New Materialism, Subtle body ontologies disrupt conventional subject–object relations, profoundly refiguring our aesthetic and ethical relationships with the material world and the environment. Consequently art works that interact with these relational ontologies participate in this rethinking and reimagining. This panel considering the impact of subtle body ontologies on artistic practices, how artists work with subtle bodies in the works they produce and their proposed audience reception.

PAPER #1
There is only to be: The Subversive Subtle Bodies of Piero Manzoni

PRESENTER
Tara Heffernan, University of Melbourne

There is a striking simplicity to the practice of postwar Italian artist Piero Manzoni. Often employing bland mass-produced materials, simple artistic gestures, or else, bodies (his own, and his audience’s) his work is often consigned to the anecdotal. In the case of his iconic series Merda d’artista (1961), the gesture of canning feces has often been reductively celebrated as a critique of the art market. Partly inspired by tendencies in European and American abstract painting, Merda d’artista is but one work in Manzoni’s diverse and prophetic oeuvre which evidences an ongoing investment in subtle energies. This paper will analyse work from two series by Manzoni, Linee (1959-1961) and Scultura Vivente (1961), which respectively demonstrate a balance that characterises his artistic project; between the impossibility of containing subtle bodies and the ephemeral celebration of shared energies in performative and relational events. As will be elucidated, by appropriating the methodologies and processes of new and obsolete technologies—such as a rotary press in a performative iteration of Linee—Manzoni tested the boundaries between bodies and objects, inviting others to participate in productive ephemeral encounters which sought to activate unseen auras.

PAPER #2
"Am I overly suggestible?": encounter and the relational in contemporary performance art

PRESENTER
Dr Victoria Wynne-Jones, University of Auckland, New Zealand

In her performance New light wedge fiction (2020) Sonya Lacey reads aloud to one participant at a time, sitting beside them on a low metal bench, before a slowly-circulating ceiling fan, mounted to the gallery floor. Including Lacey's work in a recent exhibition was part of my broader investigations into subtle body ontologies, specifically intersubjectivity and the ways in which the relational might be gently explored through curatorial practice and contemporary art history. Reading aloud, breathing together (Abram 2018), slight encounters, micro-perceptions, proximities, orientation, darkness and "vibes in the room" are just some strategies used by contemporary artists experimenting with relationality. In this paper I explore various ways in which individuation might be questioned including: radical approaches to intersubjectivity (Schutz), withness (Samuels, forthcoming) sensory continuum (Peirce 1898); experience as experimented and the choreo-political (Lepecki 2013). Certain works by Lacey as well as Oliver Beer, val smith, Alicia Frankovich and Tino Sehgal are relational assemblages (Manning 2013, 76) that create affects as "distributed and diffuse fields of intensities, circulating within but also moving beyond and around bodies (McCormack 2013, 3).

PAPER #3
What is prayer?: painting as subtle body and active agency in a mystical landscape

PRESENTER
Ella Whateley, Monash University: MADA

The wonder of (the word) prayer, is its capacity for easy slippage between the material and immaterial. It is a common, non-pejorative term utilised in many religions and cultures. Yet prayer is complex. It encompasses substance, (as subject and object), action, (being at prayer) and mystery, for though reflexive, it is usually relational, implying the intention of communication with someone or something ‘other’. Integral to prayer is the experience of interiority and exteriority and of activating spaces where the subtle bodies of prayers overlap to challenge normal spatiotemporal relations. Using insights gained from my research into the works of the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen, from ongoing interviews with committed religious practitioners from multiple faiths - from spontaneous Javanese Latihan practices to formal Sunni Islamic practices - and drawing on my own prayer and arts practices, this paper seeks to investigate the ways in which artworks and arts practices can act as substitute subtle bodies in prayer spaces and collaborate as active, and inter-active agents, in perpetual performance. This paper, and the surrounding research, is informing my next body of work being produced through a residency in Indonesia at the Fine Art Department at Bandung Institute of Technology, in 2022.

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Biographies

Associate Professor Jay Johnston, Department of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney

Jay Johnston, is Associate Professor in the Department of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney. An interdisciplinary scholar her academic work is at the interface of philosophy, arts and religion and is centrally concerned with subtle bodies, the cultivation of perception and multi-species ethic-aesthetic relations. Her most recent monograph: Stag and Stone: Religion, Archaeology and Esoteric Aesthetics(2021). She is a bad birdwatcher and platypus lover.


Dr Pia van Gelder, School of Art & Design, Australian National University

Pia van Gelder is an electronic artist, researcher and historian investigating cultural understandings of energy and how they shape our relationships with technology, bodies and our environment. Her recent work has investigated the influence of esotericism on instruments in the arts of the 20th century. Van Gelder is a lecturer at the Australian National University in the School of Art & Design and as the Vice Chancellors Creative Research Fellow she is currently working on “Survival Studio,” a prototype for a carbon negative artist studio.


Tara Heffernan, University of Melbourne

Tara Heffernan is a PhD candidate (Art History) at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis concerns the work of post-war Italian artist Piero Manzoni—specifically, the political and cultural dimensions of his employment of humour and transgression in relation to capitalist aesthetics. Heffernan’s broader research interests include politics, feminism and the lineages of modernism and the avant-gardes in contemporaneity. She has published in Third Text Online and regularly contributes to Melbourne’s MeMO review and Australasian art publications such as Eyeline and Artlink.


Dr Victoria Wynne-Jones, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Victoria Wynne-Jones is the author of "Choreographing Intersubjectivity in Performance Art" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021) and is a Professional Teaching Fellow at the University of Auckland. As a scholar and gallerist she works to support contemporary art practice from within and outside of academia. Her research interests include: intersections between performance art history and dance studies, contemporary art theory and philosophy, curatorial practice and feminisms. She lectures, supervises and examines across the academic disciplines of art history, dance studies and fine arts.


Ella Whateley, Monash University: MADA

Ella Whateley is an Australian visual artist and Adjunct Research Fellow in Fine Art, Monash Art Design and Architecture (MADA) at Monash University, Victoria. Her practice explores the potential of art to offer new affective spaces for encountering the metaphysical. Though based in Australia, with a keen interest in multi-faith practises, her work has increasingly become cross-cultural spending periods in Taiwan, China and Indonesia. In 2016 Whateley was awarded a practice-led PhD in Painting, School of Art and Design (SOAD) at the Australian National University (ANU); during 2017 Whateley was a Vice-Chancellor’s Visiting Artist Fellow (SOAD) also at ANU.