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In Absentia: Body Politics in the Absence of Human Form

“When you look at the imprint of our image, it is us that you will see,” Saint Symeon said to a disciple in response to a priest asking that his ill son remain in the saint’s presence. He refused the request and deflected divine power onto a clay token bearing his imprinted image, diverting attention from his person and instead instilling an ambiguous divine power within the object. Since antiquity, traces of a human figure transferred onto an object have carried enormous weight in communities of the cult. Imbued with talismanic powers, reproductions become relics and icons, worshipped by followers of particular religious doctrines – in these instances it is the relationship to a deified body that renders these objects meaningful, even holy.

In Mexico, a country whose religious practices are rooted in Aztec ritual and Catholic belief, relics, icons, and other holy objects that refer to divine bodies are essential. Dominant cultural traditions use auspicious items to worship and commemorate ancestors. They become meaningful thanks to their relationship with an identified but absent individual, whether a religious figure or a loved one. But what does it mean when an object signifies contact with an anonymous body, when that very body has been destroyed by violence and their identity erased?

Contemporary Mexican artist Teresa Margolles questions the notion of death as the great equalizer. Her work narrates violent histories, exercises of power and erasure as they affect the human body. In recent years growing pressures in Mexico have resulted in deadly conflicts between drug cartels and government forces. Margolles’ work explores legacies of disappeared bodies and uses unidentified remains in morgues to create mixed-media pieces bearing imprints or casts of these corpses. Her 1997 plaster casts of autopsied corpses entitled Catafalque show the imprint of a mutilated body, with only vague suggestions of specific features. There are no recognizable identifiers for any particular cadaver, but the casts remain explicitly and hauntingly human – the identity of the individual may be gone, but an image of their death is immortalized in plaster.

In 1996 Margolles and SEMOFO, an artist collective with which she worked, prepared an installation entitled Dermis, using human remains and soiled linens that had been used to cover murder victims in a morgue. These textiles bore the literal blood and sweat of the deceased bodies, creating gruesome imprints not dissimilar, visually at least, to the Turin Shroud. They became relics of mutilated Joe Bloggses, points of contact between violent erasure and members of a society forced to cope. In the wake of these deaths, Margolles’ work demands recognition of untold stories written in corpses and prohibits the destruction of these narratives even as their victims disappear. The imprinted forms and human stains elicit visceral responses to the cruelties of life that remain visible in death.

Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955. Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports, 191.1 x 80 x 20.3 cm, 79.1989 (Photo: MoMA, © 2018 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation)

Likewise, Robert Rauschenberg alludes to bodily functions and violence through heavy splatters of red, blue, yellow, and purple paint in Bed (1955). Here a pillow, sheets, and a quilt are assembled on wood supports to create the image of a neatly made bed, which is disrupted by heavy, multi-coloured paints splashed across the top half. The paint drips down the blanket, mixing as it lands below. Rauschenberg emerged as a key figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1950, emphasizing emotional expression and introspection, manifesting itself in energetic and spontaneous creations where form was valued over content. This means of interaction with the subconscious developed in the context of the economic, social, and political upheaval following the Second World War. This kind of psychological exploration came with heavily masculinized undertones, where the heterosexual white man became the ideal Abstract Expressionist artist. Rauschenberg, however, did not fit this mould and deviated from this machismo complex in order to explore his own homosexual identity. Bed combines found objects with splatters of paint to engage with the conventions of the movement, recalling the work of Jackson Pollock. The muddled paints contrast with the neatly made bed and appear as if they could be bodily fluids or the site of violence superimposed on a bed, the signifier of emotional and physical intimacy. Unlike the esoteric and ambiguous work of other Abstract Expressionists, however, Rauschenberg here directly invokes the imagery of an empty bed – the bed has no occupants, but seems to have been soiled by symbolic or actual processes.

Rauschenberg’s quilt evokes a traditionally feminine art form, as textile work has historically been women’s work. This association disrupts the hypermasculinized gestural works of Rauschenberg’s contemporaries, and their virile, dominating forms. Jonathan Katz writes that, “If machismo, as we are increasingly finding, is connected to fear, then the Abstract Expressionists feared for their maleness. America has a history of suspicion with regard to its artists and their manliness, and perhaps never more so than in the early 1950s when the rest of America was rolling up its shirtsleeves and getting down to work to defeat Communism.” Katz also notes that during the 1950s, homosexuality was vehemently oppressed and linked to communism, as any deviance from a masculine heterosexual norm suggested a deviance from American values. While Abstract Expressionist artists engaged in a struggle to voice identity, Rauschenberg’s Bed questions claims to the universality of their identity and positionality as straight, white, and male. This work relates constraints on innovation and constraints on sexuality, and orients the ambitions of the Abstract Expressionist movement within its sexual politics. The absence of the body in the intimate setting of the bed and the chaotic paint splatters suggest a performance of violence in a sexual context, potentially rape or homophobic crime. Like other Abstract Expressionists, Rauschenberg denies the viewer a direct interaction with a human figure, yet illuminates the body politics of the mid-twentieth century and its intrinsic links to aesthetics and sexuality.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled. 1991, Billboard, dimensions vary with installation. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, New York. Installation view at 11th Avenue and 38th Street, Manhattan (February 20–March 18, 2012), as part of Print/Out, The Museum of Modern Art, February 19–May 14, 2012 (Photo by David Allison)

Cuban-American artist Félix Gonzáles-Torres similarly explores themes of homosexuality and intimate relationships, and seeks to disrupt homophobic rhetoric in the context of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Like Rauschenberg, he uses the image of an empty bed in Untitled (billboard of an empty bed), showing a stark black and white photograph of an empty bed on a billboard in Manhattan. The sheets are crumpled and each pillow has the clear indentation of a head, as if the occupants have left just moments earlier, yet the sense of intimacy conveyed by the image of a shared bed is disrupted by the public location of the billboard. Frances Pohl explains, “Félix Gonzáles-Torres, in a billboard of 1991, entered into the controversy over the federal government’s attempts to pass legislation criminalizing sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex in private by bringing the private space of the bedroom out into the public sphere.” Thus, in order to counter fears of the homosexual body, the artist creates an image that implies, but notably still conceals, same-sex intercourse and places publicly it on an urban billboard.

González-Torres’s work is informed by the rapid spread of HIV among the gay community in the 1980s, which was met publicly in the United States with a virulent homophobia reminiscent of the anti-communist narrative of the Cold War. In the same year the billboard was created, Gonzáles-Torres lost his partner, Ross Laycock, to the disease and was forced to confront the reality of having watched Laycock’s health decline until his tragic death. The artist’s greatest challenge ensued: the obligation to continue living. In his billboard, as in Rauschenberg’s Bed, there is no direct representation of homosexuality, but the image raises awareness of the public battles over private bodies and acts as a memorial for those who had already lost their lives to the disease. Without ever depicting a body, Gonzáles-Torres engages with the painful discourse of both anti-gay sentiment and loss of life. Death is the only universal human condition, yet the circumstances surrounding the artist’s work relate to a particular historical moment, one charged with fear and homophobia. He externalizes part of his personal narrative, the empty bed becoming an allusion to his deceased partner’s absence from the realm of the intimate and the physical. The work becomes at once deeply personal and maximally public, with the absent body as the missing mediator of the politics of sex and death in the outside world.

In each of these artists’ works, the absence of the body forces the viewer to question what they expect to see and who is meant to occupy this space. The marked vacancy of Rauschenberg and Gonzáles-Torres’ empty beds refer to the ephemerality of human relationships, of fleeting moments of intimacy that are shaded with the politics of gender, sexuality, and violence. Meanwhile Margolles challenges the Mexican political landscapes and forces the viewer to confront death directly. These works participate in the visual tradition of vanitas and, like relics, aestheticize death, displacing bodies from a morgue or bed to a poster and, ultimately, museum. The act of depriving the viewer of the expected body raises questions about how they are meant to interact with the work and how their own body politics change this relationship. They construct narratives of intimacy and the abject, conditions of life and death, and the ways in which a subject hidden from sight becomes painfully, radically visible. And yet, narrating these histories can become a way to find peace: the body itself is gone, but this very absence reminds the viewer of life itself. They become a site both of violence and of peace, where a life might have been abused or lost in unjust circumstances but is recorded and laid to rest.

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