You are here
Brad Nunn and Tracey Benson
Sharp Lines, a recent exhibition by Brad Nunn and Tracey Benson, offered a playfully macabre and personally motivated examination of medical modes of display and objectification. Courting the uncanny task of lending visual form to modern medicine's historically repressed underbelly of minority exploitation and social segregation, the artist's calculated use of grotesquery could be seen to open up the question of a meta-anatomy, one that took as its subject the surgical gaze itself, along with related normative social discourses on the body. Explicit surgical ropes like anatomical diagrams, profiles of surgical implements, skeletal models and specimen catalogues, were combined with more subtle , formal metaphors of probing, severing and dissection to produce a discursive gross clinic, which attempted to make a kind of endoscopic counter-spectacle of various choice-cuts from the corpus of medical and socio-biological pretence.
Each of the assorted sculptural and pictorial pieces in the exhibition contested, in its own way, the suspect and seemingly contradictory aim of medical optics to render the body, with its unruly affectations and heterogeneous morphologies, absent from the production of knowledge: a process tacitly understood as disincarnate, specular and as such termed objective. In place of this panoptic or holistic ambition to reduce the intractable density of the organism and its experiences to a universal catalogue of imagistic models or types, was an impetus to consider how the body, as both the subject and object of investigation, introduces certain cognitive blindspots and libidinal blockages that disable empirical quantification.
Much of the work in the exhibition could be seen to be playing on this planar limitation of surgical visuality, the problem of knowing the inimitable fullness of the three dimensional through the severe frame of the two dimensional. Nunn's Surgical Scavengers 1 and 2 figured this issue as a crisis of the endomorphic and exomorphic. They consisted of probing, pincer tipped vertebral pseudopods which unfurled from a suspended, spherical nucleus of photographic prints depicting masked surgeons at work. Delicately constructed from plywood, the multi-facetedness of these bio-mechanical realisations of the Bataillean informe, their lack of fixed orientation, evoked the blindness of the patient to the surgical process, an unconscious helplessness before an all pervasive, intrusive force. As such, their xenomorphic character might also be thought to tap into the popular perception of alien abductors as formless surgeons.
The tendency within medical optics to flatten out differences and specificities through diagrams and other pictorial typologies was additionally manifest in those aspects of Sharp Lines which echoed the special relationship between the space of early surgical demonstrations and the space of theatre. For instance, the Surgical Scavengers and Nunn's other suspended piece, a whale-like (or was it spermatozoan) superstructure, punctured at the leading edge and entitled Carcass, enjoyed highly theatrical shadow effects generated by spotlights. More pointedly, Benson's piercing and layering of pictorial panels in work like Real (no) Deal and Real (i) Deal recalled, in some ways, the layered panels of scenery found on the stage; except that instead of presenting a safe, picturesque, external vista, they folded back upon the body's interior and upon anatomical praxis, to revel in that which was not meant to be theatricalised for the casual spectator.
Most pronounced among these were panels featuring a wallpaper collage of slickly shellacked photographs of Caesarean procedures from, ironically, the Baby-Boomer era: a fetishistic proxy for the artist's own caesura in memory during the birth of her child. Smaller didactic panels mounted above displayed technical renderings of outmoded implements and extracts from instructional texts for performing the Caesarean section. An overlaying grid of nails, however, was added to awaken us to the condition of subjugation and voyeuristic mastery that these tools of the surgical gaze imply for women. They were also there, perhaps, to hint at the very real danger of an optical Caesarean to the imperious eye of the empiricist who would attempt to acquire too full a knowledge of this object of inquiry.
As was suggested by the at once secular and sinister connotations of its title, Nunn's Ward series sought to bring out the hypocrisies and instabilities instituted by popular prescriptions for bodily norms. Each of these three finely rendered monochrome pastel portraits, sourced from glossy magazine shots of ideal masculine and feminine types, was marked by a carefully insinuated form of surgical 'disfigurement'. Yet it was not accurate to say that these facial scars or amputations registered as deformations of the norm. They did not subtract or detract from, but instead added poignancy and depth to otherwise sterile, stock figures. By investing stereo-typical bodies with idiosyncrasy at the level of physical trauma, Nunn both rescued them from banality and asserted that the artificial norm which they represent is the true site of lack and wanting, not their points of injury.
Yet in spite of and perhaps also because of, the exhibition's ambitious scope it is necessary to sound a short critical note. With Sharp Lines, the artists wanted to transpose the viewer into the psychic position of a patient awakening from an anaesthetised state during a surgical procedure. Formally this involved producing fairly standard anti-aesthetic shock effects through the presentation of the abject as spectacle, metaphors of the transgression of the body's physical limits and, most notable overall, the figuring of surgical medicine as a sinister, manipulative and in Nunn's case, monstrous presence.
Although intended to provoke an awareness of that Impulse inherent in the surgical gaze to generalise, categorise and reduce to types, this latter reduction of medicine to a malign conspiracy partially relegated an otherwise critically expansive show to the equally abstractive, distorting and vilifying dynamics of caricature. The very techniques that were applied to open up an institutional domain to critical censure could be seen on another level to legislate their own interpretive prohibitions and closures.