This viewing room has been conceived as an extension of our current exhibition at the gallery 'Touch Me Not'.
Noli Me Tangere is a famous scene from the Gospel of John where the newly-risen Christ and Mary Magdalene are reunited. In the passage, John tells of how after visiting Jesus’ tomb only to find it defiled and missing the body of Christ, the distraught Mary Magdalene finds herself encountered by a stranger who reveals to be Christ himself, resurrected in flesh and blood. Though as she instinctively reaches out to touch him, Jesus utters the undying words, noli me tangere nondum enim ascendi ad Patrem meum – Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.
Even though Mary Magdalene wanted to touch and feel that flesh – lifeless only three days prior – she was not allowed to, and despite all its subtlety, its innocuity, this act of care would have taken Jesus from the heavenly and casted him back down to our mortal plane. It seems like a deja-vu to think about Jesus’ words now in the midst of a global pandemic where our bodies have transformed into harbingers of disease, and the simple act of touching can have impossible consequences. Any show of public affection is now treated with suspicion and reproach in this new COVID reality, relegated to that of infection rather than pleasure. Like Jesus we have become untouchable, and everyone has been rendered divine.
In his essay, Noli me tangere, On the Raising of the Body, the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy discusses the importance of touch within Western civilisation. Going beyond the story of the Resurrection, this phrase, now become everyday, says something important about the act of touching in general. Nancy points to the notion that stopping one another from touching, it only serves to make our desire for human contact all the greater, all the more important. And so the frustration that we now feel when we are not allowed to touch our loved ones mirrors that of Mary Magdalene, and the assumed wisdom that our bodies are sanctuaries that must be protected bears a striking resemblance to Jesus’ desire to be left untouched.
This interplay between empathy and frustration is primordial in its nature, but it seems only now are we returning to its origin. Despite the anguish that we have all faced over the past 12 months it does provide an opportunity to discuss the limits of our own body, and how throughout history it has existed as a crucible for conflict, and a threat to be controlled.
From Mary Magdalene’s time and probably long before, the body, its limits and its desires have always been intrinsically linked to politics. The idea that the human body could be broken down to simple binary taxonomies is what the eminent philosopher Paul B. Preciado labeled `anatomical fictions´. Highlighting the problems that arise from defining the body within the strict confines of a binary system, Preciado reveals how this has led to radical ways of understanding sexuality being marginalised by an establishment unwilling to make room and treating sexuality as an opportunity for further division and classification, rather than a space for creativity and expression.
This show takes this passage from the gospel as a trigger to discuss the idea of the body as a battleground through the artists´ works. The show brings together contemporary ways of understanding desire, allowing creativity and artistic practice to go beyond the limits of the human body while giving birth to revolutionary ideas capable of penetrating the cracks of an outdated and exhausted system.
The exhibition starts with Urzeit Venus (1938) by the Surrealist Meret Oppenheim. The work revisits the historic relationship between the female form and the Greek goddess Venus to present something that could be anything. Suspended in surreal ambiguity, the sculpture eschews the traditional politics of pleasure that positions the female body as that which is solely to be enjoyed, and instead presents an autonomous form that is defined only by our own interpretation. Miguel Benlloch details through his performance El detective (2017) his own account of the queer experience to consider the phases in which his body has encountered new ways of expression. With the same unapologetic honesty that has defined his practice, the performance strives to convey the real concerns and questions that surround gender politics. With TipoTopoTropos (2004-16) Benlloch assumes several different characters, such as Maria de la O (a famous gypsy character from Spanish popular culture) or a Palestinian activist. Through this patchwork of converging identities, he builds a series of anatomical fictions that renders the body a creative space to interact with, and gender as a playground for us to explore.
With Woman with Skyscraper Arm (1978), Valie Export presents a photo collage of a woman framed by the skyline of a looming city. This confrontation holds a delicate juxtaposition of the classical fragility often attached to the female form, and the phallic masculinity of the towering skyscraper. This combination of natural and mechanical forms creates a new corporal unit built upon an industrialised reality from which the woman emerges an empowered, bionic entity, and a praxis of the modern woman, freed from the shackles of history.
As in every body, both collective and individual, Anatomy of Pleasure (2017) by Saelia Aparicio is an organism formed of the many stories that intertwine to form a united whole. The sculpture pays close attention to the very objects from which it has been fashioned, presenting a body composed of synthetic hair, cleaning gloves and cosmetic makeup, creating a curious mosaic of contrasting materials. The work navigates across the viewer’s subjectivity, renouncing conventional labels while leaving boundless questions as to what identity or gender Anatomy of Pleasure subscribes to. In A Misterical Journey (2016), Aparicio conveys a story that takes us through the anatomy of a body that is full of vibrant characters and objects. This dramatic odyssey through a digestive system invites us to contemplate to what life goes on below our very own skin.
The series of drawings, Polifilia (2020) by Eva Fábregas invites us to step into her fantasy world of humanoid creatures that interact with objects, and their surroundings that exude a heightened sense of sexuality and eroticism. Her scenes deconstruct the economy of pleasure to suggest the encounters of genderless mutant forms that are the complete manifestations of pleasure, and who are free from the tight regulations of time and space, all the while suffusing them with a kind of intoxicating mystery. Seven Wives (2020) by the London-based artist Anna Perach is a continuation of her long-standing investigation into the history of female emotion, and how is has been conveyed in both physiology and literature. Employing embroidery techniques inspired by European folklore, her sculptures delve into the different columns of history in which the female body has been dominated and exploited by those in positions of power, thus divorcing it from its true capacity for compassion, love and emotion. With thematic references that vary from the teachings of Carl Jung to the classic Blue Beard Tale, Perach’s narrations reanimate the traditions of embroidery within a contemporary context, while building an artistic arena in which the very construct of power can be brought into question.
In these strange times that we find ourselves in, dominated by isolation and the supremacy of one’s hygiene, Noli Me Tangere brings together the work of artists who use their bodies as mediums that reveal powerful yet intimate stories of love, desire and human connection. As we eagerly await to return to past memories of skin, sex and sweat, the words touch me not will soon be soon be nothing more than the relic of a faint and distant legend.
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