Blog Post

Somatic Medium

In my last post, I discussed gesture in James Cameron’s Avatar. In a response, Josh Landy asked me to think a bit beyond the terms I’d set up in that piece (which focused on what gesture means) to consider what it is we do when we gesture. And so, to rearticulate what I said previously: my own interests are in the potentially non-semantic gesture (that is, a gesture irreducible to meaning, especially linguistic meaning), and, further, in whether or not these kinds of gestures might be represented in novels (that is, of course, in language).

Also in that post, I pointed to mathematician Brian Rotman’s compelling account of language’s gestural sources. Rotman rather persuasively argues that we should not only think of gesture as pointing to and undergirding linguistic “meaning,” as we might do when considering a shrug, a sentence of American Sign Language, or a referee’s ‘holding’ call, but also to consider the gestural roots of alphabetic language more generally. Anyone who’s taught knows well that sometimes our embodiment gets the better of us, and we find ourselves making gestures that are completely untethered from the words we speak. Rotman challenges us to see the ways we represent spoken words in written language as tied to bodily gesture in a foundational way.

What I’d like to do now is think through two related questions: is it possible to understand what it is we do when gesturing without recourse to cognition, psychology, thought? And, if we take Rotman’s claim seriously, as I’d like to, can we think of writing not as virtual speech, but as virtual embodiment? Perhaps it’s best to bracket novelistic discourse for the time being. The return of gesture to language is perhaps a harder case to make, and it will be the subject of subsequent posts. So instead, I’ll begin with a discussion of a set of objects with a complex relationship to gestural embodiment, and I hope I’ll move towards answering the first question I posed above.

This brings me to the subject of this post: a sculptural installation. Late last year, I was lucky enough to take a visit to Israeli artist Ohad Meromi’s Brooklyn studio to take a look at some new work (these new works can be seen at Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv through April 20 (http://www.gordongallery.co.il/Programme/). I’ve written about Meromi’s video art before (specifically his installation “Cyclops II” for Harris Lieberman Gallery in New York), but this new work returns to his roots in sculpture as installation. When I initially asked about visiting the studio, Meromi told me he was working on “Autonomous Objects,” a provocative phrase. “Autonomous” how? They don’t interact with each other? With the viewer? What?

When I actually got to the studio, I was surprised that these sculptures weren’t autonomous in any of the ways I’d imagined. Given Meromi’s previous work, this made sense – each sculptural “piece” is often connected, like a Brechtian prop (where the object has a staged cohesiveness that allows it to be read more heavily as a prop rather than as evidence of a realism), to the larger claims of the installation, but the pieces seem separable: a massive wooden guitar can indeed fit into an installation, but it also has a discrete status of its own. And while the visual grammar of [these pieces/this piece] remains closely tied to his earlier work, [this piece/these pieces] are different. And that difference lies in my inability to decide whether or not this is one piece or many.

This was a question that had occurred to me in September, too, when I’d been able to go to the enormous Dan Graham retrospective at the Whitney. What struck me the most about that show was the way the apparently autonomous pavilions were altered by being shown in collection: what might be interesting about a sited and situated piece changed as soon as the “situation” in which it was displayed was a curated retrospective. Still, at its root, each Graham pavilion is separate: it may share a visual and methodological grammar, but each has the capacity to stand alone as a separable art object. I was, as I say, expecting something along these lines when I went to Meromi’s studio, but I got something different: something that related more securely to my own interests in gestural or bodily grammars.

Here’s a brief description of the “Autonomous Objects,” now called “Creative Circle:” the project consists of several objects, of different scales and slightly different visual grammars, and the question of the group seems to be: “how related are they?”Obviously, the grouping alone suggests a relationship and, as is the case with many installations, it seems to be the project of the viewer to form a logic – a syntax, if you will – that connects them. To speak specifically to the art: one section looks like an overgrown coat-rack or wooden robot, about four feet of two-by-four attached to a “skirted” platform, a corona of circles on its trapezoidal “head” [fig 1, below]. Accessories hang from its “neck,”– a tambourine, a necklace – and a mirrored “foot” pokes out below. Another object features an architectural plinth with a carved foam figure of a seated woman playing what looks like a lyre [fig. 2]. Both the blandness of the installation’s title (like the title of an earlier set of pieces, “After School Drama”) and the pastiched production methods (another Meromi trademark) forces an encounter with questions of artistic versus artisanal production (i.e.: is that really a purple glitter hula hoop? And if so, why is there a precise, resin bas-relief in the same piece?) [fig. 3]. The crisp, geometrical shapes of Meromi’s work highlight its modernist antecedents, but the homemade aesthetic complicates or challenges high modernist orthodoxy (and highlight the artist’s political engagement).Is a figure a giantess, bending under the weight of her accessories, or a mere scaffold with a circular crest? The reclining orange foam nude is clearly figurative, but is the platform on which she rests part of the art, or is it just a convenient shelf on which we place the “real” art? The shapes imply abstraction, but their materials imply symbolism.

The more I looked at the collection of “Autonomous Objects,” the more I realized each piece was both autonomous (that is, separable, individuated sculptures) and a part of a whole (that is, an installation). This might be put a bit simply, but I think it has enormously important ramifications for all kinds of cultural production. To be brief: when do we decide that an art object is simply part of an artist’s grammar (this is a Danielle Steele novel, a Dan Graham pavilion, a Lil’ Wayne track), and when do we decide that grammar is, in fact, an ongoing project (a Trollope novel, a Star Trek episode, a Lil’ Wayne mixtape)?

The most challenging question we can ask of “Creative Circle” is: how does this relate to that? How does one thing relate to another thing? What is the relationship between this part and that part of this object? It seems to me this kind of relationality depends on what I want to call a somatic medium, and Meromi’s not-quite-figurative, not-quite-separable “Autonomous Objects” help clarify this conception. I want to use this term to describe a feature of embodiment that at an earlier time and in another discipline we might call aura. Not a Benjaminian version of aura (which seems more tied to the work of art as such) – but something like the word’s use circa 1976, with attendant pet rocks and love beads, a possibly gluey, amniotic envelope encapsulating the body. So, for my purposes, this somatic medium refers to just such a medial space around the body, evidence not of art or authentic work, but of embodiment. To steal an apt line from Matthew Arnold, it’s not the self or the thing that keeps the self distant from others like it; instead, it’s the “enclasping flow” that allows each “enisled” self to know both their separation from and their connection to the wider world: “The islands feel the enclasping flow,/And then their endless bounds they know” (“To Marguerite,” lines 5-6, my emphasis).

A somatic medium defies clear definition: we can’t reduce it to an object’s shape, or even to an object’s proximity or distance from another object. Instead, the medium lies in the tenuous connections between curve and line, between different kinds of matter. It lies in the moving, felt spaces between the rounded back of the orange foam nude’s relationship to the sharp, gingham-covered skirted statue. When I’ve tried to explain this concept before, I’ve suggested this registers in daily life in the way a body reacts when another body enters a room. This sensation is often recuperated to plot or narrative or history (only certain entrances produce a somatic effect), but its reach seems wider still (sure, the felt other might be a beloved, but it might also be a stray dog, Meromi’s installation asks, among other things, if it could be a scaffold). Perhaps because the objects we study are so obviously the product of cognition, literary scholars have a difficult time letting the bodily stand as an aesthetic result. We immediately move to the ways embodiment means. I think one of the things “Creative Circle” encourages us to do is to rest with the troubling effects of bodies.

So, how does the somatic medium relate to the gestural? I began this post by asking if it were possible to separate gesture from meaning, to think about the bodily beyond or outside of cognition. It seems, then, somewhat odd to suggest that a collection of loosely connected objects could tell us anything about the living body or embodiment more generally. Meromi’s objects don’t think, they don’t have positions or politics. But it is because they are not fully figurative that they allow us to think through relatedness conceptually. We might not be able to decide what it is that this installation means, but an encounter with these pieces surely does something to the viewer. And while it might prompt us on to thought, thought isn’t a necessary part of the experience.Instead, when you move into the installation, you find yourself becoming like the objects. And these objects continually refer to the human without fully becoming figurative. Put another way, as you enter the installation, you suddenly are implicated in an unclear and ever shifting system of relationship: how do these things relate to one another? And, you are somewhat like and somewhat dissimilar from other things clustered in a room, somewhat like and somewhat dissimilar from a human, a figure, a body. Here, these experiences are sourced in an encounter with sculpture, perhaps, as I’ll suggest in a future post, such experiences may even be found in novels.

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Claire Jarvis's picture
I'm an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Stanford, working primarily on Victorian literature and culture.