The body in art has been subject, and very often object, for millennia. Celebrated, fetishised, and commodified, art historical examples that loom large in the collective consciousness are frequently those in which the body of another has been portrayed by an artist with more power than their sitter, often for a patron with more power than both. But fashions change, and the contexts in which art is made and consumed do too.
In 2018, Crawford Art Gallery in Cork started a visual conversation about bodies and the canon of Irish art with the exhibition, ‘Naked Truth’, curated by Dawn Williams and William Laffan. Five years on, ‘Bodywork’, curated by Williams alone, expands on that theme with artworks from the National Collection, recently acquired by Crawford and the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Both exhibitions contained significant work by the painter Elizabeth Cope. In ‘Bodywork’, her 2006 painting, Generation Gap (Menopausal Series), shows a grey-haired female figure spreadeagled, naked, and flanked by four people, two of whom are skeletons. Is she giving birth, dying? The gallery wall label reads: “Somewhere between the operating theatre and the bedroom.”
Cope’s vibrant orange hues chime with the saffron of the wound fabric in Rajinder Singh’s nearby sculpture, My Sister’s Coven (2019), an artwork made in response to his sister’s death from cancer, alone and separated from her family in 2004. Singh’s work speaks in turn to Rachel Ballagh’s self-portrait, Three Days After Day Fifteen (2022), a ‘selfie painting’ showing the results of cancer radiation treatment on the skin of the artist’s breast.
Themes of vulnerability, mobility, autonomy, borders, and incarceration loom large in this show. The body is personal; the body is political. ‘Bodywork’ includes paintings from Brian Maguire’s Arizona series, which depict the weather-exposed remains of migrants who have died while attempting to cross the desert into the USA, and Rita Duffy’s painting, Guantanamo, Amas, Amat (2009), which depicts her studio workwear – an orange jumpsuit – and points to the ways in which we might all be pawns of fate in the juggle between privilege, circumstance and luck. Jennifer Trouton’s 32-piece watercolour installation, Mater Natura: The Abortionist’s Garden (2020-21) offers delicately monumental commentary on bodily autonomy, with herbs traditionally used to induce abortion painted and layered over anatomical and geographical drawing.
The body is what separates us; the body is what connects us. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, Dragana Jurišić went with her friends to the island of Vis in the Adriatic Sea, where she had spent childhood summers. Her resulting photographic series, Hi, Vis (2020-21), shows bodies, beautiful and glowing, in the only place it seemed safe to touch and hug at that time: under the surface of the sea. Maïa Nunes’s carefully choreographed movements in the film ARIMA (2020) speak of bodily memory as mediated through deep connection to place. Shot in their grandfather’s childhood home in Trinidad and Tobago, its mesmeric drumbeat, singing, and finger clicking turns a dance into a poem that becomes a mantra, inspired by the text of a love letter between the late choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage.
‘Bodywork’ presents the body as a vehicle for political commentary, a site for exploration and connection, a tool for expressing identity. Leanne McDonagh’s long-exposure photographs, Macho Men (2014) and Beoirs (2014), challenge the othering and mythologising of Traveller culture in Irish art, taking back visual ownership of the artist’s own heritage. ‘Bodywork’ asks viewers to reconsider the habit of ignoring or disassociating from the bodies of those who are not us.
Together, more than 30 works by 19 artists reveal the human body as a powerful carrier of meaning, an essential conveyor of connection, and something to be felt on the inside, rather than looked at from the outside.1 The show clearly snubs notions of the body as canvas for the projection of presumptions or desires over the amplification or articulation of self. It invites empathy over ogling, prompting viewers to recognise themselves each as a human body in a gallery, encountering other human bodies in art.
Cristín Leach is an art critic, writer and broadcaster based in Cork.
¹ ‘Bodywork’ exhibiting artists: Rachel Ballagh, Elizabeth Cope, Yvonne Condon, Stephen Doyle, Rita Duffy, Debbie Godsell, Eithne Jordan, Dragana Jurišić, Breda Lynch, Brian Maguire, Leanne McDonagh, Eoin McHugh, Nick Miller, Maïa Nunes, Sandra Johnston, Alice Rekab, Rajinder Singh, Peter Nash, and Jennifer Trouton.