Body Language

Body Language

In 1970, a group of Boston women looking to improve women’s knowledge about their own health care self-published a book they titled Women and Their Bodies. Today, the international bestseller, better known as Our Bodies, Ourselves, is a fixture on millions of bookshelves and has educated three generations of women. This feminist classic is the focus of an exhibition of the same name, albeit with no comma, on view at Ely Center of Contemporary Art through April 10.

Most of the exhibition, comprising about a hundred works by nearly 70 artists, focuses explicitly on the body—female, male and otherwise. That includes several multimedia and interactive pieces, among them Megan Shaughnessy’s Gestation (2019), which takes on our culture’s expectations about pregnancy. A video projection dominates one wall, showing views of both a pregnant figure and a woman’s face, while a woman’s voice narrates the many physical and emotional effects of pregnancy and reads quotations—many of them from men—about pregnancy, ranging from the sentimental to the domineering.

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Hanging across from the video is an “empathy sack,” a 13.5-pound backpack—or, in this case, frontpack—designed to give viewers a feel for the weight of carrying a baby. A label enumerates the weight breakdown of baby, placenta, uterine muscle and amniotic fluid and acknowledges that most women gain more like 25 to 35 pounds (or more). It’s tough to recreate the feeling of pregnancy. For one thing, the sack redistributes the weight to one’s shoulders. But it is surprisingly heavy when lifted from its hook, and taken in conjunction with the video, it emphasizes the weight of expectations, opinions and physical and emotional burdens placed on women passing through this strange journey that is at once personal and public.

Also interactive is a display titled Kitchen Sanctum (2019), where artist Nadine Nelson was running an event during my visit, teaching artgoers how to make fresh spring rolls as an entrée into talking about social roles and relationships. “You can put anything in it, there’s no rules,” she instructed, though at least one participant ran into trouble with overstuffing. “Enter the kitchen sanctum,” instructs the wall display, “where we will cook share recipes, remedies, potions, stories, and strategies to liberate and revolutionize our connection to food, our bodies, and each other.”

More traditional visual offerings in Our Bodies Ourselves are, in their own way, equally interactive as they force viewers to confront some uncomfortable images and emotions. At the top of the stairway is Leila Daw’s Remains (1974), which at first glance resembles a skinned haunch of meat or discarded innards from a butcher shop slung over a rafter. But the piece is made of ivory-colored silk, delicately painted in red and green circles, dots and oblong pools of color. Other items come to mind: a woman’s stockings hung to dry, a pouch of belongings. The “remains” in question might be those left at the end of a life, or perhaps simply at the end of a day. What’s unavoidable is that we all leave something behind.

Nowhere is the body more viscerally examined than in Joan Fitzsimmons’s Installation: The Healing Arts (2018). It demands attention as you enter the second-floor galleries, though you may find it difficult to look. Fitzsimmons has taken hyper-close photographs of scarred human skin and blown them up to fill an entire wall of the gallery. A second series commands a facing wall. Gaze, if you can, into the puckered, moist scars stapled shut and the healing purple-brown traces. Glistening wrinkles and dry scales are intimately disturbing and at the same time compelling, a reminder of what covers us all—both its fragility and its incredible ability to regenerate.

Soft Cover II (2018) by Jeanne Ciravolo may also be difficult to look at. The “canvas” is a soft mattress cover, stained as mattress covers tend to be with evidence of the bodies that have slept on them. On closer inspection, there’s hidden beauty in the streaks of bloody, oozy color and the stray hairs as the delicate lines of a naked human form emerge. Like Fitzsimmons, Ciravolo seems to ask us to rethink what we sometimes categorize as “gross” and honor the beauty of, in this case, the detritus of our bodies left where they rest.

There’s much, much more to see in Our Bodies Ourselves. In a 21st-century take on Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting, Nerea Blanco gives us They with a Pearl Earring, with—the title suggests—a genderqueer subject, with concealed whiskers and a bold gaze that transmits a different message than the original Girl. The focus of a round-hipped, broad-shouldered female figure in Anne Doris-Eisner’s Womb (2010) is a deep, dark eye at its center, a vortex that seems spun from the ribs above it. Nicole Gugliotti’s audio installation Awe/Agency (2017) is an array of aspirin-shaped speakers broadcasting what sounds, at first, like cocktail party chatter. It’s like the murmur of women’s frustrations and aspirations beneath the surface of everyday life, some spoken loudly enough to be heard, others so quiet that only a good listener will discern them.

Our Bodies Ourselves is trying to do a lot, and viewers will have to find their own way through. The homage to the women’s health tome includes a charming corner library of zines—Aly Maderson Quinlog’s unNamed Zine Library (2019)—presumably in honor of the fact that the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves was actually a stapled newsprint booklet, hand-circulated for 75 cents. Even the next edition, which took on the current title, was printed by a small press and sold an astonishing 250,000 copies, an underground bestseller. It wasn’t until 1973 that Simon & Schuster published the first commercial edition of the book.

Like those early efforts of a small group of Boston women, the work by the artists of Ely Center’s Our Bodies Ourselves together assert the power of women (and a few men) putting their own stories out into the world.

Our Bodies Ourselves
Ely Center of Contemporary Art – 51 Trumbull St, New Haven (map)
Mon, Wed, Thurs 5-8pm; Sun 1-4pm through April 10

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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