There’s an exhibition that’s just opened at Tate Britain called All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life. It takes a sweeping approach to the last 100 years of figurative art, lumping together numerous artists who all place the human body under excessive, or obsessive, scrutiny. Sasha Waltz & Guests’ Körper, which premiered in Berlin in 2000, exposes the body – in this case moving – to a similar level of inspection.
Early on in the variegated piece, a group of dancers squeeze their bodies into a small space faced by a glass pane. They squidge and smear their flesh along the transparent surface, trying to wiggle around the other bodies trapped in the space. The effect is a bit like watching tadpoles shimmy around one other, if tadpoles were coated in sticky human skin and painted by Jenny Saville.
Clod Ensemble’s Under Glass is another dance work involving writhing, standing, supine bodies behind, or inside of, glass. When I saw Under Glass back in October 2017, I went expecting it to be about humans-as-objects, or humans subject to the type of objective analysis they are in a hospital – what Michel Foucault named the ‘medical gaze’ in The Birth of the Clinic. I was surprised that instead of meeting bodies stripped of individual qualities, the Clod Ensemble performers appeared acutely human. Exposure to a concentrated gaze made them more delicate, soft, pliable than otherwise – which is perhaps what the curators at Tate Britain are trying to get at with their choice of exhibition title.
Körper, in contrast, comes much closer to realising this notion of the looked-at body. This is, I think, quite deliberate. Entertained at various junctures of the performance is the idea of the body as commodity, a situation far more starkly transactional than the ambiguity of the medical setting, where mentioning the disconnect of the doctor-patient relationship is somewhat taboo as it violates an desire to read the interaction as forged on empathy and care. Körper, in its most literal moments, has bodies labelled with price tags denoting plastic surgery costs, which also bring to mind organ harvesting or 19th century body snatchers stalking the graveyards to supply the anatomy schools.
In fact, there is something very Wellcome Collection or Huntarian Museum about this show. Unlike the bodies in Under Glass, the ones in Körper are exposed to moments of violence, treated in ways that must surely result in pain. The worst of these to watch is when near-naked bodies stretched out flat are picked up, seemingly using handfuls of flesh. The skin is plucked, pinched, pulled until you fear it might tear. In another scene, the body itself becomes a disjointed, back-to-front mound as two performers contort together and, in yet another, a stack of wobbling saucers takes on the form of a snaking spine, the vertebrae clanking horribly together. All this is reminiscent of those antique specimen jars containing body parts or ‘freak’ medical conditions.
Against the grain of this brutality, the show contains a lot of humour. There’s a playfulness to it, including at the very beginning when individual body parts pop through holes in a wall. A collection of hands, a leg, an arm and, best of all, an auburn ponytail that shakes and flutters. The result is that instead of feeling depressing, the transition of the human body into something else – a lump of modelling clay to be kneaded, a piece of flesh to be perfected – starts to seem, well, just a bit silly really.
Körper was performed at Sadler’s Wells. Click here for more details.