VES 130r: Criticality, the Body and "Other" Things

SHOW AND TELL

Detached fingers molded of brilliant orange silicone stretch upwards from amid the gray-brown clutter of Jessica Y. Yin ’01’s sculpture table. “My project is based on the idea of modularity of the body,” Yin, a fourth year Graduate School of Design (GSD) student, explains as she globs more silicone onto several damaged fingers. Her classmates are similarly engaged: Dismembered plaster torsos, a plump balloon-hand dripping silicone, and strangely solitary feet and toes litter the studio floor.

Surrounded by severed body parts, the students of VES 130r: “Criticality, the Body and ‘Other’ Things” are exploring the body as a “physical, cultural, metaphysical, and social entity”—a topic as philosophical and subtle as the title of the course. Yet the studio is pulsing with energy: Performance art, sculpture, installations, and video are being used to examine themes as diverse as the nervous system and pregnancy. Visiting Professor Tishan Hsu circulates through the chaos, talking about a specialized type of rope with one student and helping another with a misbehaving drill bit.

Asked to discuss the theme of his class, Hsu jokes, “In 20 words or less?” He goes on to explain, “As part of working out the body’s position in the world, we are looking at the ‘other’ as discussed in Edward Said’s work and how that has influenced contemporary art.” Edward Said was an influential Palestinian scholar, famous for his theory of Orientalism and “the Other”—the groups of people misrepresented by those more powerful. With this intellectual foundation—supplemented by texts and discussions—it is not surprising that the students’ work is highly conceptual.

Hannah B. Merriman, a second year graduate student at the Harvard Divinity School, sits on the floor surrounded by a tangled heap of fabric and thread. She lifts an elaborate metal structure covered in a veil of canvas, and puts it on her head. Merriman is creating performance art—a multi-piece costume that she will wear while walking through a labyrinth spray-painted on the Divinity School parking lot. The complex design will prevent her from seeing where she is going or moving too fast, she explains. “This is about surrendering your will to life.”

Across the studio, a conglomeration of gently swaying silicone hangs delicately suspended from the ceiling. “This deals with detachment from the body; understanding the body exists in the physical, but also in other ways,” Ofri Gilan, a second year GSD student, explains. The sculpture itself is very abstract; Gilan has created the body only as a shadow, carefully orchestrating the lighting to project the image of a woman’s figure behind the orange silicone mass.

Silicone is a common medium in the Carpenter Center’s second floor studio: Colorful spaghetti-like heaps of the rubbery plastic adorn the worktables, and refrigerator dishes caked with dried silicone are everywhere. Many art programs can’t afford silicone, but Hsu’s students are being treated to working with one of the most cutting-edge materials in the art world. “It’s a medium that’s really present in the contemporary culture,” Hsu says.

Catherine A. Siller ’06, a sculpture concentrator in Visual and Environmental Studies, has made full use of silicone in her work. Delicate silicone webs drape over scraps of metal on her worktable, and an intricate network of salmon-orange silicone quivers behind her, suspended from the studio ceiling.

Siller is “using the class as a sounding board” for her senior sculpture project, and her haunting and strangely familiar work probes beyond the body and into the nervous system. A sequence of wooden blocks reminiscent of spinal vertebrae swings in front of a lattice of silicone nerves; in a nearby corner, a maze of slender cords dangles out of a hanging metal rib cage and pelvic structure. “I’m exploring how we experience the world and how the nervous system plays a role in allowing those experiences to happen,” she says.

Surveying the studio’s lively disarray of half-finished projects and discarded body parts, Professor Hsu stresses the process-oriented nature of the class. The students of VES 130r agree that the intensity of their investigations is their driving force. As Siller concludes, “It is very rewarding to be able to say, ‘This is an issue I want to make art about.’”