Giancarlo Biagi is the editor of “Sculpture Review” which is the official magazine of the National Sculpture Society. In the Spring of 2013 issue his editorial was about this sculpture, which is called “Crouching Aphrodite.” It’s in the Louvre, is a little bit over a yard high and was probably created about 250 BC. Obviously, it is broken, but the particular way it is broken -- the woman losing arms and head and the child losing all but the little hand in the middle of her back -- is extremely evocative.
What it called up in me was a memory of several years ago when a friend was going through a very hard time. I wanted to offer support, I was thousands of miles away, I knew this friend only via books and email, and I didn’t want to say anything sexual. So I said, “Imagine that my hand is resting on your back.” It became a sign-off: “my hand on your back.” Sometimes “my hand on your shoulder.” To me it was very real.
When we talk about paintings, we talk about “frames,” and we notice that a change of frame can make an image look different, so the phrase “re-framing” has been claimed by the counseling community to mean looking at the same thing in a new way, to see if this will give new insight. Sculptures don’t have frames, but they do have points of view, and I once read a wonderfully insightful analysis of Rodin sculptures in terms of how they seem to move when you circle them, the sequence of points of view revealing potential shifts over time. But I never read anything much about the effect on people of so many ancient sculptures being broken. Maybe the Venus de Milo, the woman who is missing only her arms, is the most famous. Biago continued to think about fragments and truncations and so the Summer, 2013, is also about partial sculptures of bodies. Also, sculptures of partial bodies.
There are no headless people wandering around, but as wars and drunk driving take their toll -- particularly UED’s -- we become more used to people with limbs missing. In addition there is a whole category of people who were born without limbs, because their mothers took thalidomide during their pregnancy. I recently saw a TED talk by Nick Vujicic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6P2nPI6CTlc. He’s a motivational speaker, but he doesn’t “tag” as thalidomide victim. Because he doesn’t see himself as a victim now. It was tough as a kid, because other kids bullied him. But now he’s handsome, smart, married, and has a career as a speaker and resource.
Alison Lapper and son
On the cover of the Summer, 2013, issue of “Sculpture Review” is Marc Quinn’s statue of “Alison Lapper Pregnant” and there is a major story inside about this series of works that are portraits of people with “phocomelia” which is the technical name for people whose limbs failed to develop. They are white, in marble, to echo found partial sculptures from antiquity. To some they are shocking and shameful; to others they are beautiful, full of hope and love. Though many of the sculptures from antiquity had lost their sexual organs (in some cases it looks like penises were add-ons anyway), these statues of Quinn’s are intact. These people have head, heart, guts and genitalia. If you are the sort of person who becomes interested in the model as much or more than the portrait, Lapper is an artist herself, has written a book, successfully gave birth to the boy-child she was carrying and is proud of him as a normal teenager. (If there is such a thing.)
Biagi asks us to consider the tradition of bust portraits -- just the heads. He also reminds us of Rodin, who said, “Recently I have taken to isolating limbs, the torso. Why am I blamed for this? Why is it allowed the head and not portions of the body? Every part of the human figure is expressive. And is not an artist always isolating, since in Nature nothing is isolated? When my works do not consist of the complete body, people call it unfinished. What do they mean? Michelangelo’s finest works are precisely those which are called ‘unfinished.’ ”
We might reframe “fragmentation” as a metonymy. (The formal name of using a figure of speech that is a part that stands for a whole -- Ogi Ogas says one of the problems with categorizing their porn-viewing data was that “pussy” stands for both a person and a part of a person -- evidently not many actual cats in the study.) Then fragments could be sorted according to whether the part was once included in something bigger, whether it is part of something that is as yet incomplete, what it implies in terms of what it would be if it were completed, and so on. Fragmentation is a real thing that points to a potential whole thing.
Is a person whose legs were amputated a fragment? Is a person born without any legs a fragment? What makes a person whole anyway -- most of us would be pleased to think that the wholeness of a person is a matter of mental and emotional development and not the state of a body. Was the poet in “The Sessions” more whole after he had been initiated into sex? He said so. What are other markers of completeness?
Or is “whole” the same thing as “complete”? We are happy these days to say that a person is a process. If so we will never be finished until death: that’s as whole or complete as a person could get, and yet people don’t usually say they aspire to be dead. They don’t generally even say they’re as good at whatever they do now as they could possibly be. One is always a part striving to be whole. But then age or illness or trauma CAN make you feel like a fragment.
How to hold your baby if you have no arms.
And yet there is something beguiling about a fragment: it is a puzzle piece. Even the people born with no limbs can have an integrity and wholeness of purpose that we admire. Nick Vujicic presented from a raised table or dais that he rocked back and forth on; he leaned, pointed with his shoulders, nearly danced with his torso. He told about how something spontaneous happened with children who approached him. They would put their hands behind their backs to imitate him, and then “hug” him with their necks, tucking their throats under his ear. They “re-framed” themselves into being the same so they could relate to him on his terms.
Michelangelo’s unfinished works, formally called “non finito,” are usually slaves shown emerging from blocks of stone. They may have been left that way on purpose. Usually it is the front that is carved and the back is still in rough stone, so it’s impossible to rest a hand on their backs. That’s a shame, because it was my experience that as much as I had intended to lend support, in the end a powerful current of life was coming back through my baby hand. In the case of the Rodin torsos, a museum guard would have to watch carefully to keep me from putting my hand or even my head against those bronze chests, expecting to hear heartbeats.