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A BackStories take on the Human Factor exhibition

by Mary Ann Hushlak
I came upon Maurizio Cattelan’s staged sculpture Him (2001) in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery (The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture17 June – 7 September 2014).  It was on the uppermost floor, though not amongst the many pieces in the more open-plan area.  Instead, it inhabited its own space, a long, rectangular room.
To reach Him, you entered through a doorway. At a distance at the far end of the room a single diminutive figure was kneeling in prayer. The figure wore a white-flecked mid-grey woollen jacket. The white of his shirt collar peeked above the collar to a neatly trimmed haircut. A schoolboy, a child, the bottom of his shoes clean, all very neat. 
I approached and my gaze moved from the bottom of those pristine shoes to the knee-high socks and fabric folds of his trousers at the knees. I continued, passing the figure and then I saw his face.  
An inner gasp. Far more than a double-take. Disbelief.  Shock. The face – that of Adolf Hitler.  
Such a blinding shock that I was forced to completely reconfigure my assumptions, not to mention recover my capacity to observe - buttoned jacket of the flecked grey woollen suit, black tie, knot slightly askew, the black of the tie against the proper white shirt.  My observing the clothing had a tinge of avoidance about it. As did focusing in on the hands, interlaced fingers held loosely and calmly, no clenching here.  While the face - an image we instantly recognize. The slip of black hair that falls forward, that moustache and as I tried to read the intent in the face, I involuntarily tightened my own facial muscles to mimic Him.  I crouched slightly and shifted to my left, his right. At a certain angle, your eyes can meet his. As the artist points out, ‘you don’t know if he’s praying to have six more million people to kill, or for forgiveness.’ 
Not surprisingly, BackStories – with the back as frame of reference – came to mind.  With Him, I was alive to the contradiction between a figure’s back pulling us in and what dominated as the core truth, namely, revealing the Hitler image.  As if we shouldn’t trust the back alone; as if the front face view is where we’d find the compelling, decisive fact – and truth.  
Yet as I was sequestered in that lone space with Him, another piece in the exhibition filtered into my mind. Yinka Shonibare’s Girl Ballerina (2007). Shonibare, as Cattelan, references ‘a specific else’ that we recognize.  For Cattelan, it’s the image of Hitler.  For Shonibare, it’s Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, albeit as a mannequin rather than cast bronze, and scaled up to life-size, and without a head. Girl Ballerina had been displayed in an open area, yet angled such that the viewer was more likely to approach it from behind.
Returning for a relook at Girl Ballerina, I was very conscious that, at my initial coming upon it, I’d paid little attention to the rear view of Girl Ballerina, taking in only the general tutu shape as I’d walked past and around. The Degas sculpture was so lodged in my visual memory that, headless and therefore faceless the Shonibare may be, I still opted for the primacy of the front view.  This, even withBackStories.
I had registered that the tutu wasn’t pink tulle and I became absorbed in the African patterned textiles,  their variousness, including the bodice with the diamond shapes and squares of English-language letters  that are echoed in the flat slippers. Then, led by the fabric design, I’d sauntered the few steps around to the rear view and crikey, oh my. The Girl Ballerina held a heavy handgun behind her back, and with her finger on the trigger.  She was well beyond textiles and Degas.
In the presence of Girl Ballerina once again, I couldn’t help but study the handgun, proportionally so large that it extended down beyond the knee to the calf and, also, aside from the finger on the trigger, that the way it was held implied the hidden.  As if to reinforce that a front view is akin to our public persona, and, even if headless, it performs as our understood public mask, while, only by checking what lurks behind will a full situation be revealed.  
The opposite of Him and yet for both Shonibare and Cattelan, their pieces undercut our expectations by a pointed contrast between the content of the back view and front view (or front view and back view). Intrinsic to our ‘reading’ of Girl Ballerina and Him is the clinching detail and it always seems to be found on the reverse side.  One side suggests, presents and ultimately misleads; the other reveals. I’m thinking dramaturgy here. Counterpoint.  Juxtaposition. Contradiction.  
Except.  Except. 
From where I was standing, very much in full view, was a freestanding display case. Like a shop window that could be circumnavigated, that could be seen from front and back and sides. Inside the case were seven mannequins, as if ready to step forward, their body cavities blasted or punctured and colonised by crystalline shapes and mineral forms.  This was Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation, Resistance-Subjecter (2011). 
I arrive at it.  I peer through the gaping, eviscerated cavities.  I compare vantage points.  Curiously, for all that the mannequin bodies are surfaces of violent impact and there’s a sense that the crystalline could come to life and proliferate at any moment, my reaction wasn’t surprise or a gasp.  Rather than a trope of contradiction, here the rear view and front view continue into each other.  Akin to seamless echoes. They could be a kind of mirror of each other.
But during my circumnavigating of this display case environment, I notice something additional, namely, that I linger on the backs themselves.  Instead of taking in a more generic rear view, I gaze at each separate back.  And as Himgot me thinking and returning to Girl Ballerina, I find myself linking this Hirschhorn, with its several backs notwithstanding, with the solitary, hunched-over figure of Andro Wekua’s Sneakers 1.  
Once again, I retrace my earlier route and approach the side view of the hunched-over figure. It is perched on a table top that is positioned on a three-legged, dilapidated frame and made even more precarious by being set on a pallet.  Knees pulled up tight, the figure’s head is bent forward, bent down, face hidden and the long, dark hair is like a curtain intermingling with the arms wrapped around the raised knees. Of course I note the sneakers the figure wears; the piece is titled Sneakers 1, after all, and the lilac-coloured sneakers are solid and factual.  And of course there’s the painted mask, sky blue and red cheek blush and set on the back of the skull, which, with the face hidden, becomes the only clue to the figure’s identity. 
Yet it is the back that I study. I do register the painted harlequin pattern and I also visually absorb the wax modelling and its imperfections.  What is it that has me both stand back and step forward? Is it the resemblance to something lifelike?  Trying to find the moment when it’s less lifelike? Or, as with the Hirschhorn mannequins, is it the absence of clothing? The nakedness.  Or, more precisely, the semblance of nakedness.  The concept of nakedness. 
With Him and Girl Ballerina, my attention was on the overall rear view, but not on the backs per se.  Only when the back was naked did I zero in on it.  
Has what I see been so influenced by the likes of Degas’ After the Bath, Woman drying herself; Velasquez’ The Rokeby Venus; Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque; the Tracey Emin Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made as well as Thomas Eakins’ boxing match painting Salutat and his photograph Nude Men on a Beach? And the many Man Ray and Edward Weston photographs? Or perhaps it’s simply that in daily life the primary vocabulary we use to talk about the back and spine is anatomy and medical. From a medical perspective, we aren’t examined through our clothes.  We take our shirts and jumpers off. The medical back, naked.  The aestheticized back, often naked, though not always.  The social back, clothed and sometimes naked.
Now my thinking turns fully to BackStories and its central frame, and how, fromHim and Girl Ballerina to Resistance-Subjecter and Sneakers 1, this exhibition, with the human figure as sculpture and as performative entities, has proven to be a treasure trove.  Yielding questions – only questions and referents at this stage - for the dramaturgy choices for the piece.

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