Lygia Clark (1920-1988): Bodily sensation and affect: Expression as communion

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This article on the Brazilian artist, Lygia Clark, is part of a larger study of expression and emotion in neo-avantgarde art practices of the 1960s and 70s. To focus on expression and emotion may seem a little perverse given that the art of this period is generally characterised as anti-aesthetic, affectless, anti-subjective and anti-expressive. This characterisation of late modern art is certainly very prevalent, if not the dominant account of art in this period, and one that is very often used to judge postmodern and contemporary practices. It is used, in other words, as a critical touchstone for the construction of a particular history of significant post-war art. The artists I am examining in this study—Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Lygia Clark, Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta—share many of the premises and principles of the neo-avantgarde practices of their time, and indeed they are included in that history, but crucially they do not reject expression and affect. They are, then, anomalous inclusions in the late modern canon. Focusing on this anomalous positioning, brings to the fore a neglected thread in the history of late modern art, a thread that once seen, can trace a different history through to the present, and one that might better serve our understanding of many contemporary practices. Here, my focus is the work of Lygia Clark, and in particular I will be examining the various ways in which she conceived of creative expression as a kind of body-to-body communion or dialogue. Unlikely as it may seem, this aim is initially pursued through rethinking the language of geometric abstraction. In the first section of this article, I examine how Clark, along with other participants in the Brazilian Neo-Concrete Movement, posited the abstract work of art as a “quasi-body.” The second section considers Clark’s participatory works where the actual body of the beholder is required to produce the work of art. Unlike much body art of the 1960s and 70s, which also used the body as a medium of expression (usually the artist’s body), these interactive works are usually deeply private, involving just the participant and the object or objects with which they interact. The illusory vitality of these objects, further develops the idea of aesthetic experience as a body-to-body encounter. The third section, examines the further involvement or envelopment of the body by various kinds of clothes or stimulating skins, as well as the group activities devised by Clark, which connected participants to each other to form what she called collective bodies. Clark’s final works are extremely hard to analyse within an art historical context. They employ many of her previous materials, objects, and interactions, however, they are explicitly therapeutic and are situated in a clinical context. Her practice at this time is best described as a variety of psychoanalytically-informed body therapy. In retrospect, one might argue Clark’s work as a whole was always already psychoanalytically oriented whether intuititively, or through specific influences—later in her career she certainly read and cited psychoanalytic thinkers. While the literature on Clark’s work is now growing, this crucial aspect of her work is only beginning to be examined. In this article, I pay particular attention to her specific philosophical and psychoanalytic influences as well as employing other psychoanalytic concepts that further illuminate the affective dimension of her work. (i) I have shown how affect is always an element of interpretation even in so-called affectless art in: “Mild Intoxication and Other Aesthetic Feelings: Psychoanalysis and Art Revisited,” Angelaki 10.3 (2005): 157-70. (ii) I have analysed the operation of affect in the work of contemporary Australian artists such as: Anne Ferran, Simryn Gill, Joyce Hinterding, Sherre DeLys and Joan Grounds. See “Tickled Pink: Laughter as Institutional Critique,” exhbn. cat. (Sydney: Sydney Biennale 2004) 98-99; “What is Affect? Considering the Affective Dimension of Contemporary Installation,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 2.2/3.1 (2002): 207-25; “Seriality and Insanity, The Aesthetics of Administration Revisited: Anne Ferran’s 1-38,” Eyeline (2004):18-21. (iii) In addition to Clark’s writings, a film on her body therapy, Memoira do corpo (1984) dr. Mário Carneiro, further documents her psychoanalytic ideas. Suely Rolnik has assembled an invaluable video archive of interviews with various people who knew Clark. Of particular relevance for exploring her ideas about psychoanalysis and her development of body therapy are interviews with the French psychoanalyst, Pierre Fédida, with whom Clark started analysis in 1972, and Lula Wanderley an ex-patient and practitioner of her form of therapy. The video archive was part of the exhibition curated by Rolnik, Lygia Clark de l’oeuvre a l’événement, Nantes: Musee des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, 8 October-31 December 2005.
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Best, Susan
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