025. Corporeal Reliquary

10 months into this pandemic, it feels strange being in this body.

Hello friends,

10 months into this pandemic, it feels strange being in this body. Up until July, it felt like the only thing I had control over was the space I took up in my apartment. I began furiously working out every day (thanks to Caroline Calloway’s pilates challenge), my sleep schedule became increasingly erratic, I cycled through more hair colors than I could count, and, try as I might, could not kick my online shopping habit for clothes I would not be able to wear for months. I became hyperaware of myself and the presence of others around me as I rode the subway to work or navigated crowded spaces, adjusting my mask so my glasses don’t fog up. Like so many, I’ve watched our most vulnerable communities bear the physical and mental brunt of senseless violence through the failings of our healthcare system and brutality at the hands of our government. 

I’ve been sitting on this particular newsletter for quite some time. The earliest draft predates quarantine, but it’s only been in recent weeks that I felt like myself again to continue this project. The itch to write, to read, to make, to go out and explore museums and gallery shows has slowly come back. Somehow, I blinked and ended up at the end of the longest year of my life (we all have). So, enjoy this collection of work rooted in the body, fragmented, fictional, and all-too-real. Maybe they’ll help you feel more comfortable in your own skin as they have for me. 

TOUCH

Friend and poet who I’ve long admired, Dan Schapiro, published his first chapbook, Holeplay, back in March. It was a collection of poetry that could not have come at a better time as Schapiro reckons with illness and relationship turbulence, his emotional turmoil spilling into physical and digital spaces. I love the way Dan fragments his language, punctuating each page with moments of raw feeling, never afraid to experiment with fragmented memories and vulnerable intimacies. Dan has also done a lot of amazing work using his online platform crowdfund for trans women of color, single mothers, and sex workers who were hard hit by the pandemic, and all of the proceeds from the book are donated to mutual aid funds.

Coming out of lockdown, and in an attempt to regain control over my life when so much was up in the air, I learned about Three Jewels through a friend. Offering a combination of yoga and meditation classes on Zoom, Three Jewels has not only been helpful for my own personal growth, but accessible for anyone to participate. Their classes are donation-based, so don’t worry if you’re struggling to make ends meet. You still deserve moments of calm empowerment.

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about Dawn by Octavia Butler. This book has been interpreted in so many ways, as an allegory for the transatlantic slave trade, eugenics, and the lasting impacts of American colonialism both on people and their environment. It’s certainly all those things and more. In a time of ongoing protests and medical calamities. Butler bridges the scientific with the social as a group of humans, who just survived a manmade apocalypse, find themselves in the custody of aliens who seek to form a ‘better’ hybrid species through genetic engineering. It’s a novel that grapples with what it means to be human and to be other, alien, what it means to survive as both. 

Back in 2018, I got a chance to experience William Forsyth’s exhibit, Choreographic Objects, at the ICA in Boston. I say ‘experience’ because, unlike so many other untouchable museum shows, Forsyth’s installations encourage active participation. The choreographer draws our attention to the precision of our own bodies through prompts of physical exertion. Some pieces were harder to engage with than others (like The Fact of the Matter pictured above where visitors could choose to cross the room without touching the floor), but this would lead to a wonderful activation of each sculpture unique to every visitor. One piece I still think about is his 2013 work, Towards the Diagnostic Gaze. On a stone slab, the command, “HOLD THE OBJECT ABSOLUTELY STILL,” is accompanied by a feather duster. It’s an impossible task, but there’s an intensity of self-awareness that comes from observing the tiniest details of your musculature reflected in the feathers’ involuntary tremors.

Juliana Huxtable’s Mucus In My Pineal Gland is one of those books that sucks you into an experimental rollercoaster of language, leaving your head racing when you reach the last page. Huxtable, who has been a longtime staple in the NYC and European dance music scenes, fills these blue-ink pages with dizzying narratives, reckoning with the complexities of racism, bodily autonomy, and asserting her power as a trans woman. Huxtable’s poetic bodies spill from the physical out into cyberspace and onto dance floors, observing herself and observing how others observe her. I’ll leave you with this little slice: “extraterrestrials among us / disenfranchized so-called citizens / id photos, gals in facial recognition software / humanoid voguing replicant voguing dirty.” 

LOOK

Australian designer Fiona Roberts turned her fascination with scopophilia, the pleasure of observing others, into this unsettling piece. In an endless act of looking with the hundreds of eyes embedded into its cushions, this chair loses all possibility of bodily support and comfort. This sculpture is part of Roberts’s series, Intimate Vestiges, where household items are remade with unsettling patterns of human body parts. While the objects in our homes are witnesses to our lives, this grotesque, surreal interpretation is curiously real. Roberts writes that this series “blurs the boundaries between the home and body, making it difficult to determine where the house ends and where the person begins.”

As summer came to an end, I thought a lot about Thomas Mailaender’s photographic practice of searing negatives into his models’ skin with a UV light. The temporary sunburn-like effect of this transfer process was quickly documented before fading in the daylight. This series of images, which were published in Illustrated People, not only reminds me of tacky tanlines from staying at the beach too long, but Mailaender’s experiment subverts our own expectation of photographic creation. The language around cameras is usually rooted in optics, that the lens is an extension of our eye. Mailaender chooses instead to focus on the image-object, how those physical images are collected, some with their subject’s history preserved while others are eventually lost to time or discarded. We are reminded that our body, too, is an archive.

As someone who is interested in museums, not only as sites of cultural education but as community centers, I can’t help but think about Shannon Finnegan’s series “Do you want us here or not.” Finnegan’s body of work focuses on accessibility, drawing our attention to the way in which arts spaces disregard the physical needs and the many cultural histories of disabled communities. This particular series takes the form of cushions and benches with blunt, inviting messages like “Museum visits are hard on my body. Rest here if you agree.” Finnegan’s creation of these interactive works of art is meant to draw our attention to the lack of seating in many cultural institutions in New York City and beyond, even though these places are frequently visited by those with visible and invisible disabilities who may have difficulty standing or walking around for long periods of time. What I appreciate about Finnegan’s work is that she makes you aware of your own body moving through and taking up space, how those spaces may be designed for you but not for others.

I’ve been following Christina Quarles on Instagram for quite a while now, since I first saw her paintings in the New Museum’s “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” back in 2017. There’s something so monstrously gorgeous about her kaleidoscopic abstract paintings of bodies twisting and mutating in layers of emotive color. Yes, there’s a Francis Bacon-like grotesqueness to them, but also such a rich vibrancy of life I can’t quite find the words to describe, a meaty look to her bodies as they careen on the edge of explosion.

I am fascinated by the not only the representation of the human body itself, but how our interactions with objects impact the way we think of corporeal forms. The sculptures of Jana Sterbak immediately springs to mind. Sterbak, most known for her hand-sewn dress of meat, explores the gendered dynamics of restricted movement through her practice. Her structures have strapped bodies into an automatic metal frame, encased wearers into armor-like crochet body masks, and she’s even constructed a whip out of pulled hair. What I love about Sterbak is that all of her work presents a challenge, one of impossible physicality and one that challenges our expectations of bodies adhering to norms of beauty and functionality. My personal favorites? The weighted stone-backpack titled Sisyphus Sport (pictured above) and Distraction, a mesh shirt designed to imitate a tuft of chest hair.

LISTEN

“The Baron of Botox” is a short, yet insightful, look into the complicated life and legacy of Dr. Fredric Brandt. Long before the influencer-fueled obsession with fillers, Brandt was a pioneer in developing the techniques of plastic surgery through injectables, shaping the faces of famous clients for decades until his suicide in 2015. This show walks a fine line between documentary narrative and celebrity gossip, acknowledging both the lore and the reality of Brandt’s larger-than-life image. While Brandt’s appearance has been the subject of ridicule and parody for years (due to experiments with fillers on himself), this show paints a more human image of Botox’s greatest advocate, reminding us that the obsessive quest for beauty and fame can come at a high cost.

Banoffee’s single, “Muscle Memory,” remains criminally underrated. This synth-y, breathy track sways its weight around from one moment of physical proximity to another, tapping into something profoundly intimate yet unspoken.

LICK

Hair is an element of the human body that’s had a long, tangled (pun intended) political and socioeconomic history. Hair has been fashioned into practical tools and symbolic weapons of power across societies around the world, as well as revered for its cultural beauty. The Hair Historian is an account that traces these styles throughout art history. You can spend ages scrolling through these posts, learning about new movements and stylistic developments along the way. It’s amazing to see how each artist renders a braid, a curl, an updo through brushstrokes, collage, or sculpture, how the trends of decades past and present become timeless elements of education.

In a time of deep-fakes, filters, and surveillance systems, our facial features, our physicality, and emotive expressions are constantly being studied, tracked, and subject to manipulation. Zach Blas challenges these programs of facial recognition through his Facial Weaponization Suite. Protest takes the form of refusal through these indecipherable blobs that mask all facial difference. By mashing together the facial data of participants, Blas creates digital masks that obscure those who interact with the program. Tapping into the histories of discrimination based on gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation, Blas challenges the oppressive uses of this technology by rendering these systems beautifully dysfunctional.

One of my favorite pieces in the Met’s collection is an Anatomical Venus created by the Fontana Workshop in the 1780s. As fascinating and grotesque as this piece is, I am grateful to Ian Shank’s essay for Artsy about these popular dissectible figurines. These wax female bodies offered an insight into human anatomy while symbolic of the beauty of scientific enlightenment. He quotes historian Joanna Ebstein, saying that these figures were “understood to be the pinnacle of God’s creation and a microcosm of the universe.” While artists studying corpses was nothing new, these figurines were valuable tools that could be re-examined again and again. The Venus’s perplexing expression of ecstasy offer a clue to how their production was perceived as one of artistic and scientific innovation.

Icelandic artist Ýrúrarí has long had a creative practice centered around transforming the body through surreal knitwear. This past year, her whimsical designs of extra appendages, like sets of tongues and eyes stitched onto sleeves, were translated into a series of whimsical face masks. I love how sculptural these 3D wearable pieces are, the way they tumble out of the boundaries of our physical forms. Created as a way to cope with the sudden global lockdown, her masks are a welcome moment of playful fantasy.

CLICK

I’m currently reading Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love. I’ve had the PDF sitting in my laptop for months and, only now, finally worked up the courage to read it. ‘Self-care’ and ‘self-love’ was a phrase thrown around a lot before the pandemic, mostly as a gimmicky marketing ploy to justify treating yourself to things outside your budget. Being in lockdown, both then and now, many of us neglected taking care of ourselves. This may have looked like neglecting to eat nutritious meals or exercise, not recharging mentally or letting yourself get too caught up in working from home. Taylor’s book is a great way to recalibrate your self-perception, to not shame or punish yourself for the moments when you don’t love yourself, but rather to embrace all of the good and bad moments of living, to find a new way forward in which we are all more comfortable in our own skin.

If you’re like me, you probably fell in love with Sabrina Orah Mark’s writing when you read her essay reflecting on lockdown, “Fuck the Bread. The Bread is Over” for The Paris Review. Mark is certainly a gifted essayist, but, my god, her poetry is transcendent. I adore her paragraph-poem, “The Mustache.” It weaves a tale of an infatuation with a taxidermist, sensually weaving the changing seasons with her own erotic entanglements. One is left with a feeling of bodies being torn apart and re-stuffed: “I didn’t notice the black mustache growing slowly but unmercifully on his left shoulder until two or three years into the affair. At first it seemed harmless. A small patch of dead grass.”

Nikki Shaner-Bradford’s essay, “Unfleshing,” wrestles with our desire for smoothness and how that manifests in the way we treat and view our bodies. As the world around us moves towards greater sleek efficiency, Shaner-Bradford contemplates this aesthetic trend and how these transformations detach us from our imperfections. I love the way she takes us from skincare to subway ads, Instagram filters and bullet trains. You might consider exfoliating afterwards.

Sarah Smarsh takes a look at the plasma donation and the state of post-recession precarity across America in her piece, “Blood Brother.” Following her brother around to these centers, where he’ll receive a prepaid gift-card, Smarsh shares the industry’s boom in the early 2000’s and reflects on decades of businesses and policies that have shaped the way we buy, sell, and donate our blood and organs in the U.S., as well as the people who need this system to make ends meet. One particular passage lingers in my mind: “The materials around the place tout the life-saving service he’s providing others; the plasma stripped from his blood will be turned into pharmaceuticals…He doesn’t have health insurance and could use a trip to the doctor himself. The promotional pamphlets and websites call what he’s doing a donation, but it’s really a sale.”


Thanks for taking the time to read! Feel free to share this little project of mine with your friends, lovers, and enemies.

As always, if you like what I do, you help feed my leopard gecko through Buy Me A Coffee. If you’re looking to learn more, you can find a list of books by the people I mentioned on Bookshop (I get a small commission through this and any Bookshop affiliate links in this letter).

Until next time,

Ellie