Assembling Bodies: Art, Science and Imagination

Anita Herle & Mark Elliott,
Cambridge Univ. Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology

Details of some of the objects shown in Assembling Bodies. © MAA.
How do we know and experience our bodies? How does the way we understand the human body reflect and influence our relations with others?
Assembling Bodies: Art, Science & Imagination is a major interdisciplinary exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) University of Cambridge, open from March 2009 to November 2010. Curated by Anita Herle, Mark Elliott and Rebecca Empson, the exhibition explores some of the different ways that bodies are imagined, understood and transformed in the arts, social and biomedical sciences. They displays showcase Cambridge’s rich and diverse collections, complemented by loans from national museums and exciting contemporary artworks. It brings together a range of remarkable and distinctive objects, including the earliest stone tools used by human ancestors, classical sculptures, medieval manuscripts, anatomical drawings, scientific instruments, the model of the double helix, ancestral figures from the Pacific, South African body-maps and kinetic art.
Atomised. Jim Bond. 2005. ® John Coombes.

The idea of assembly evokes two distinct but overlapping themes that underlie the exhibition. Jim Bond’s kinetic sculptures illuminate one notion of assembly – the process of putting something together, of creating something new from component parts. Positioned at the entrance to the gallery, Atomised (2005) is triggered by the movement of visitors into the gallery. An openwork human figure is pulled apart and put together by external telescopic ‘arms’. A second sculpture, Anamorphic Man (2009), consists of sections of the body suspended from the ceiling in the central area of the exhibition. These apparently abstract fragments converge into a human figure from a single vantage point. The realisation of the body’s form is thus dependant on the viewer’s perspective.
Anamorphic Man. Jim Bond. 2009. 6.4m x 2m x 2.5m. As seen from below. ® MAA.
A second notion of assembly refers to a gathering for a common purpose, such as a legislative ‘body’. Assembling Bodies brings together a multitude of human forms originating from different times, places and perspectives. The diverse nature of the material brought together and the legal documents that frame the introductory installation also point to the political implications of the ways that distinct bodies are known and regulated. Different ways of knowing the body have a profound impact on the ways that bodies are imagined and acted upon.
Photographic montage of the introductory section ‘An Assembly of Bodies’. © MAA.
The Curators aim to reveal and challenge preconceived notions of the body through the use of nuanced and at times startling juxtapositions. The conceptual organising principle for the exhibition was ‘exploring the technologies that make bodies visible’. The gathering of diverse objects demonstrates how different social and material technologies for making bodies visible bring new and often unexpected forms into focus. In this way Assembling Bodies works to transcend the dualism of subjects and objects and to argue that bodies are social in their materiality. Materiality is often associated with permanence, yet the exhibition focuses on changing and emergent forms. The objects on display show that technologies through which humans make bodies visible have a tangible, transformative effect on the body, both conceptually and materially. This idea is highlighted by the kinetic art that punctuates the exhibition space and is activated by the movement of bodies.
The exhibition is not conceived or arranged as a linear story. The displays are organised in overlapping thematic zones, each containing clusters of artworks, instruments and ideas. One side of the gallery focuses on techniques of measurement and classification, pointing to the productive and often uneasy interchange between anthropomorphic measurement, anatomy and the arts. The other side of the gallery focuses on relations between bodies, exploring how bodies are inextricably linked to their material environment, mapped through genealogies and genomes, extended through various technologies and distributed in different forms. There are multiple links between objects located in different areas of the exhibition. The layout of the gallery, interactive exhibits and website, encourage the visitor to develop multiple and surprising connections between the displays and assemble new bodies.
While each of the assembled bodies are situated within specific historical and cultural contexts, the exhibition does not attempt to provide detailed narratives of the body over time or in particular places. Instead the curators take advantage of the comparative method to throw differences into relief, to identify similarities between diverse materials and to make the familiar appear strange and open to investigation. Unexpected juxtapositions provoke new ways of comprehending the body, while artworks and interactive displays encourage visitors to explore the sensory capacity of their own bodies. The variety of bodily forms and their potential for transformation reveal that definitions and boundaries are not stable. We all live with differing and multiple bodies.
05_catalogue.jpg Exhibition catalogue by Anita Herle, Mark Elliott & Rebecca Empson. With contributions by Jim Bond, Dusan Boric, Simon Cohn, Sarah Franklin, Dianne Harris, Oliver Harris, Jessica Hughes, Bonnie Kemske, Maryon McDonald, Hayley MacGregor, Elizabeth Mills, Robin Osborne, Tom Rice, John Robb, Marilyn Strathern, Sarah Tarlow. 96 pages, full colour with 94 images.
Price: £12 + p&p (free postage within the UK)
Highlights from the exhibition:
(Left) Model of the Double Helix. 2003. Created by Claudio Villa and Roger Lucke after the original Crick and Watson model. © Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge. (Right) Malangan Sculpture. Late 19th century. Wooden funerary sculpture with shell eyes. New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. © MAA 1890.177.
Positioned alongside each other, the DNA model and the malangan draw attention to their ability to mark the particular characteristics of a person and then to distribute their life force to their descendants. Both objects were originally intended to be ephemeral.
(Left) Family Group. Abraham Willaerts. 1660. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 534 (Right) Genomic Portrait. Marc Quinn. 2001. Double portrait of the geneticist John Sulston comprised of a realistic photograph and a sample of the sitter’s DNA in agar jelly mounted in stainless steel. © National Portrait Gallery 6591, 6592(1).
The juxtaposition challenges the viewer to consider the accuracy of different forms of portraiture, and underlines the complexity of different understandings of descent.
Death mask of Sir Isaac Newton. John Michael Rysbrack. 1727. © Trinity College, Cambridge.
Newton’s death mask is a treasured relic of the great scientist, which became a specimen for phrenological investigation. In the mid-nineteenth century it precipitated a debate in phrenological circles following the claim that the weakness of Newton’s causality bump did not match his extraordinary achievements.
Bilum ‘Tree’. 2009. Installation of netbags from Papua New Guinea based on the imagination of Marilyn Strathern. © MAA.
The body is known by its capacity: it can grow things within, it can bring forth, can reproduce itself in others. It can also stand for a collectivity, an assembly of persons who together produce something.
Acknowledgements: Assembling Bodies is a research component of a larger Leverhulme-funded project “Changing beliefs of the human body”. Additional support was provided by the Wellcome Trust, Arts Council England, and the Crowther-Beynon Fund, University of Cambridge. Full acknowledgements and the names of the many contributors are listed in the catalogue and website [].