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AT ISSUE: Touch points

Kivisaari, Hirvensalmi, Finland, 2007. © ArnoRafael Minkkinen.

You don’t have to be Marcus Vitruvius to consider the architecture of the body, its functionality, and its beauty. Artists, designers, body workers, and architects must all pay attention to questions of symmetry and proportion, to the challenge of how bodies navigate through space. When our subconscious softens its reactivity to the dictates of perfection, the body emerges as gloriously imperfect and necessarily mysterious. In contemplating the human form, these five essays find grace in celebrating both internal journeys and external contours.

Unsuspecting bodies, unexpected intimacy

by Katarzyna Balug

I’ll never forget the man standing on the platform with his back to the opening door, but I bet everyone else who was on the train has. He braced himself before pushing his way backwards, squishing through shoulders and hips. In Mexico City at rush hour, people were so tightly packed together that his was the only method imaginable to squeeze on board.

Every body follows a conditioned protocol when negotiating space, which differs from place to place. In Mexico, the man’s entrance was unremarkable; in Boston, where the sphere of personal space is greater, it may have been unexpectedly “touchy.” We move from point A to B lost in thought or our electronic devices, minimally aware of our body in the familiar context. That context, the norms of the world around us, are meant to be ignored.

Fosters Pond, 1993. © Arno Rafael Minkkinen

As an artist, I create situations that produce moments of unexpected intimacy among unsuspecting bodies. Through play and performance, I interrupt the pattern of expected behavior, pulling the public into suspended time. Public space becomes a place to engage with the unknown, to be curious during a moment of fleeting exchange. Here, the regular script pauses, and interaction follows a new rhythm that can transform anonymity into empathy.

In Poland, I created an installation on a truck platform that traveled the postindustrial city of Lodz. Dressed as the forewoman of my mobile City Factory, I invited the public to “work” on unproductive tasks requiring collaboration. “Stand back-to-back with a mirror. Walk away until you lose each other’s reflections.” Strangers who completed the assignments often engaged in conversation, continuing to share the intimate moment that surprised both.

In Boston one winter night, a group of friends and I transformed a busy crosswalk into a momentary stage. Car headlights provided lighting for a canvas as puppets blended with pedestrians, whose shadows became part of the performance. Drivers who caught on turned on their high beams. Pedestrians watched or picked up a puppet, joining the spontaneous show on their way across the street. The city was the stage; its infrastructure, the material that fueled the play.

A body in public space is an instrument, one whose performance is subject to observation, interpretation, intervention. Through mass-transit counters or surveillance cameras, our bodies leave traces; these data points inform algorithms that predict traffic flow or security needs. We curate our experience virtually, geo-tagging our movements and performing “selfies” via smart-phones. We people-watch, reveling in the variety of bodies in dense urban centers.

Today we live in closer proximity than ever to people who follow different social and cultural protocols. Public space is where the city’s diverse bodies clash. In negotiating the terrain that this diversity brings, we attempt tolerance and a laissez-faire attitude toward the unfamiliar. But is this sufficient?

Art in the public realm produces wrinkles in which norms can be questioned in a way that would be unthinkable in another context. By transforming my body through a costume, an action, or an installation, I provoke you to reflect on yours, to feel yourself in relation to other bodies. Public space becomes a stage to negotiate what it is to be a human with agency. ■

Relish the space between walls

by Rozann Kraus

Arms outstretched at her sides, head thrown back, chest open to the sky as she twirls joyously, singing, “The hills are alive . . .” That scene from The Sound of Music resonates because we know how she feels. Open space, pure joy; we dance with her.

Even on a hilltop, Maria’s body defines the infinite potential and majesty of the mountains, the sky, the universe surrounding her. Dance happens in space, any space; its participation helps clarify the potential of the physical boundaries. Dance establishes the here, the focus, the energy, the rhythm; it is the Now.

M as in Megunticook, Lake Megunticook, Main, 2010. © Arno Rafael Minkkinen
Dancers both deny and embrace the realities of a defined area. We are tethered by gravity, even as we develop the ability seemingly to defy it. The focus of our movements, both in direction and intent, is affected by where we are. Although a proscenium is demarcated by its three sides, we often bring our own “fourth wall.” Downstage is intimate — the location with the most exposure. Here we share secrets and humor; we are almost part of the audience. Upstage is safe, removed, with all that can be experienced discreetly. Moving diagonally has power and strength with even the simplest of steps or gestures. Our energy and our intent can be huge, but it must be met at that edge, the fourth wall, by a willingly engaged audience.

The size of a space also informs our work. When options are restricted, more effort is needed to be expansive. As in design, limitations become points of clarity for the creative process, the option to see things in unique and provocative ways.

Relative or perceived size is a reflection of how many other bodies share the same area. Culturally, we’re programmed to respect one another’s personal space. In any dance class, you’ll see how uniform the distance is between the dancing bodies. On the floor or at the barre, though scantily clad, there is no intimacy; we’re there to work.

It’s that standard that adds excitement to much of dance. Ballroom feeds on the intensity of two people connecting through the distance between their bodies. Contact improvisation is a free-form technique that exploits the trust and momentum of sharing body space and weight. Folk dances, as community activity, use steps, rhythms, and floor patterns for diversity. The separation between dancers seldom varies; there is no threat to social propriety. Dance, like all human action, relishes the infinite variations of time and space.

Artists of all disciplines are called to expand boundaries. Recognizing limitations is not accepting them; dance is fierce in its occupation of any space. We believe our energy adds spirit to each venue, helping to define and interpret what is happening between the walls. Using rhythm, theater, psychology, and sounds, for a moment, we master time.

The dance ends, yet the walls remain. The most ephemeral of the arts, dance trusts its endurance to kinetic and emotional memories, forged in a finite time and space. ■

M as in Megunticook, Lake Megunticook, Maine, 2010. © Arno Rafael Minkkinen.

Imagination casts a daydream

by Tory Fair

There are moments when my body seems to disappear a little bit, and I enter into my imagination. Call it spacing out, getting into a zone, or losing oneself —  these are times when my perception is heightened, and I seem to exist outside myself. The imagination transports, and I have learned to trust it as a way to expand my ability to interact with the world — a sixth sense, so to speak.

Self-portrait with Laurence, St. Lawrenz, Gozo, Malta, 2002. © Arno Rafael Minkkinen

This dynamic between the body and the imagination has been an overarching theme in my work as a sculptor. In the most fleeting moments of the day I find potential: staring at a stop sign, in the shower, driving, watching television, or simply doing the dishes. I have created several sculptures using my body to represent these mundane moments, when I find myself slipping into the fertile ground of the imagination. I am present but immersed in a state of perception that glances inward and reveals certain clarity. For example, for Driving, I cast myself seated with my hands on the wheel and foot on the pedal. Once I captured the gesture in plaster, I contrasted this literal representation of the body by sculpting flowers and stems that grew outward to support the form hovering in the air. The flowers are symbolic, there to express the potential of ideas to emanate and grow from within. They also act as an aura surrounding the figure. Hybrid in nature, the finished sculptures are cast in rubber and resin; body and bloom suggest the blurred boundary between exterior form and inner life.

In my current work, the body remains a persistent theme and is triggered by objects that we interact with on a daily basis. Recently I cast a full-length mirror in grey resin, creating a sculpture that draws you in: Look past the surface to find hidden textures within; is that a field of flowers? An ordinary moment of looking for your reflection in a mirror becomes one where you are nudged into a different perspective, as though you are lying down in a field of daisies. The mirror acts as a portal, and the viewer is placed to dream beyond the fact of the object.

For me, sculpture has an advantage because its physicality explores things that are not physical at all. So I welcome confusion between what is real and what is imagined, what is physical and what is felt or sensed. How can I cast a daydream? How do I fabricate a state of mind? If I ground my practice with a recognizable source, as the body has become in my studio practice, I can then move to more immaterial notions that are difficult to name.

My intention is to compose an accessible experience that draws the viewer in to investigate past the appearance of the sculpture. You become my proxy. What I hope remains is a sensual journey that instigates the imagination in a tangible way, one that’s unique to each individual. In both the making and the viewing, there is opportunity to challenge our ability to engage and, by doing so, to reimagine the body in confrontation with the everyday. Can a mirror become a portal? ■

Gallery of work by Tory Fair

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Laying foundations for an internal journey

by Peter Crowley

At home, in a square bedroom bordered by white walls and a bank of large windows, I do my daily yoga practice. An architect by education, I developed an early awareness of context and environment. In this room, in my modern house, I focus this sensitivity inward. I spend mornings moving from pose to pose — or just sitting still. In self-study, I formulate an internal inquiry.

Oulujärvi Afternoon, Paltaniemi, Kajaani, Finland, 2009.. © Arno Rafael Minkkinen

​What is it? What is happening? In the most secular of terms, yoga is the process of staying attentive to an object or pursuit, undistracted, for some amount of time. It’s an ever-evolving renovation of the mind and body that incorporates breath, postures, and concentration practices. Time in a physical posture is time well spent studying the network of strength and space that exists below the skin. With an awareness of these sensations one can construct a mental map, a meditation on where body and breath feel effortless, and where there is struggle. Sites of conflict need attention because they can hold captive physical or emotional scars. An immersion in this ongoing process demands patience. By quelling reactivity and shedding self-imposed expectation, we learn to be better, more up-to-date versions of ourselves.

Who do you want to be? Since I was six, I planned to be an architect. In my childhood bedroom, I spent many solitary hours fashioning models of famous buildings out of cardboard. I would construct a crude likeness, then break it apart to build it better, with ever more exacting standards. This iterative process resulted in whole cities I would lay out on my floor. I told myself stories about them, connecting separate narratives with construction-paper roads and rivers. At one point, the entire perimeter of my bedroom surrounded me with fantasy architecture. Years later, in design school, I aimed to entice the most critical of my peers and professors by posing a thesis and provoking a response.

How does this feel? Under the burden of professional demands and personal challenges, my early 20s were physically and emotionally painful. A dear friend suggested yoga to ease the reactive revolt taking place in my disordered body. At the urging of my first teachers, I studied what held me back, what locked me up. Why was my body shaking? The postures, crude in their initial execution, helped me examine, liberate, and redevelop the structure beneath my skin. My job as a yoga teacher is to present and pass down what I have discovered. Holding space for my students to immerse themselves in self-study, I use narrative to describe a journey through the body. I pose a thesis, and yoga provokes a response. Students comfortably sit with an internal space of their own design.

Who designed that? Turning concepts into felt experience plays out in every yoga practice. The best architecture develops out of a streamlined thesis and a cumulative body of knowledge. Discipline and love for development through process reveal themselves in the design of a great building or a focused approach to yoga practice. In my body and in that of others, experience and repetition help lay these foundations. By paying attention, we feel tension dissipate, as strength and space support our structure. We dwell in the body, confident in our creation, comfortable with our circumstances. ■

Adapting to each new wave

by Coco Raynes

Fashion and architecture enjoy a symbiotic relationship. After all, they have similar functions: They envelop and protect our body. And like the architecture of our time, our clothes say who we are, culturally as well as individually. Sometimes they go hand in hand, one mirroring the other, but when in conflict, fashion will prevail. In the salons of Versailles, the majestic double doors were designed not for grand entrances but to accommodate the court dresses with panniers and the height of wigs and plumes.

What about the body? It changes to adapt itself to each new wave. Like chameleons, we conform and blend to better wear the imposed garment of the moment, while trying to retain our originality. In 1900, we see stern-looking ladies with tiny corseted waists, ample busts and hips. In architecture, 1900 is also the apogee of Art Nouveau. Hector Guimard’s exuberant arabesques on his cast-iron façades, metro structures, and furniture recall the women’s exaggerated curves.

Cathedral of the Three Saints, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2007. © Arno Rafael Minkkinen

In 1920, the waist disappeared! Linear dresses adorn flat-chested, liberated women. It is the beginning of the Art Deco period: straight lines with geometric adornments are also found in dazzling jewelry of contrasted colors. The same zigzag and chevron patterns also appear on the stepping façades of different heights, the most magnificent being at the Empire State Building.

The Bauhaus movement brings to architecture the industrial aspect, boldness, and with it, the concept of mass production. In this interwar period, women start wearing dark suits, echoing army uniforms. By the ’40s, all frills are gone and the shoulders are oversized (an armor for protection?). At the end of the war, the industrial era emerges. There is a boom in steel construction to house the waves of immigrants, and clothes can now be bought ready-to-wear.

In the ’60s miniskirts went higher and higher, and suddenly legs became longer and longer. (I wish it had happened to me!) Our scandalized mothers thought that it would pass, but miniskirts are still here, now paraded by baby giraffes who have grown even slimmer and taller. So have our skyscrapers. Contemporary interiors become sparse, and furniture is no longer individually crafted but mass-produced with metal or plastic added to the palette of possibilities, even cardboard. Dresses can be designed by a couturier or made of paper. We have entered the age of consumption and freedom.

The canons of beauty keep changing, dethroning the belles of yesterday, while many examples of our past architecture have survived the test of time. The River by Aristide Maillol (1861–1944) who frolics at the end of the Museum of Modern Art pool, is by today’s standards a big mama. However, The Winged Victory of Samothrace (2nd century BC) who gloriously flies from the grand staircase of the Louvre, or any Greek goddess whose drapes recall the fluted shafts of the temple’s columns, have escaped the curse. ■