(Un)Seen Bodies: A response to Marvelous Monsters

Tommy Bourque’s MFA thesis exhibition Marvelous Monsters which ran virtually in collaboration with ArtLab at The University of Western Ontario explores deconstructed, and often disconcerting presentations of the human body. The exhibition text asks viewers to consider how they relate to the very physical nature of the bodies they inhabit, specifically through the negative feelings the deconstructed human forms that he presents. In the exhibition text, Bourque explicitly references Andre Breton’s ideas as presented in The First Surrealist Manifesto, specifically the notion that “The marvelous is always beautiful” and thus presents a dichotomy between the marvels, and therefore the beauty, of the deconstructed bodies and the feelings of discomfort or revulsion they may provoke in the viewer. As a non-binary trans person viewing the show, one who is still recovering from my recent top surgery, I engaged from the particular perspective of someone with an already complicated relationship with the physical body they inhabit – an experience that is not explicitly addressed in the exhibition but one that I think complicates my response to the intentions of the work.

Before continuing with my thoughts on Marvelous Monsters I think it is important to acknowledge that with a mix of installation and projection pieces the show is clearly best suited to experiences inside the gallery but with the COVID-19 restrictions in Canada the exhibition was accessible only through the Artlab website (and is still available in that form despite the exhibition technically having closed, a link can be found at the bottom of the post). Being realistic, experiencing the show in this way has a mitigating effect on the impact of the art but with the high quality video and photo work available online I still found it easy and worthwhile to engage with the art and ideas presented in the show. 

I found viewing the disassembled bodies that appear in the exhibition to be both disconcerting and very compelling. Seeing the curving spines or bodiless mannequin limbs puts a focus on the body that is separate from personality or identity while the projections and assemblages that surround the implied bodies gives a sense of inhabiting the world. In “Appearance of the Simplest Truth” the body parts are surrounded by found objects and a shifting psychedelic cityscape is projected over them. The limbs feel almost out of place within the collection of found objects as they are ultimately inhuman and lacking in any personal identity. This alienation of the bodies within the work makes me immensely aware of the disconnect I feel with my own body which often feels like it resists the character and identity I wish it projected. 

However, Marvelous Monsters also suggests to the viewer the consideration of the body within an environment through the use of projections. This is where the projected elements of Bourque’s work have particular strength I think. The body itself is not marvelous, especially the sensations of attempting to love the embodied experience of transness, but we rarely experience our own bodies on their own. We become aware of them in pieces as we move through different environments that draw more or less attention. My recently operated on chest is not marvelous (or beautiful) on its own, it is newly scared, too skinny, and a little uneven but as I move around the shelves  in a bookstore or as I imagine this body carrying me through the city when I begin my masters this fall I find a sense of beauty. It is a beauty built up not by an acceptance or comfort with my physicality – something that in my personal trans experience makes seem unlikely – but by the assemblage of places, changes and objects that act upon that body.  The move between the disparate parts of the deconstructed bodies in Bourque’s work and the projected settings he places them in brings together the thesis of Marvelous Monsters for me. He considers not just the physicality of the human body but also how we experience that body while moving through the world. 

It does not seem like Marvelous Monsters is specifically addressing the particular embodied experiences of trans folks so I wonder if my interpretation is perhaps a bit beside the point that Bourque was hoping to convey. Nonetheless this exhibition makes me feel seen in my atypical body in a way that most exhibitions about embodiment do not. The disassembled and disconcerting bodies in the exhibition leave enough space where I feel like I can read my experience and my body into the work in a way that feels empowering and leaves me feeling more connected to the works than in other exhibitions that do not leave enough space for trans bodies.

Beyond just creating art that provokes the viewer to an encounter with the nature of their physical body I think that Marvelous Monsters has the potential ability to shape a space within the gallery where that encounter is made more physically and psychologically safe. In my ‘regular’ life the awareness of my body and the way that I inhabit it is most often accompanied by dysphoria and is thus avoided. However, even with the intermediary of my computer screen the contextualization of the encounter with by body as a part of art viewing creates a necessary distance from the negative sensation of inhabiting a trans body which at least for me personally  brought that sensation closer to the many beautiful and joyful aspects of my own transgender experiance. Particularly in how I am able to alter my body in all its disconcerting physicality to be more in line with my identity.

Given my own experience in the show I also wonder about those living in disabled bodies and how they might experience the exhibition. Because of the use of deconstructed bodies in the form of skeletal pieces or mannequin limbs I do not think Bourque’s figures read as necessarily able bodied but in the same way that the exhibition felt ambiguously inclusive to me as a trans person I would speculate that perhaps those in disabled bodies might have similarly disconcerting reactions to the art. Even in a space that is not explicitly exclusive of a particular group, negative past experiences can create a sense of exclusion whether or not it is intended. From publicly available information Bourque appears to be an able bodied, cisgender, man and whether or not he considered the response of folks in marginalized bodies I think that those with marginalized experiences might feel (justifyably) defensive depending on how the show was contextualized. 

By creating art that clearly calls for an encounter with the flaws, failings, and physicality of one’s body it is vital that the gallery space creates that safety for folks whose bodies are often deemed unacceptable  or are marginalized in public spaces. As I viewed Marvelous Monsters in my home I experienced the show both within the comfort of a space I feel very safe in and with the positive associations I have with Artlab after my time visiting as a student. But I can also imagine how viewing Tommy Bourque’s art in a gallery where I did not feel safe and welcomed could be a profoundly negative experience. Ultimately, with the virtual nature of how all viewers are experiencing Marvelous Monsters these concerns with the physical gallery space are irrelevant but I do think that it is an important consideration for artists and curators to make when working on similar shows.

You can view Marvelous Monsters on the ArtLab website here: https://www.uwo.ca/visarts/artlab/exhibition_archive/20202021.html#Monsters 

I hope you enjoyed this piece, and if you have thoughts, questions or comments feel free to reach out to me either in the comments for this post or through the contact page. And if you really enjoyed this post please consider supporting me on Ko-fi here.

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