Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Shape of Us

"The Shape of Us" is an art exhibit at the ISU University Art Gallery (at the Center for Performing and Fine Arts, on the corner of 7th Str and Chestnut.)  It runs for Sept 23rd to Oct 15th.  It is a collection of (mostly) photographs from the Kinsey Institute Art Collections.  Almost all of the images are nudes, with a few partially clothed images.  The exhibit shows human bodies of many, many kinds.  Some images are male, some female, some combine aspects of each.  There are very large people, anorexic people, beautiful people, ugly people, unremarkable people, old people, disabled people.  Some images are artistic, some are clinically scientific, some are clearly eroticized, some are bland.  There are even political nudes.  The exhibition is a sort of traveling photo-essay of the wide, wide range of what counts as normal for human body shapes, for human erotic lives.  Several of the images swirl in my brain still.  Laurel Lea, an armless black lady slinkily dressed giving the camera a wry smirk, while writing in a book with her feet and a quill pen.  Heather, an extremely over-weight lady, nude and on her back, but radiantly happy.  A photo of 6-7 "swingers" of mixed genders and bodies, mostly undressed, but settling down to a fancy meal with wine and nice china.  A photo of 5 men with gynocomastia, fully dressed and looking very normal, then the same men in only breechcloths, clearly showing their extremely female looking breasts.

J. D. Talasek, 2000, Untitled

The Kinsey Institute is one of the genuine treasures of Indiana.  It is reputedly the second largest collection of pornography in the world (after the Vatican).  But the Kinsey Institute has a long history of looking at, thinking about, and researching human sexuality through a wide variety of lenses; scientific, biological, health, art, policy, etc.  Famous sex-researcher John Money, coined the term sexosophy, for looking at human sexuality in a holistic way rather than just say through the very narrow lenses of medical practice, or biological research, pornographic photography, or legislative law-crafting.  And this exhibit is straining to be more than just art or pornography, but sexosophy.  

The Kinsey Institute used to be a very, hmm, user-unfriendly facility.   I had to go there once when I was a philosophy grad student.  I was researching everything having to do with the great scholar of ancient Buddhist, Edward Conze.  I actually found at least one text, buried in the library and falling apart, that had been claimed as "lost" in his official bibliography, although it didn't have much of interest for my project in it.  But IU also claimed that Edward Conze had a text in the Kinsey Library, so I figured I needed to go see it.  It was difficult to get in, but as a grad student they were at least willing to let me talk to one of the workers at the Institute.  (I've talked to two people who didn't even make it that far because they were undergrads at the time).  I was told that I would need signed letters from my dissertation advisor and my department chair if I wanted to examine the "document" they had.  I said that it was probably irrelevant to me, I just wanted to cross it off my research list.  After quite a bit of haggling, I got the to agree to have one of their staff view the "document" and answer a few questions about it verbally before I bothered my chair and advisor for permission.  The staffer said it was a single page cartoon of an explicit nature, and that no it did not seem to have any relevance to Edward Conze's research on ancient Buddhism.  Within the last few years, the attitude of the Kinsey Institute has changed from this, protective defensiveness, to more of a reaching out to the public.  One of my contacts says that this began a few years before the movie "Kinsey" was made, but it has certainly continued.

But the story of the Kinsey Institute coming to ISU's campus has more personal connections for me.  I have a friend, David, who is an ex-professor of ISU.  He left ISU a few years ago as part of a settlement concerning a dispute over his academic research into the sex-lives of disabled people.  He introduced the (then) gallery director of the University Art Gallery to the curators of the Kinsey Institute, and hoped it would lead to something like this.  David, who is an extremely kind and loving guy who has been hurt professionally for working on controversial topics, but with quiet courage keeps doing it anyway, describes the exhibit as "a mini-dream come true."  He says "Now, two years later, on a campus where I experienced a few too many people ignorant and/or blatantly fearful of academic exploration of human sexuality, the presence of this exhibit is perhaps a glimmer of hope..."

I agree.  It is easy to find images of unrealistic sexuality.  It is easy to find suggestions of sexuality used to sell products.  It is easy to find examples of rare body types being sculpted into nearly impossible extremes and then refined further by a host of skillful lighters, make-up artists, and extensive digital post-production to clean up remaining imperfections, to create an entirely unreal and artificial sexual package of desire.  What Baudrillard calls the hyper-real.  A level of being so artificial that the real seems shabby and second rate next to it.  There can be no doubt that hyper-real body images are a major contributing factor to anorexia, and other dysfunctional relationships with our bodies and body images.  Yet what can we do against these hyper-real poisons?  The only viable solution is a concerted cultural effort to re-value real human sexuality.  And here in the "Shape of Us"  we see artists, and scientists, medical folk, photographers, pornographers, librarians, academics, and students, each doing their part to create a paean in images to the real "Shape of Us."  And here, surprisingly enough, the university administrators are willing to allow this to happen.  Many hands, of many different kinds work in many ways to make something like this possible, and take many kinds of risks.  David isn't in the Wabash anymore, because his work was a little too edgy, but folk have decided to risk it anyway and allow this exhibit to occur.   That makes me both hopeful and proud.  So "The Shape of Us" is ...

Just one more reason I'm proud of Terre Haute.

P.S.Doug Kornfeld did a small related art installation entitled "Who Are You?" in the restrooms outside of the exhibit.  An actual art installation in a bathroom, and not as a joke.  After viewing the men's room, I hovered outside of the women's restroom for a few moments wondering if I had the courage to barge in and claim I was there to view the art, but I couldn't quite bring myself to do it ...

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