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Embodying Transformation continued

Christie Brown


These early tales of creation are to be found in various cultures. They relate to the basic desire to create an animate body and pre-empt later stories such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the replicants from the film Bladerunner. Other stories such as ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Galatea’ from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (fig. 6) develop the theme of animation and illustrate the need to create an embodiment of human desires. Pygmalion preferred to sculpt his ideal rather than confront the sexuality of a real woman, and his wish, granted by Venus, to bring life to his statue demonstrates his need for control in this relationship. A similar theme in reverse occurs in the story of Olympia (fig. 7), from the tales by E. T. A. Hoffman, about an idealized puppet who is broken up and destroyed by the man who acquires her when he realizes she is merely an animated doll.

In his catalogue essay for this show Edmund de Waal refers to making figures as ‘a transgressive activity – it is a role that should belong to the gods’, and he continues,

the need to understand our own creation is profoundly mimetic . . . in the mimetic making of a figure there is the trace and pulse of the mythic at work, something that is always on the cusp of danger.1

He goes on to suggest that in making figures we make a doppelganger and ‘it is the compulsion to see that destructive and unsocialised twin, to name it and control it, that can be seen in many of the figurative traditions’. And indeed throughout these narratives there exists an uneasy and potentially threatening relationship between the maker and the creation.

I refer to the second group of smaller figures as The Helpers; the name is based on the idea of the Egyptian Shabti who are put in the tomb to take care of certain labours that need to be performed in the afterlife. Prometheus’s Helper (fig. 8) carries the yarrow stalks for his master with which he will steal the fire from Hephaestus’s forge. The Helpers includes a pair of twins (fig. 9), a frequent theme in my practice, reflecting various ideas about narcissism and emotional self-sufficiency, the shadow and the unconscious.


Although I had originally envisaged placing the life-sized figures in the main space, in the final display I realized that the scale of the space was emphasized by placing The Helpers centre stage so that the small but grown-up people seemed to walk in and out of the vast area as if passing through a piazza (fig. 10). Similarly the claustrophobic atmosphere between the life-sized characters became even more charged when some of them were placed in the smaller spaces beyond (fig. 11).

My approach to the exhibition also included references to archaeological digs, especially since developments of the Wapping project had been held up partly by industrial excavations of subterranean tunnels beneath the building. Two works in particular made reference to this growing interest. Heads from the Glyptotek (fig. 12) paid tribute to a collection of archaic artefacts in the eponymous Munich museum. Scattered in corners, gathering dust in rows, they lurked in the dark or hovered on rafters giving the impression that they had been there for a very long time.



Resource – Clay (fig. 13) was composed of a large number of brick clay fragments mostly made from The Cast of Characters moulds that were no longer used to make whole figures. Made partly as a tribute to the people employed to work in the power station, it also referred to the use of fragments as a way of learning, an idea established in the early academies of art where collections of antiquities were used as ideal models for high levels of aesthetic attainment. In eighteenth-century Europe these surviving fragments of antique sculpture were collected and preserved and they had a powerful influence on the eighteenth-century imagination by suggesting what was lost or lacking.

In Linda Nochlins’s essay The Body in Pieces 2 she proposes the fragment as a metaphor for modernity, as artists turned to partial representation as a way of dealing with the lost relationship to the heroic age of antiquity, at a time of industrial development and revolution in which the grandness of the past can no longer fit into the frame of the present.

De Waal extends this idea, suggesting ‘in the fragment comes an inheritance from the Romantic movement: a feeling that it was impossible to express the totality of an experience through a complete object’. Citing the ‘deep vein of iconoclasm within cultures’, he goes on to suggest that

if figures possess power, if figuration is potentially transgressive then iconoclasm can be read as a profound reaction to it. To break a figure or to leave it incomplete is therefore to enter the territory not only of the psychology of destruction, it is also to raise the imagery of the vulnerability of bodies, their intense fragility.3

This work was also inspired by the practice of ex-votos. In ancient Etruscan and Roman cultures gifts were offered to the gods with prayer as a form of healing, in the hope that the body part would take on the ailment of the original. This practice of votive offerings demonstrates a belief in the curative power of mimesis, and the practice continues to exist in many contemporary cultures such as those of Italy and Brazil.

The idea that a representational object can contain the spirit of the original is developed by the anthropologist Michael Taussig in his book Mimesis and Alterity.4 Writing about the figurines which represented white colonialists, carved by the Cuna Indians of Central America in the mid twentieth century as part of their curing rites, he speaks about the ‘magic of mimesis’ and how ‘the making and existence of the artefact that portrays something gives one power over that which is portrayed’. Behind most of these fragments of narrative there lies the repeated and deep engagement with the power struggles enacted within human relationships as a protection against loss, and in the year or so that followed this exhibition I began to develop a greater focus on the significance in cultural life of archaic artefacts, which in many ways are designed to assist in this process of protection.

As a ceramicist I never experienced a strong connection with the late-twentieth-century contemporary abstract vessel movement or the decorative history of functional pottery, but a growing awareness of the range and meaning of clay artefacts in burial sites presented me with an area of the discipline that carried deep significance. Ceramic artefacts occur in large numbers of graves from many different countries (for example, Mexico, Japan, and China) and were almost certainly carriers of deep meaning in their time. They often formed part of a complex cultural mourning ritual relating to a transitional journey into the afterlife and affirming relationships with the ancestors which could be vital to the continuity of the society. In contemporary culture these transitional rituals can be seen to have a parallel with psychoanalysis and the need for transformation through that process.

I am attracted to these objects partly because of their age and their worn aesthetic and partly because of their connection to a history about which we know very little. We share a common interest in people from the past, whether our immediate ancestors or people from long ago, because we need continuity. This is demonstrated by the popularity of exhibitions about past cultures and the current interest in archaeology, a discipline that has undergone many changes since it developed from early natural history into a more disciplined science.

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  1. Edmund de Waal, ‘Return to Your Dust: Figuration as Transgression’, in catalogue Christie Brown: Fragments of Narrative for the exhibition at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, London, 2000. back to text
  2. Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces, London, Thames and Hudson, 1994. back to text
  3. de Waal. ‘Return to Your Dust’. back to text
  4. Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, London and New York, Routledge, 1993. back to text

The Threshold of the Real: Canalizing the Body as Object Art

by Tessa Adams

Embodying Transformation

by Christie Brown

Heads and Bodies: Fragments and Restoration

by Jeanne Cannizzo

Partial Figures and Psychic Unease: an Artist’s Perspective

by Wilma Cruise

Presence and Absence: edited transcript of presentation

by David Cushway

From Fragments to Icons: Stages in the Making and Exhibiting of the Casts of Pompeian Victims, 1863–1888

by Eugene Dwyer

EVENTual BodieSpaces

by Fiona Fell

Material Evidence: Use of the Figurative Fragment in the Construction of a Social Sculptural Subject

by Sheila Gaffney

Things of Nature Unknown

by Edith Garcia

Mapping Figure and Material: Some Remarks on Fragment and Material in Modern and Contemporary Sculpture

by Arie Hartog

Giuseppe Spagnulo: Material > < Body = Form > < Idea

by Lisa Hockemeyer

Cut, Torn, and Pasted: a Female Perspective

by Charlotte Hodes

Cheating Time

by Doug Jeck

Watchers and Memory

by Alison Lochhead

Fragments and Repetition: Extending the Narrative of Sculptural Installation

by Virginia Maksymowicz

The Body Undone: Fragmentation in Process

by Babette Martini

Visualizing Mortality: Robert Arneson’s Chemo Portraits

by Mary Drach McInnes

Interrogating the Human Figure in Bridging the Ceramic-Sculpture Divide: Practice in Nigeria

by Tonie Okpe

Ceramic Sculptures by Wilma Cruise: Fragments and Feminist Transgressions

by Brenda Schmahmann

Figuratively Speaking

by Shelley Wilson

The Obsolete Body

by Gavin Younge

Touching the Body: A Ceramic Possibility

by Bonnie Kemske

Embodying Transformation • Issue 8