AboutâWhen an acquaintance greets me on the street by lifting his hat, what I see from a formal point of view is nothing but the change of certain details within a configuration forming part of the general pattern of colour, lines and volumes which constitutes my world of vision. When I identify, as I automatically do, this configuration as an object (gentleman), and the change of detail as an event (hat-lifting), I have already overstepped the limits of purely formal perception and entered of a first sphere of subject matter or meaningâ¦' Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts
Body language is, as the late Big Brother has taught us, inescapable. How we read, record, imitate and interpret gestures informs everything about our daily lives, from culture and convention to our most ânatural' and intimate relationships. âLet's Take Back Our Space' brings together the work of three artists Robert Morris, Marianne Wex and Cerith Wyn Evans who, in their radically different ways, explore body language as something at once urgent and inherently ambiguous.
The show takes its title from an encyclopaedic photographic project by the German artist Marianne Wex. Over several years in the mid-1970s Wex, who had originally been a painter, built up an extraordinary archive of thousands of images of people, which she began to categorise according to their body language. Mixing her own street photographs with images clipped from newspapers and advertisements, she cumulatively catalogued the way that male and female identities were formed and reinforced through everyday gestures; the way, as she put it, that they âtook up space'. Then she began to cast her net even wider, examining ancient and mediaeval sculpture for clues about the history of gendered poses. Finally, she began to ask volunteers to act out some of the most characteristic postures of both sexes for the camera. Wex combined the resulting photographs in dozens of large-scale panels, which were exhibited and also published as a book. Mixing documentary photography with collage, feminist polemic and art history, Wex sought to expose the sexual and social stereotypes that inform even our apparently most casual, personal gestures. At Focal Point Gallery, a selection from Wex's vast archive will be shown publicly for the first time in almost three decades.
Wex's photographic project is accompanied by two other works in the exhibition. The first is Robert Morris's 21.3 (1964); originally a performance made by the artist while he was studying and teaching art history in New York, the action was subsequently re-staged with an actor and filmed by Babette Mangolte in 1994. In the work, the performer lip-synchs a famous art history lecture by Erwin Panofsky called âStudies in Iconology' from 1939, which discusses the different levels of how we understand the everyday gesture of someone raising their hat a typical greeting of the era, which might now seem quaint. In Morris's staging, the performer imitates all the extraneous recorded movements of Panofsky's speech (a cough, a sip of water, shuffling papers), as carefully as they lip-synch the words, subtly undoing the presuppositions
art historical and political of Panofsky's text.
The second accompanying moving image work is Cerith Wyn Evans's Kim Wilde Audition Tapes (1996), which, we are told, consists of footage the artist discovered in a skip in Soho. Male models audition in a studio for a role in a pop video, responding to the off-screen director's prompts to act naturally with excruciating self-consciousness. Under the cold eye of the camera, body language and male sexuality are manufactured for commercial ends.