The Body Extended: Sculpture and Prosthetics

Issue section: 
(416)

I wear prosthetics and I have never considered them to be sculpture or an object of art. My prosthetics aren’t quite me nor are they quite distinct from me. Are they the creation of Deborah the prosthetist, or are they now my creation, wearing the scratches and scuffs of my everyday use?

This exhibition appears to clearly place these prosthetics in the realm of the creator, whether this is by artist, sculptor, engineer, craftsman or doctor. This challenged me emotionally more than I expected, and probably affected my response.

I didn’t get to see the centerpiece — Rebecca Warren’s “Untitled (War Commission)” sculpture, as this was atop a flight of stairs I couldn’t access in front of the main entrance. Today I was using my wheelchair so had to enter via the afterthought side entrance. Not an auspicious start for an exhibition on the theme of disability.

The first piece I encountered, however, was the most impactful. A pair of artificial legs facing a chair several metres away, tethered by a length of elastic. This simple portrayal gives expression to my everyday relationship to chairs when “wearing my legs”; never straying too far, always wanting to escape the need to return to one but never quite managing it. Artist Michael Kienzer seemed to understand this tension.

Many of the exhibits, however, weren’t prosthetics as I would understand them — they were extensions of the human body created for exploring its limits and how our relationship to the world is shaped by them.

Rebecca Horn’s “Finger Gloves” (1972) forces you to imagine wearing gloves with six-foot finger extensions, attempting futilely to pick up the crumpled paper ball as the artist is in the picture.

The exhibition appears to be drawing parallels, inviting the viewer to imagine the experience of wearing a prosthetic hand.

Prosthetics can be a form of liberation. They enable me to take part in a world that was not designed for people without legs. But they are also about physical pain and frustration, and an expression of the prejudicial attitudes of others and the social norms and values you are expected to live up to.

This is where the exhibition falls down most clumsily. I didn’t feel the voice of disabled people themselves anywhere in the exhibition, with the possible exception of Kienzer’s tethered legs and chair. Their representation largely took the form of mannequins, there merely to display their peculiar or ingenious extensions, not as agents in their own right.

Nothing told how prosthetics affected the lives of those who wore them. Nothing about how the quality of prosthetics for working class people never approached those of the wealthy. And little about how the prosthetic limb enters the grey area between where the body ends and the outside world begins, as the exhibition title teases us with.

Heinrich Hoerle’s paintings and sketches, “The Cripples Portfolio”, did provide some balance to this, speaking of the emotional alienation of disability which affected me at a personal and intimate level. These works did at least get under my skin.

But even here in “The Breadwinner” was the well-worn trope of the horror of the broken worker or disabled veteran. Likewise in “The Married Couple” we see the assumed fetishised objectification of our lovers.

I would have loved the exhibition to explore the conflicted relationship between disabled people, the medical profession and art world.

Many of the exhibits on show are real prosthetics created with the intention of rebuilding an approximation of a wholly formed and functioning person. We must not shock or appal those around us, so must mask our deformity. We must seek to be as productive as possible to justify our existence.

Prosthetics are not just extensions of our body but also cages that keep us in place.