The body – the material and medium through which our sensory experience and perception of the world is mediated – is investigated in Body Topographies, a small group exhibition bringing together the works of five female artists at Lehmann Maupin’s exhibition space in Cromwell Place, London. The exhibition stars important works by Louise Bourgeois and the London-based artist Mandy El-Sayegh; two artists who deal with the mutability of bodily material and form which invites comparison and contemplation.
Bourgeois and El-Sayegh are known for their highly process-driven practices and both engage with the body – or depicted fragments of the body – as a framework to underpin the cultural, political and familial complexities and traumas of humanity. While Bourgeois explores complex emotional states and memories, El-Sayegh depicts subjugated and exploited bodies; a body subject battered and bruised by capitalism and patriarchy.
Faceless female forms are depicted in both Bourgeois and El-Sayegh’s paintings, albeit with entirely different sensibilities. The Family (2008) is a series of twelve gouache on paper paintings completed near the end of Bourgeois life and career. The female figure has multiple breasts, its form is rounded, containing one, sometimes two falling figures inside its body. The figures are outlined in blurred blood-red paint. In El-Sayegh’s painting Passengers (2018), a headless, keeled-over body anchors the piece, set against silk-screens of right-wing newspaper headlines, the artists’ fathers Arabic calligraphy, diagrams and the title from the 2016 film Passengers; a sci-fi romantic film set on a planet in a star system sixty light years from Earth. Reproduction of images and the circulation of ideas are put into question. How do we register fragmented ideas, images and representations? Clearly, the interaction (or interrelation) between the body and the world is at the hinge of both Bourgeois and El-Sayegh’s artistic concerns. Bourgeois is afflicted by personal experience and material bodily boundaries, whereas El-Sayegh explores the shifting space between internal and external, between excess and control.
Two smaller works by El-Sayegh feature in Body Topographies. units of measure 001 and units of measure 002 are composed of thick pigmented latex. Financial Times newspaper clippings and other ripped and collaged detritus are enmeshed below. The latex is an extension of the permeable boundary of skin; the space in-between interior bodily space and exterior environment. Each work is contained by a glass frame; the measurements are roughly the size of a torso. In this fragmented body, the viewer is invited to think beyond the flesh, beyond the deteriorating latex surface, beyond indeterminate edges, but only to a point.
The fragmentation of the corporeal is further suggested by Bourgeois’ free-standing sculpture Avenza Revisited (1968-9) presented alongside The Family. Made up of bulbous bronze projections, the work dismantles the very concept of corporeality as something self-contained and unified. Bourgeois spoke of the Avenza series (the title refers to a Tuscan site known for its marble quarries) as “landscapes… our own body could be considered, from a topographical point-of-view, a land with mounds and valleys and caves and holes. So it seems rather evident to me that our own body is a figuration that appears in mother Earth.” (1)
The exhibition is a demonstration of how Bourgeois and El-Sayegh both depict the disintegrating materiality of the body’s sinews and strands as extensions of their artistic process. For Bourgeois, her work indicates a deep...
“...concern with the human body: its aspects, its changes, transformations, what it needs, wants and feels – its functions. What it perceives and undergoes passively, what it performs. All these states of being, perceiving, and doing are expressed by processes that are familiar to us and that have to do with the treatment of materials, pouring, flowing, dripping…advancing, collecting, letting go...” (2)
El-Sayegh’s process is equally lengthy. The works go through screen-printing, assemblage, and painting stages. Dispersed, layered and collaged, the collected fragments shift into new configurations and meaning. As such, the paintings are reflective of how El-Sayegh defines her artistic practice as a place of searching: a “place where the body is still being articulated and hasn’t yet been fixed…” (3)
The works on display by Bourgeois and El-Sayegh are haunted by the suggestion of presence, and their corresponding absences are autobiographical. Bourgeois frequently explored the theme of family and the traumatic events that took place in her childhood. The Arabic calligraphy in Passengers recalls El-Sayegh’s fathers previous job as a calligrapher for the Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi. Her material choices are also deeply personal. Her mother was a rubber tapper in her youth in Malaysia and she recalls many of the workers at the rubber production would fall ill by the factory’s toxic output. Latex provides the workers their livelihood but it can be extremely harmful, sometimes deadly. The material itself has the ability to preserve and eventually deteriorates.
Autobiography does not, however, exist in static relation with neither Bourgeois nor El-Sayegh’s work. Rather, the work exists in dialogue with the spectator. As El-Sayegh says, “It’s about how I turn these personal things into a universal thing. It starts on such a base level – latex, paper, this stuff I’ve collected – then I have to raise it. So it ends up not being about me, but I’m in there.” (4) Encountering Passengers is not a sterile, disembodied experience. In fact, the spectatorial experience is central to its operation. To experience Bourgeois and El-Sayegh’s work is to interact with materials from their life.
The works on show at Body Topographies – in particular the four works on show by Bourgeois and El-Sayegh – reveal the very material exchange between the body and the world, the past and the present, the personal and the universal.
(1) Louise Bourgeois in taped interview, Oct. 14, 1981. in "Louise Bourgeois", Deborah Wye, (Museum of Modern Art: New York, 1982).
(2) Louise Bourgeois, “Form” (1960), in “Destruction of the Father. Reconstruction of the Father”, ed. Marie-Laure Bemadac and Hans-Ulrich Obrist (Violette Editions: London, 1998), 75-76.
(3) Mandy El-Sayegh and Xiaoyu Weng, "In Conversation: Mandy El-Sayegh and Xiaoyu Weng. A state of becoming, being Intermediate, still searching", March, 2021. https://www.lehmannmaupin.com/news/in-conversation-mandy-el-sayegh-and-xiaoyu-weng
(4) Mandy El-Sayegh and Darren Flook, "Mandy El-Sayegh: ‘I want everything in there, the political, the sexual… there is a terror in excess", April 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/apr/11/mandy-el-sayegh-up-and-coming-artist-east-london-exhibition