Leonardo da Vinci and Visceral Bodies shows dissect the body, and human fears

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      Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man

      At the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 2

      What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!

      William Shakespeare wrote these words in about 1599, some nine decades after Leonardo da Vinci created the anatomical drawings that form a wondrous exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Yet Hamlet and Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man complement each other in the shining convictions of their humanism. Man was, to Leonardo, a beautifully designed and efficient machine; to Shakespeare, the paragon of animals; to the philosophers of the age (and of the classical age that was at that time renascent), the measure of all things.

      As seen in the anatomical drawings on view here, created in the winter of 1510–11, Leonardo’s humanism focused on the way we are put together. His extraordinary works, the result of a series of skillful dissections he undertook at the age of 58, reveal a desire to understand the human body within the context of observed nature rather than religious belief.

      In the acuity of their vision and the accuracy of their execution, the ink drawings (and accompanying notes, written in mirror fashion by the left-handed artist) reveal Leonardo’s disposal of pre-existing notions of human anatomy. They also reveal his embrace of an empirical approach to science and learning. Among the show’s illuminating text panels is this quote from the artist: “The eye.”¦is the chief means by which the mind can most completely and magnificently comprehend the infinite works of nature.”

      Leonardo’s anatomical drawings, which were hundreds of years ahead of their time and which stand today as the most beautiful ever created, reveal just how comprehending his eye was. How brilliant, too, were his hand and mind in bringing the muscles, tendons, bones, and blood vessels of his deceased and dissected subjects to new life on the page.

      Visceral Bodies

      At the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 16

      Kiki Smith’s untitled sculpture

      Sharing the VAG’s main floor with The Mechanics of Man is Visceral Bodies, a survey of international contemporary art addressing the human body as theme and subject. Here, the optimistic convictions of the proto-modern past are posed against the uncertainties of the postmodern present. Artists now operate in a state of apprehension, when every form of inquiry appears to be tainted by biases of gender and culture and sexual orientation.

      Wangechi Mutu’s series of 12 mixed-media collages is a powerful example of the postmodern challenge to entrenched assumptions. Here, the Kenyan-American artist composes abstract portraits—grotesque masks, really—of African women using images cut out of fashion and girlie magazines superimposed on old medical illustrations of the diseases of the female sexual organs. Fibroid tumours, syphilitic ulcers, and cervical hypertrophy form the uncomfortable ground from which Mutu launches her critique of the politics of representation. It’s painful going.

      Kiki Smith’s untitled 1991 sculpture is also moving and grotesque. Hollow paper forms, covered with blood-red ink, hang on the wall and suggest the remains of a beheaded, dismembered, and flayed male body. By its positioning in this show, Smith’s sculpture speaks to the dissected bodies that are the subject of Leonardo’s drawings. The work is also somehow reminiscent of pre-Columbian representations of the Aztec god Xipe Totec, wearing the bloody skin of a sacrificial victim. Still, both evocations are incidental. What Smith refers to more directly is the human body as the site of violence, of trauma, of the brute acts of humankind, from war to medicine.

      A Day of the Dead sensibility underlies Memoria I, a sculptural installation by Mexico City artist Gabriel de la Mora. Consisting of 17 highly realistic “skulls” mounted on a wall, this work is, surprisingly, a portrait of the artist’s (mostly living) family, including his parents, his siblings, and himself, along with assorted partners and children. MRI scans were made of each individual’s head, then output on a three-dimensional printer.

      Gruesomely (or not, depending on your beliefs), the skulls of de la Mora’s deceased father and a sister who was stillborn decades ago were exhumed and scanned to complete the portrait. In an ironic inversion, the artist’s use of advanced imaging technologies strips away emotional bonds and distances him from his subject.

      Shelagh Keeley’s six-panel wall drawing Writing on the Body was created in Tokyo in 1988 as part of a site-specific work. Deft renderings of bodies and body parts—adults and children, male and female—hover above a ground smeared with blood-red and piss-yellow pigment and scrawled with body-referenced words and phrases. Keeley here reflects the feminist thinking of the 1970s and ’80s—that the body is a repository of history, science, and culture. Lying beneath the surface, with all its viscerality and vulnerability, are musings on the AIDS crisis and grief at the loss of a friend to the disease.

      Visceral Bodies is a thoughtful and provocative accompaniment to The Mechanics of Man. I have nothing but praise for the way these two exhibitions were assembled and juxtaposed.