Nudity and figures of transgression at the end of the 20th century

Issue #06: Body in the Raw. Nudity Today.

In the 90s naked dancers created unheard of ways of living and feeling the body: sensitively, they offered a different kind of story where nudity, far from incarnating an ideal, appeared instead to propose a new sensory order.

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Transgressing “good form”

1998: Self-Xavier Unfinished, by Xavier Le Roy. The artist, nude, twists and turns on the stage, from back to front, contorting himself into bizarre shapes where his face and his sex always remain hidden. Columnist Marie-Christine Vernay expressed her surprise in the French newspaper Libération:“the spectator is drawn into a constant back and forth between the unknown and the recognisable, the strange and the familiar.” 1

At once confounding and resisting conventional perceptions and readings of human identity, this dis-figured body distinguishes itself from usual representations of human corporality. Through his numerous metamorphoses, the artist enables the audience to discover a new imaginary, unfettered by norms imposed by a tradition which saw the Nude as a privileged mode of appearing. This artist, a virtuoso of the strange, has invented new visibilities and as yet unheard of ways of living and feeling the body: sensitively offering a different kind of story where nudity, far from incarnating an ideal, seems instead to propose a new sensory order. On stage, there are only clear or obscure masses and lines put in motion by variations in tension and force. Limbs and torso seem to fuse, become disconnected and then to reconnect differently.

When discussing his work, Xavier Le Roy doesn’t hide the influence that knowledge of the theory and techniques of visual art has had on his work. In particular, he borrows from the processes of Laurent Goldring, a photographer and video artist with whom he has collaborated, through posing nude for him.2

What is the reality of sex if it is not the discursive modalities

Goldring is a lover of philosophy and art history and has carried out his research in conversation with the philosophers and literary figures who have inspired him. Among them were Gilles Deleuze and especially his writings on cinema, and the paintings of Francis Bacon. What did he learn from Deleuze’s work? The idea that one can rid oneself of the tyranny of representation and its endless mises-en-scene which always take as their motif conventional representations of the human. Following the advice of the visual artist, the dancer perceives his body as a plastic entity, which can be constructed and deconstructed.

The challenge set by these two artists seems to be to deform the body in order to see it in a new way. Troubling the most orthodox logic of the visible, their work questions the ontological status of the image: what is it about the figure of man and his multiple symbolic arrangements and rearrangements? Prophesying the coming of the ‘Superman’, Nietzsche had distanced himself more and more from traditional and anthropocentric representations of the human and the world. In their own way, Gilles Deleuze or even Jean-Francois Lyotard took on this idea under the banner of the ‘figure’ and ‘figural’. The idea? To escape representation, narration and clearly understandable (predictable) forms, in order to better highlight the powerful place silence holds in the visible. The figural form is thus the “wrong form” 3 : an event or becoming which “opens a space and a time of vertigo [not] attached to its context or to its perceptive environment” 4. In that universe there are no predictions, no preconceptions; only the acknowledgement of an appearing or an apparition, which refuses the most conformist aspects to propose instead a new sensory order. Once the received frames in which ideal and unequivocal images of corporality are enclosed are transgressed, the time has come for the multiple, the unstable and the moving.

Borders and Gender

1995: Jerome Bel plays with ambiguity: “There’s this scene where she puts her hair on his head and he becomes a woman and then she puts her hair under his arms and he becomes masculine” 5. Where lies within us the border with the other sex? Of course, formed by corporeal practices, which avoid neither grace, nor curves, nor fluidity, this dancer willingly plays the feminine part coiled inside him. But the one who was carefully refining the body in the solitary asceticism of the studio now comes on stage.

This blurring of codes overturns the norm to better allow us to question the hidden secrets of a skin, which we thought familiar, but whose shadowy regions continue to haunt us. Posing the question of the border, the referent of identity gives up its status as ‘given’ in order to become an enduring problem. On the stage, sexual identity whose borders have become porous, no longer responds to an essentialist or naturalistic gaze, but poses the very question of gender. Man, woman, even at the border one must belong– a highly historicised concept dictated by the construction of the social. This work takes aim at the systems for representing the world in binary form, linked to normative powers. Thus, the elements constituting sexuality can no longer be distilled into monolithic meanings. Not tied to a logic of the referent, ambiguity upsets those biological and anatomical necessities traditionally linked with sex. Navigating these troubled waters, this use of the body invites us to rethink the frontiers of difference as an essential aspect of the construction of each person; and to bring these frontiers to the very centre of our reflection.

On the stage, sexual identity whose borders have become porous, no longer responds to an essentialist or naturalistic gaze, but poses the very question of gender.

Twentieth Century art often dealt with the nomadic aspect of sexual configurations. In 1995, the exhibition ‘Femininmasculin: the Sex of Art’ held at the Pompidou Centre in Paris bore witness to a school of thought linking the labile world of sexuality with the very nature of the artistic field. Through numerous artworks, the public could perceive how artists have explored the territory of the body, exploring its shared dualities: Jeanne Dunning (1988), for example, framing the faces of women wearing a thin moustache; or Jana Sterbak (1993) photographing a female bust, a simple, transparent t-shirt unveiling amply curved breasts; however, as with a man’s chest, hairs cover the diaphanous cloth. Both sexes cohabiting the same paradigm. According to Marie-Laure Bernadac and Bernard Marcadé, the curators of the exhibition, since the end of the Twentieth Century (and following Marcel Duchamp), artists of the young generation have been very sensitive to this way of unsettling the traditional polarities of masculine and feminine. 6 In their works, they have enjoyed showing the fictitious nature of an arrested sexual identity.

In a reality without thought, without truth, without God, and ever more subject to dispersion, one must teach oneself about that which seems only to be a remainder, an avatar of exteriority.

Desexualising pleasure

1998: Good Boy. Alain Buffard, seen from behind, bends forward. Bit by bit, the audience discovers a mass of flesh where thighs and calves play together. This body, without tail or head, cultivates another presence – it casts aside the most habitual allegories of the human. On the stage there is just a pile of flesh; no face, no torso, no features. Under the pale wash of neon lights, the choreographer explores a new physical register; he undergoes metamorphosis, dismisses his earlier state. Light slides across his hairless skin, and movement creeps in. In this mix of shadows and glare, the gestural gives life to forms. The space between the thighs opens, creating a slit. Exploring, a fist, then the upper arm, enters the rift. A strange protuberance, the form that is taking shape, travels into this gap. Little by little, the orifice and the limb arrange the action. Slowly, the fist opens, searching for contact. The thigh shifts towards the offered hand to begin a story of skin and mutual light touchings. Under the spell of these brushing movements, shapes form and deform, continuously creating new anatomies. In this journey, where he who touches wants to be touched, the hand slides, emotion grows. Sensitively, this dance dissolves the conventional and recognisable forms of pleasure. With tact, it displaces them, suspends them so as to find them a way to exist somewhere else, somewhere less acceptable. The choreographer explains that the flesh thus becomes a place “open to the circulation and the multiple bodies of the sexual.”7 Caressing himself, reinventing himself and re-eroticising himself over and over again, the artist plunges the audience into a disturbing body-to-body experience, rich in sensations and sensualities.

Of course, until now the choreographic universe has left the door open to Eros, dance always being a universe which lends itself easily to carnal fantasies. Suggestive movement of the pelvis or spreading of the thighs draws attention to the spaces where we like to lose ourselves in pleasure. Sometimes, portrayals of attraction are explicit. In 1912, the Faunby Vaslav Najinsky, feigning masturbation, offended Gaston Calmette. In 1998, in Manureva, Laure Bonicel had a nude performer masturbate on stage with a sock. But, whether engraved or in relief, these figures of the body were always referencing genitality. Without, however, dismissing such pulsional and erotic dynamics, Alain Buffard changes their forms. With great awareness, he invents movements by finding surfaces and discovering configurations and intensities not usually covered by the conventional instances of sex. But which and why?

Stroking himself, the homosexual artist turns over a new leaf. His gesture rids him of the old rags of the normative. This use of himself aims to subvert the traditional powers intertwined with questions of politics or desire. Evading the norms of sexuality, he seeks to keep at a distance the values of a power incarnated in the figure of the heterosexual man who makes of sex alone the paradigm of all possible relationships. At this point, the works echo the writings of Michel Foucault, the choreographer’s favoured author. The importance placed on the body and the homosexuality of the two men create an environment conducive to a meeting between the ideas of The History of Sexuality and an act of choreography. The slogan? “Desexualising pleasure”. In his work, the historian and philosopher launched his campaign, saying, “we must free ourselves from a demanding sex” 8. In order to foil power, the author suggested deconstructing the uses and representations of the body from a politico-sexual point of view. For the choreographer, shifting sensual attention towards various neglected zones of the body, creating dissonances, gaps and excesses of feeling in the monolithic significations of gender, composing new, as yet unimagined, possibilities for pleasure, become the modes of resolutely creative research. Through these creations is born the hope that new ways of being will appear – ones that are still today suppressed by the domination of the heteronormative, which supports oppression by making it seem natural. Here and there, both philosopher and artist politicise the body in order to better question it.They deny the knowledge and modes of access to the certitudes linked to it: what is the reality of sex if it is not the discursive modalities trapped in the sociohistorical structures which organise it and make sense of it? It’s time for ‘queer’ – This way of life invented by gay culture announcing publicly its disagreements with dominant culture and engendering relationships which do not fit into received cultural forms. Or at least, here, given presence, the enchanted face of its desire.

These plays on the body are far from the classical understanding of the ‘Nude’ as an incarnation of beauty. Instead, they have aimed no higher than the sensory. They are conceptual but, on the surface, they have testified to a humanity continually built and transformed by experience. In the folds of the body they have created a visible presence whose contours produce an enigma, unsettling prejudices, preconceptions and givens. The 21st Century will produce other forms of engagement among them, postfeminism, eroticism and sensuality. In that world, women will invade the stage. But that will be a whole other story!

Translated by Frida Komesaroff

  1. Marie-Christine Vernay, « Tours, au plus près du corps », Libération, 12 et 13 juin 1999.
  2. Just like choreographers Maria Donata d’Urzo, Saskia Hölbling and Benoît Lachambre
  3. Jean-François Lyotard, Discours et figures, 1971, Paris, Klincksieck, 1974, p. 277.
  4. Jean-François Lyotard, idem,p. 135.
  5. Interview with Jérôme Bel, 12 July 2001.
  6. Marie-Laure Bernadac and Bernard Marcadé, « Ouverture », inFémininmasculin :Le sexe de l’art, Paris, Gallimard/Electra Centre Georges Pompidou, 1995, p. 11.
  7. Interview with Alain Buffard Selooua Boulbina and Sabine Prokhoris, Vacarme, n°7, janvier 1999, p. 92-95.
  8. Michel Foucault, La volonté de savoir, Histoire de la sexualité, volume 1, Paris, Gallimard, 1976, p. 208