Mike Kelley: The Uncanny: Room guide: The body part and wholeness

Hans Bellmer, ‘The Doll’ 1936, reconstructed 1965
Hans Bellmer
The Doll 1936, reconstructed 1965
Tate
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017
Robert Gober Untitled 1989 to 1992 wood wax leather cotton human hair

Robert Gober
Untitled 1989–92
wood, wax, leather, cotton, human hair
30 x 16 x 51.5 cm

© Robert Gober

Everyone knows how their body is organized and how many of each part they have; this is a given and is never thought about. To become aware of these particulars, one must imagine oneself unwhole, cut into parts. Deformed or Dead.

While studying the ancient sculptural ruins in Rome, Auguste Rodin made a statement that was obviously meant to apply to his own work as well. He said: ‘Beauty is like God; a fragment of beauty is complete’. Each piece is a microcosm of the whole, and each piece is a whole itself. Part and parent body are linked together by some essential glue that makes them a unit, a Platonic whole.

In recent art, the modernist notion of the fragment as a microcosm has given way to a willingness to let fragments be fragments, to allow partiality to exist.

Salvador Dalí’s inspirations – ‘masturbation, exhibitionism, crime, love’ – and Surrealism’s basic motivating factor, desire, all point toward lack as the focus of art. Art is creation in response to lack. Quite different from a stand-in for the archetype, which must be there, somewhere, the art object is a kind of fetish, a replacement for some real thing that is missing.

The Surrealist artist, Hans Bellmer constructed a life-size figure of a young girl in the early 1930s. This figure was fully jointed and came apart in pieces in such a way that it could be put back together in innumerable ways. He also made extra pieces that could be added so that the figure could have, if desired, multiples of some parts. The ‘doll’ is a perfect illustration of Bellmer’s notion of the body as anagram: the body as a kind of sentence that can be scrambled again and again to produce new meanings every time.