Step inside my container
by Ray Harris
Thinking about the human body is complex, it is something we have an intricate relationship with, and when it dies we die. The body is vital to my work; it is used and explored in so many ways. There is the clear connection in my performative video works where I subject my own body to sputtering paint, jumping off a bridge or balancing an object on my head but it is equally present in my sculpture/installation works and in the subject matter of my work; the psychological complexities and struggles of the self.
The body is more than a conduit for exploration it is the frame where identity, spirituality, diversity, and place stem from and exist within. Many artists have used it as a tool, a material, a location and reference. As a material it is easily accessible, portable and direct.
Our body is our ‘container’ and its containment, bounds and contents are what instigate and push our ideas, expression, philosophies and art. We cannot escape our identity being intrinsically enclosed in our body. Cultural identity, politics, sexuality, gender and equality are tied to what external form our container takes, its interior contents, where it is located and what we are allowed to do with it. Place and space are relevant through our physical occupation or absence.
The body and what it does, how it experiences the world, is responsible for the complicated interweaving of neuronal connections in our brain, out of which our mind – and perhaps consciousness itself – is constructed. Twenty-first century science has only confirmed that corporeal intelligence translates directly into our mental intelligence (1)
To put it in simplified terms, the human experience involves the body and art involves the human experience. The body lives and contains this experience and our creative expression comes from the body itself including things that exist and emit from within it; the senses, the emotions and most importantly the mind. These are our contents, the mind a mental container within the overarching body container and emotions are fluids that fill or spill from it.
The body ‘container’ for the psychological-emotional self and the complex reciprocal relationship between its interior and exterior captivates me.
Its contents, its inner working and the things that happen to it; its experiences, memories, perspectives, desires, secrets, psychological manifestations and ultimately its demise fascinate me. I am concerned with its construction, structures, fabrications and internal partitions. Whether it is open or closed, empty or full, what leaks out or stays in and how it all goes together.
I have been recreating the container as three-dimensional structures that locate inner states of mind as enterable externalised places. I have been using it as a direct material to explore its manifesting outer behaviours and actions.
The container is an instinctive biological metaphor for our body-mind. It turns up in cognitive science, linguistics and psychology.
We human beings have bodies. We are “rational animals” but we are also “rational animals” which means that our rationality is embodied.(2)
The metaphor of the container as a mental space psychologically establishes us as bounded and boundaried entities. Providing a structure to understand our experience, the boundary creates exterior and interior space filled with thoughts and feelings that can be projected out from or interjected into. The English language uses this metaphor to represent events linked to the expression of emotion or identity. These include being self-contained or out of your mind, blowing your top, filling up with rage and falling in love. From infancy, we are aware of our bodies as containers which things go into and out of; we move in and out of rooms, relationships, jobs, love and other bounded physical, mental and emotional space. These metaphoric containers can be both claustrophobic or ‘claustrophillic’(3), especially in relation to others who can inhabit our self ‘container’, reject it or take it over. We want to break boundaries or we fear a loss of them, we want to be filled up or to empty our contents, to take people in or to keep them out. Border transgressions can involve the complete desire for another or total isolation. In fantasy, some people conceive of themselves as cast out from a nurturing container and attempt the impossible ideal of finding that space again.(4)
In my work as with many other artists I am interested in the broken, empty, seeping, void filled container which links to the postmodern view of the body as an empty soulless vessel. Historian and critic Thomas McEvilley describes it as “the human figure as empty in itself or emptied out, gutted, by experience.”(5)
Curator and writer Helaine Posner, speaking about sculptural works that depict broken bodies, sums up this fragmentation and uncertainty in current times and art:
The dismemberment of the body in late-twentieth-century art is no accident. It is the result of living in a world in which violence, oppression, social injustice, and physical and psychological stress predominate. We may long for the secure ideals of beauty and wholeness embraced by past generations, but experience tells us this worldview is obsolete.(6)
My sculptural/installation works not only represent a psychological state but also take the form of a container. One that looks plain and storage like from the outside but houses a room of the mind, a fantasy, an escape, or a repression. Freud used the house as an analogy for the unconscious to explain the process of repression; what’s hiding in the container.
The unconscious system may be compared to a large anteroom … adjoining this is a second, smaller apartment, a sort of reception room in which consciousness resides. But on the threshold between the two there stands a personage with the office of door keeper, who examines the various mental excitations, censors them, and denies them admittance to the reception room when he disapproves of them …… the excitations in the unconsciousness, in the ante chamber, are not visible to consciousness which is in the other room, so to begin with they remain unconscious. When they have pressed forward to the threshold and have been turned back by the doorkeeper, they are “incapable of being conscious”; we call them repressed. But even those excitations which are allowed over the threshold … only become (conscious) if they succeed in attracting the eye of consciousness.(7)
Enterable by viewers in some way, also allows others to ‘inhabit my container’. The relationship between what we make and what’s in our container is highly significant. The work can communicate the connection between our body and our mind, studio-based processes and psychological mechanisms. Art making has the potential to act as a tool of sublimation, understanding, potential catharsis and connection of human experience.
We cannot separate the body from the heart or the mind or the things we create, we cannot separate the body from art; when we die they place our container in the ground, and we stop.
Jacquelyn Ford Morie, Performing in (virtual) spaces: Embodiment and being in virtual environments, International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, Volume 3 Number 2 & 3. © Intellect Ltd 2007. Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/padm.3.2&3.123/1
Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason, University of Chicago Press, 2013, p.xix
Claustrophilia is an abnormal desire to be confined in an enclosed space.
David Garfield and Bent Rosenbaum, ’Metaphor and Psychoanalysis: Containers, Mental Space and Psychodynamics’, PsyArt, An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, 1 December 2001, accessed 24 October 2012, pp. 1–6
Thomas McEvilley, cited by Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel, Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980, Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, New York, 2010.
Helaine Posner, cited by Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel, Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010, p. 26.
Sigmund Freud 1916-1922, pp. 305–306, cited by Robert Kunzendorf, ‘Universal repression from consciousness versus abnormal dissociation from self-consciousness’, Behavioural and Brain sciences, 29, 2006, pp. 499–551.