William Garvin visits 'Soft Bodies' at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, an exhibition that takes its title from soft-body dynamics, a field of computer-generated graphics which creates simulations of soft materials such as muscle, fat, hair, vegetation and fabric.
'How is the skin? Is it smooth? Is it warm? Is it soft? Is it dry?' These words, intoned by a disembodied voice in Stine Deja's computer animation The Perfect Human (2015), consider the human body within realms of imaginative possibility, a theme central to Soft Bodies. The exhibition draws inspiration from soft body dynamics; a form of computer-generated graphics with applications in film and video games, endowing surfaces of life simulations with movement, flexibility and elasticity. Though inspired by developments in digital technology, the artists presented here encompass a range of media and perspectives.
Everywhere we look we see bodies framed by dangers as well as utopian potentials. In the Jake Moore and Semi Precious music video Other Life (2019), eight reclining figures are mapped onto a rectangular inner chamber: everything drenched in an emotionally neutralising blue. An atmosphere of erotic langorousness is evoked: a langorousness that has taken hold to the point of inertia. Flowing lines of digital graphics create ever-changing configurations, in a dynamic exploration of contours and surfaces.
Elsewhere, Emma Cousin's oil paintings feature vividly dramatised characters engaging in a perpetual reaching, contorting, pushing and pulling with and against one another. Fingers hook into empty eye sockets and other orifices, in a melange of violence, possession and desire. In Xiuching Tsay's paintings, by contrast, organic-looking forms flow and meld within strange, phantasmagorical landscapes. An example of visual art reaching places inaccessible to language.
The dreaming continues with Sam Rushton's animation Thus Spoke Zarathustra (2019), which takes place in an urban gothic nightmare of book burnings and forbidden knowledge. Here, soft body technology goes into overdrive as the human body becomes the site of bizarre mutations.
In a podcast conversation with Emma Cousin and fiction writer Raj Parameswaran, Megan Snowe locates the origin of Body Drawings (2019 - ongoing) in the need to escape conceptual thought, and to embrace something more spontaneous and instinctive. The drawings themselves; light graphite shadings of sensuous, imaginary forms correspond to a sensual self projected into non-physical realms.
The ongoing photo series Tests in Malham (2019) features Sadé Mica striking a series of poses against an incongruous backdrop of hillsides and rushing water. The poses are taken from a textbook intended for male and female life models. In these enactments, conventional notions of male and female naturalness are juxtaposed against the vastness of nature itself.
The exhibition also features works by George Gibson, Aliyah Hussain and Anna Bunting-Branch (Potential Wor(l)ds) and Robin Megannity.
Whilst Soft Bodies was originally intended as an imaginative response to developments in computer graphics, 'soft' could equally call to mind the vulnerability of the human body at a time of global pandemic. Whatever the interpretation, Soft Bodies offers a welcome and timely opportunity to see ourselves afresh.
16 September - 1 November 2020