Themes of sculptural animacy and petrification have engaged artists and authors since antiquity, from classical tales of Pygmalion or Medusa to Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, from tomb sculptures and death masks to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Marc Quinn’s frozen Self. In its three-dimensionality and engagement with human scale, the sculpted object invites contemplation of temporality and endurance relative to real and ideal life spans. This online symposium seeks to examine that tension, probing and questioning the intertwined notions of life and death, movement and stillness, that sculpture activates. What are the implications of living and creating in this interstitial space? How might human behaviors or interactions with sculpted forms– from agalmatophilia to iconoclasm– complicate our understanding of reception? How can we better understand sculpture as object, process, and product, in theory and in practice, as historical and fantastical objects? Speakers: – Juliana Ramirez Herrera, Black Mummies: Becoming Sculpture in the Atacama Desert, c. 5000-2500 BCE – Yingxue Wang, Animating the Buddha’s Body: Beetle Wings in Early Japanese Buddhist Art – Alicia Cannizzo, The Petrifaction of Putrefaction: Transi Tombs and the Arrested Moment of Decay – Tamara Golan, Artistic Expertise and Failures of Animation in Late Medieval Switzerland
– Jeremy Melius, “Fossil-creatures” and the “mockeries of life”: Ruskin at Verona – Juliet Sperling, The Scalpel and the Stone
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Juliana Ramirez Herrera, Black Mummies: Becoming Sculpture in the Atacama Desert, c. 5000-2500 BCE
The Chinchorro black mummies of the Atacama desert in northern Chile are the oldest examples of artificial mummification in the world. More than mummies, they are elaborate sculptures whose production entailed the complete disassembling and reconstruction of the deceased body. The result was a hybrid creation—part corpse, part statue—that compounded some of the cadaver with other materials such as animal hair and skin, clay, and pigments.
During the two millennia preceding the emergence of the black mummies, the Chinchorros utilized the hyperarid conditions of their environment to naturally mummify the deceased. In light of this, the switch to the skillful making of black mummies c. 5000 BCE is intriguing. Why if corpses could be naturally mummified, did the Chinchorro develop such a complex and time-consuming process to treat the dead? Clearly, the production of black mummies served a role that superseded their practical use in delaying putrefaction.
Since their discovery in 1917, natural and artificial Chinchorro mummies have been the purview of physical anthropologists. As such the mummies have been examined as scientific specimens to investigate Chinchorro genetics, diseases, diet, etc. This paper is the first effort to analyze the black mummies from an art historical stance: understanding them as sculpture not only reveals the creative endeavours and aesthetic sensibilities of the Chinchorros, a pre-ceramic society of fisherfolk who did not weave textile or work metal, but also expands the notion of sculpture itself, as the mummies are simultaneously body and object, corpse and image, natural and manufactured.
Yingxue Wang, Animating the Buddha’s Body: Beetle Wings in Early Japanese Buddhist Art
Despite the prohibition on killing sentient beings in Buddhism, biological materials are not unusual on Japanese Buddhist icons and ritual objects. The seventh-century Tamamushi Shrine, one of the most important artifacts of early Japanese Buddhism, offers a particularly spectacular example, as its exterior is covered by the elytra of over two thousand tamamushi beetles (“jewled beetles,” Chrysochroa fulgidissima). While previous scholarship treats the beetle wings as mere decorative elements, this paper argues that they not only condition the very way in which the shrine is viewed and experienced, but also destabilize and complicate the very conceptualization of the artifact as a “shrine.” My analysis focuses on the unique material properties of the beetle wings and the sensory experiences they engender. Drawing on research in vision science and ritual theory, I demonstrate that the beetle wings produce striking visual effects such as iridescence and metallic luster, which trigger powerful experiences of sensory alterity that can be readily deployed in ritual practices. By examining archaeological evidences, I further argue that in the context of premodern East Asia, the addition of beetle wings to an artifact brings about an alchemical transformation, turning the artifact into a living numinous being. The Tamamushi Shrine, animated by thousands of beetle wings, transcends the very concept of a “shrine” and instead manifests itself as the living body of the Buddha. The beetle wings help construct an artificial body, or an “automaton,” that constantly generates its own sacred space and initiates overpowering experiences of the Buddha’s corporeal presence.
Alicia Cannizzo, The Petrifaction of Putrefaction: Transi Tombs and the Arrested Moment of Decay
A putrefying cadaver carved in stone atop a tomb monument may strike the modern viewer as an unlikely, even horrific, mode of commemoration, but such imagery became a popular type of memorial in the late fourteenth century. This type of tomb, called a transi, depicts the deceased laid flat upon his (or, very rarely, her) back, usually nude and showing signs of advanced decay. Most assessments of these effigies have used them to explore the grim fascination with death that dominated the late medieval imagination. I have argued elsewhere that when these objects are placed within a context of the history of medicine and theories of matter, they can be understood to be in dialogue with ideas concerning the natural processes of the body in late medieval university-level debates. In this paper I will turn to one of the most arresting and affective attributes of these sculptures: the process of decay that is seemingly frozen in time by the large stone carvings. Quite often, though skeletal or covered with vermin, the bodies raise their hands in gestures that protect their modesty, visibly defying the effects of gravity on dead matter. The striking combination of death and animation that the bodies display highlights the contradiction in them; though deceased, these bodies are in an active natural process of decay that has been immobilized through the artistry of the sculptor. Standing before a transi tomb is always a profound encounter, made especially startling because of the tension between animacy and petrification.
Tamara Golan, Artistic Expertise and Failures of Animation in Late Medieval Switzerland
This paper examines the controversy around a thirteenth-century Pietà sculpture in the Dominican church in Bern, which, in the summer of 1507, began to weep tears of blood. An inquisitional trial (1507–1509) revealed that the miracle was, in fact, a fraud staged by the leaders of the friary, who claimed to have used a nefarious concoction prepared by a converted Jew to create the tears. The miraculous animation of the sculpture, however, was initially called into question, not by the inquisitors, but by a group of local craftsmen. Their testimonies at the trial reveal a robust skepticism towards the sculpture’s claim to animacy and the pointedly artisanal set of criteria with which it was framed. They repeatedly referenced the unskilled facture of the tears and its failure to render the animating force of the sculpture visible. For the craftsmen, the issue was not whether they believed a statue capable of such a miracle, but that its artifice, at least to the trained artisan’s eye, was not convincing enough. Focusing on these encounters with the Pietà and subsequent artistic responses to the hoax, I trace how the trial exposed the murky threshold that divided artistry from sorcery, thereby generating a critical discourse on the animating effects of the artisan’s materials. This paper thus shows how, on the eve of the Reformation, artisanal expertise could come to adjudicate between the competing claims of art and miracle, likeness and presence.
Jeremy Melius, “Fossil-creatures” and the “mockeries of life”: Ruskin at Verona
While better known for his attachments to Venice (e.g. The Stones of Venice, 1851-53), the Victorian critic John Ruskin also found himself drawn repeatedly to the art and architecture of Verona. There, Ruskin developed a novel form of sculptural aesthetics, one based on an intuitive poetics of fossilization, fortification, and ambivalent reanimation of the dead. Transfixed by his encounters with the carved griffins supporting the Duomo’s portico, and with the elaborate constructions of the haunting Scaliger Tombs, Ruskin discovered at Verona a unique calibration between, as he put it, “civilization” and “chemical facts.” He found himself afflicted with “involuntary misgivings whether the churches were real churches, or only museums of practical geology”. Frozen like the fossil remains encased in Verona’s city walls, figures of architectural sculpture gave sensuous form to the dynamic interaction between human making and sculpture’s obstinate materiality. The encounter with sculpture unfolded as a bodily activation of geological substrata: an exhumation and making-present of the past, an enlivening of sculptural experience’s very ground. Tracing this encounter across Ruskin’s published and unpublished writings, as well as his extraordinary drawings of Verona’s monuments, this paper seeks to make sense of the critic’s traffic with the matter of sculpture, and its implications for our understanding of the medium’s aesthetic life.
Juliet Sperling, The Scalpel and the Stone
In response to the nineteenth-century viewer’s imagined caress, Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave “throbbed with life,” exhibiting a passionate shiver, a blushing cheek, a glisten of sweat. But while the carnal fantasy of sculpture turned to flesh has been almost a constant since antiquity, it was shocking, even outrageous, by sentimental American standards. Why did countless viewers break with polite convention and disclose illicit desires to touch the marble nude? This paper explores how a different sort of sculpture—the physically interactive anatomical model—helped rewrite one of art history’s oldest stories. Multiple venues on The Greek Slave’s journey across 1840s America were adjacent to new anatomical museums, where hands-on engagement with displayed objects was de rigueur. Through an analysis of specific anatomical models that brushed shoulders with Powers’ touring sculpture, I argue that for nineteenth century viewers, touch carried period-specific meanings that cut across the overlapping worlds of art and science. To avoid deception, one had to feel beneath the surface—a period sensibility that casts the Greek Slave’s persistent contradictions of polite and erotic, surgical and sensual, and most of all, white and other, in new light.