When The Ringling’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Dr. Matthew McLendon first learned about the exhibition Phantom Bodies, he knew that it was going to be a special opportunity for visitors, and thoroughly in keeping with The Ringling’s ambitious contemporary art program.
Organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, the installation of Phantom Bodies: The Human Aura in Art at The Ringling is overseen by McLendon and will be on view in the Museum of Art’s Searing Wing until September 11th.
The exhibition considers the relationship between mind, body, and spirit through a selection of paintings, photography, videos, sculpture, and installations that are designed to inspire compassion and commemoration. The four thematically distinct sections—“Objects and Absences,” “Violence, Empathy, and Erasure,” “Sublimation,” and “The Mind-Body Problem”—each offer a particularly compelling lens through which to view contemporary works of art.
“The opportunity to present this group of contemporary artists, who are all important voices within global contemporary art, was simply too good to pass up,” said McLendon. “There was no question in my mind that we should bring this captivating exhibition, which grapples with major critical issues that have consumed artists for decades, to Ringling audiences.”
Among the coterie of top international artists represented in Phantom Bodies are Christian Boltanski, Janet Cardiff, Shirin Neshat, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Doris Salcedo, Anish Kapoor, Sally Mann, Ana Mendieta, Damien Hirst, Gerhard Richter, and Bill Viola. Binding the works together is an empathic and poetic dialogue between artist and audience, a transfer of energy between creator and witness similar to the transmutation of the objects themselves into pure meaning.
For example, Doris Salcedo—who last year received the inaugural Nasher Prize for Sculpture and had a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York— addresses the turmoil and tragedy of her native Colombia through her powerful work Atrabillarios (1992–93), which incorporates, in a walled enclosure, the shoes of people who have disappeared. In a similar vein, Christian Boltanski movingly references the Holocaust by pairing archival school portraits with stacks of vibrant clothing in Untitled (Reserve) (1989).
Photographers Sally Mann and Adam Fuss employ near obsolete techniques to create images that impart a spiritual essence and life force. In Mann’s series Proud Flesh (2003–08), the collodion wet plate allows her to experiment with timeless, soft-focus impressions of bodily fragments, while Fuss’s innovative use of the camera-free photogram in Medusa (2010) results in snakes invading a ghostly old-fashioned dress.
Meanwhile Bill Viola in Isolde’s Ascension (The Shape of Light in Space After Death) (2005) and Shirin Neshat in The Seasons (2011) engage video to evocatively question our definition of existence and plaintively mourn the loss of innocence, respectively.
A fully-illustrated publication extends the exhibition and includes essays by leading scholars of contemporary art, including exhibition curator Mark Scala, Martha Buskirk, Eleanor Heartney, and Lisa Saltzman.
“Issues of the body and embodiment have always intrigued me,” said McLendon. “The connection forged in Phantom Bodies between artists and the human presence left behind in objects is both provocative and profoundly moving.”
“As a center dedicated to the arts, education, research, and history, The Ringling believes that exploring the art of our time is key to understanding the art of the past,” said McLendon. “One of the through-lines in this exhibition is the examination of how objects can embody and reanimate emotions, feelings, and memories, which speaks to the broader purpose of museums to create meaningful personal experiences through works of art.”