Thesis Info

Connective Tissue: Skin as Medium of Embodiment and Transcendence from the Baroque to the Posthuman
Jenny, Barbara Rita
2nd Author
3rd Author
Number of Pages
Maine College of Art, MFA Program
Thesis Supervisor
George Smith
Supervisor e-mail
rkatz AT
Other Supervisor(s)
Katarina Weslien
Language(s) of Thesis
Department / Discipline
Studio Art & Critical Theory
Languages Familiar to Author
Spanish, French, German
URL where full thesis can be found
Skin, Art, Posthuman, Embodiment, Transcendence, Baroque, Ecstatic
Abstract: 200-400 words
Skin is the liminal space between the inner and outer world of the body. A three-dimensional stratum, skin contains what we embody and bars what we reject. In terms of the phenomenology of perception, then, skin can be the place of the reflexive exchange of perception(s), the reflective surface of ontological understanding. Art of the Baroque period demonstrates this realism by rendering the figure, and specifically its visible skin, to portray the intrinsically attached mind and body, spirit and flesh. Though technological developments and contemporary constructions of the posthuman—such as mass-produced commodified skin, cybernetics, and virtual reality—challenge these understandings, skin remains the body’s crucial integument, the place of connection and transference of knowledge, and the conductor of embodiment. In this thesis paper I will discuss skin as a Baroque medium and situate my own work both as a continuation of this tradition and a bridge to posthuman embodiment. Within the context of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s embodiment theory, I will argue that despite concerns regarding the dehumanizing effects of science and technology, we can be sure that understanding through embodiment will persist. In addition, the symbiotic relationship of spirit and flesh will be reinforced here by ideas of the metanormal, specifically Roman Catholic concepts of the Glorified Body and the Subtle Body which integrate body and soul. The work of Roman Baroque sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini and that of several contemporary, postmodern, and post-Baroque artists—including my SkinPrints—will illustrate these ideas. Given that “knowledge is the result of an ongoing interpretation that emerges from our capacities of understanding, which are rooted in the structures of our biological embodiment, but lived and experienced within a domain of consensual action and cultural history” (Haworth, 1997: 137), I will show that ontological knowledge and somatic understanding will be born and re-born, and indeed evolve, because of the very fact that human skin is (re)generative—biologically and creatively (that is, in scientific and artistic/spiritual terms)—and crucial in both its physicality and in its liminality between our real existence and possible transcendence. What’s more, I will argue that should the human mind ever attain the ability to transcend the body, we will still and always return to our flesh, within skin, to fully understand any transcendental travels. Glory and sublimity are to be found not in the process of transcendence itself, but in the possibilities such transcendence creates for humanity, and in the very questioning of what it means to be post/human. I have organized the body of this paper into five sections, with the first including an overview of the physical properties of skin, and skin’s role in embodiment theory and the phenomenology of perception as put forth by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Here I assert the skin’s importance as the liminal space between reflexive perceptions and of its crucial role as the integument of the body and that which the body embodies. From there follows a basic introduction and overview of the Baroque and of posthuman theory. The third section will delve further into the Baroque and more specifically advance a discussion of the Italian Baroque in the 17th century with a particular focus on Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598, Napoli-1680, Roma). The work of this Roman sculptor—with its devout Roman Catholic content and stirring imagery—forms the historical context within which to lay out my own ideas, concepts, and comparisons of embodiment and transcendence as portrayed in and understood through artwork. Next, we will discuss late 20th century and current notions of the posthuman, using the writings of chemist and literary theorist, N. Katherine Hayles as the basis for this discussion. I will then segue into a description of my own work in relation to the Baroque tradition of Bernini as well as my late twentieth century/early twenty-first century contemporaries grappling with the same neo-Baroque and/or posthuman ideas and imagery. Through this work and these images, I will further discuss posthuman theory, including concepts of the cyborg, informatics, and boundaries, and the realities and quests of biotechnology. Suppositions and imaginings regarding the possibility of a true mind/body separation or transcendence will round out this penultimate section. These works and ideas will then demonstrate, in the final section, that, just as in the Roman Baroque, the human—the artist, in particular—inevitably explores him/herself through the body, and that even questions and representations of the spirit or transcendence necessitate the use or rendering of the human figure in space. Indeed, too, the Zeitgeist of the 17th century Baroque period and our current Biotech Age are similar: a certain dis-ease and mistrust of technology is evident. Given, too, that this paper was written in the months following the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, the fear invoked by such unintended uses of technology is present on the surface and cannot be ignored as it relates to this paper (see Appendix 1). But what I will stress in the following pages is the counterbalancing insistence that the physical body will persevere along with the essences it embodies, whether imbued with technology or, alas, assaulted by evil. And though these bodies may take a limitless variety of forms, each form is decidedly marked with flesh, covered in skin. It is the ubiquitous skin that ultimately relates what the muscles, the skeleton, and even the spirit have to tell and, more importantly, may have to tell. Likewise, what these bodies, these humans, have to learn—and their potential to learn— is both absorbed and reflected through, first, skin.