What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, howThe Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Act II, Scene ii, 285-300)
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
Our bodies are shared sites of understanding. They are our primary resource for sensorial and cognitive information about the environment and the broader social context in which we exist. Fundamental events in our life like birth, aging, and death form a collective tapestry of experience that has been integral to the formulation of human society. The variety of cultural practices that surround these life events are undoubtedly shaped by time and place. From theories of human evolution to more transcendent ideological pursuits like religion, the humanistic inquiry into our broader worldview is the basis for an eternal pursuit throughout human history and culture to better understand our origins, our place in the now, and prospects for our future.
Corpus, the Latin word for “body,” has been an integral concept in shaping knowledge in the West. The rite of Holy Communion in Christianity begins with the words of Jesus: “This is my body,” and was institutionalized in feast days known as Corpus Christi or “the body of Christ.” The term habeas corpus, which appears in the Magna Carta of 1215, means literally “bring forth the body.” It stands as a cornerstone of Euro-American legal code, which guarantees the right to trial. Around the same time we see the rise of great medieval European universities, institutions that are organized as sites for the production of “corpus” or “bodies of knowledge.”
This exhibition investigates the many ways in which art and visual imagery reflect and shape our understanding of the body and its life process. Divided into five distinct sections, the exhibition begins with the question of “where do we come from?” This celebration of youthful exuberance is followed by an examination of the ways in which we are socialized, paying close attention to pictorial strategies like portraiture. The heart of the exhibition delves into core experiences like pain and suffering that shape ideas about faith and devotion. The fourth section of the exhibition looks at the body in motion, ways in which gesture and posture of the human form communicate meaning. The final section concludes with a cross cultural exploration of death and memory from Neolithic mortuary culture to more recent depictions of aging, sickness and grieving.