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    Abstraction and the Body
by Meredith Mendelsohn
Mark of Manhattan with "neo-tribal" tattoos and piercings
Ceramic male figure with scars and piercings
Nayarit, Mexico
300 BC-AD 300
Female figure with scars
Luba, Congo
19th century
Chombo pot figure covered with body-paint designs
Conibo peoples, Peru
The Enigma,
a tatoo artist, with wife Katzen
Henna designs on a Hindu bride's hands
A Maori man's facial tattoo
late 19th-early 20th century
You wouldn't think that tattoos, scars and piercings had much to do with the cool modernism of 20th-century abstract art, most often associated with the refined confines of the art museum. But in fact, abstraction has a long-standing relationship with the body, which might even be considered the first artistic medium -- as is well demonstrated by the latest blockbuster at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, "Body Art: Marks of Identity," Nov. 20, 1999-May 29, 2000. North African cave paintings from 10,000 years ago show figures covered with decorative patterns, and mummies dating back to 2000 BC are covered with abstract tattoos.

Scarification, an ancient method of body decoration, is still practiced in several parts of the world. The show opens with a carving from 1930s Papua New Guinea depicting a man with scars on his head and belly. The scars appear as small, roundish bumps, and it's clear that these marks aren't merely a matter of decoration -- as the text panel explains, they indicate social status and power.

The scars are made by a process called cicatrization, in which clay or ash is rubbed into wounds to produce keloids. To the outsider, the neatly ordered, abstract designs seem empowering because they represent an ability to endure pain and control the body -- its healing process anyway.

Scarring isn't just a macho thing, though; it's so central to perceptions of beauty in certain cultures in Central Africa that men compare women without scars to fish and melons. Some of the abstract patterns are quite beautiful, and it doesn't do them justice to refer to them as scars -- they actually look more like permanent jewelry or beaded clothing.

Jewelry, which can be considered a sort of low-relief on the body (not unlike scarring), appears in the exhibition mostly in conjunction with piercings. From pre-Columbian Central America to the "neo-tribal" hipsters of today, the abstract shapes of nose plugs, hoops, elongating earlobe rings, geometrically arranged studs and the like closely resemble abstract shapes of modern sculptures. You could even say that artists from Arp to Noguchi are duplicating jewelry on a large scale.

It's no surprise that body painting, though perhaps tamer than other forms of body art, is generally absent from Western culture (except for face make-up) -- it's simply inconvenient to be covered with gunk. But you can see why body painting is used as a spiritual vehicle -- the corporeality that defines humanness fades behind the abstract patterns of paint. The exhibition highlights the Conibo people of eastern Peru, who completely cover themselves and their homes with snakeskin-like geometries, based on their belief that the universe was once patterned like a boa constrictor.

The show extensively features the art of tattooing, which, like body painting, often covers large areas of skin. As Captain Cook and other 19th-century explorers of the South Pacific discovered, men in the Marquesas Islands tattooed their entire bodies (faces and hands included) with geometric designs that look a bit like abstract sea creatures.

Tattooing has died out among many Polynesian peoples, presumably due to the overbearing influence of Western culture. But many of the abstract designs popular in the U.S. are derived from South Seas tattooing traditions, as is made clear in a display on Flash art (tattoo designs) and photos of urban kids in their neo-tribal garb, as well as a film about current-day tattooing.

Needless to say, the attention to tattooing in the museum reflects the recent renaissance of body art among urban bohemians, a development that itself reflects a new consciousness of global, "world" culture.

At the same time, contemporary tattooing fittingly resonates with postmodern theory regarding the body. The "sleeve" tattoo, for example, has an amazing ability to challenge the perception of the individual as a unified subject -- entirely covering the arm, it fragments the body in a way that Picasso never imagined. Henna body painting, done with a semi-permanent die traditionally used by Hindu women to decorate their hands for special occasions, has a similar effect.

If we can talk at all about an intersection between body art and modern abstraction, it would be in the boundlessness that full-body tattooing or painting shares with the allover painting of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock. The body is no longer itself, but a walking, breathing abstraction -- an action painting come to life.

MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.

In the bookstore:
Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art

Body Art: Performing the Subject

Body and the East: From the 1960s to the Present

Don Ed Hardy: Tattooing the Invisible Man: Bodies of Work, 1955-1999