Berenice Olmedo, CsO, 2020, polyurethane, plaster protectors, fiberglass bandages, 45 1/4 × 4 3/4 × 3 1/2".

Berenice Olmedo, CsO, 2020, polyurethane, plaster protectors, fiberglass bandages, 45 1/4 × 4 3/4 × 3 1/2".

Berenice Olmedo

Can there be a human body without organs? That is the question Mexico City–based artist Berenice Olmedo pointedly raises with her installations and objects. Laid out across the floor in her recent exhibition “CsO, haecceidad” were pneumatic splints made of translucent plastic—orthopedic devices used in poor countries such as Mexico or India to immobilize broken legs or arms. Commonplace medical devices, they nonetheless have something organic, even human, about them. Here, weighed down by bags filled with sand, they were connected by tubes to a machine that slowly inflated and deflated them. The air being forced into them raised the makeshift contraptions resting limply on the floor—now and then one heard a faint crackling noise—until they stood arrayed in the room like living beings, their shapes reminiscent of legs with feet.

In the next room, replicas of human leg stumps—some based on 3D scans that were used to make prostheses, others on their handmade counterparts—hung from the ceiling. Covering them like skirts were clear plastic bags of the type normally used to protect injured limbs while a patient is washed. Fluttering in the soft breeze like nimble-footed dancing silhouettes, a bit shabby and not especially durable, they exuded an air of vulnerability and more than a whiff of cruelty. In the next room were five similar replicas of leg stumps made as molds for prosthesis manufacturers, but in contrast with the first set these projected from the walls like enlarged penises, radiating phallic aggressiveness and fetishistic eroticism. They evoked not only archaic fertility symbols but also the sexualized objects of the Surrealists, still the uncontested masters of the fetish in visual art.

The exhibition’s title, “CsO, haecceidad,” was apropos. Haecceity (as the title’s Latin term translates to English) is a word coined by medieval philosopher Duns Scotus, meaning “thisness”—a property of individuation and identity. CsO stands for corps sans organes, “body without organs,” a concept that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari elaborated on the basis of an idea first proposed by Surrealist writer Antonin Artaud, creator of the Theater of Cruelty. In Deleuze and Guattari’s book Mille plateaux (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980), the body without organs, or BwO, figures as a zone without defined organization, a provocative embodiment by antithesis of the powerful social, gendered, cultural, and historical conditioning that informs our image of our own bodies and their organs. Not unlike Michel Foucault in his studies into the historical treatment of the mentally and physically ill, Deleuze and Guattari examined the ways in which modern society coerces its members to subject the body and its organs to normalization and self-optimization; bodies that will not or cannot conform to this standard are branded as “disabled” and ostracized. The pair additionally describe the blurring of the distinction between body and machine fueled by the infiltration of technology into all domains of life, anticipating, despite some differences, Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg.

Olmedo herself teaches a workshop for children whom our society labels, and effectively still excludes, as differently abled. She is acutely aware that the body’s capacity to rid itself of its organs is limited. But Olmedo’s art, as critic and curator Dorothée Dupuis argues in the exhibition’s press release, is “a liminal domain, a ‘portal’ where CsO can be detected as a possible emancipation from the relentless rationality that human life signifies.” Olmedo’s work leads us to meditate on the normalization and organization of our bodies. With a nod to Artaud’s ideas for his theater, these “cruel” installations are compelling examples of Olmedo’s disturbing vision.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.