The Body in the Work of Nicola L. and Christina Ramberg

Posted on 1 October 2014 by Liverpool Biennial

Christina Ramberg, Untitled (torso with pants), 1982, detail

Christina Ramberg, Untitled (torso with pants), 1982, detail

The body has always represented more than its physical and anatomical existence. It is a cultural site of conflict and contradiction: from de-sexed sculptures in Ancient Greece to the depiction of monstrous bodies in England’s seventeenth century pamphlet culture reflecting concerns about female agency and genetic transmission. The work of Nicola L. and Christina Ramberg on display at  The Old Blind School as part of Liverpool Biennial’s A Needle Walks into a Haystack similarly presents the body as a cultural construction in which to interrogate ideas of femininity, performance and transformation.

In Christina Ramberg’s work, the body is characterised by restriction and restraint. The female subjects of her illustrations are bound and confined by structured corsets, underwear and make-up. Ramberg’s sketches of dresses and shoes are reminiscent of a dress rehearsal at a bustling West-End theatre, as rehearsing actors and limbering dancers step into their assigned roles and begin the performance. The body becomes a tool of pretence; clothing and the application of make-up serve to enable the disguise of femininity.

The faces of Ramberg’s subjects are noticeably absent; the subjects are frequently either turned away, or focus is placed upon a headless body instead. Her female subjects become mere mannequins - decorative, ornamental and silenced. Ramberg questions the apparent social importance placed upon female beauty and attractiveness, overriding interior qualities of intellect and character.

Christina Ramberg, Hand, Handkerchief, 1971

Christina Ramberg, Untitled (nutty, chewy), 1968

The divide between interiority and exteriority is perhaps best articulated in Ramberg’s untitled work ( nutty chewy, 1968) which depicts an advertisement for sweets littered with words of persuasion and enticement such as ‘chocolatey’ and ‘chewey’. The deceptive advertisement is undercut by the appearance of contrary language including ‘stage’, ‘landscapes inside’ and ‘empty shell’. Ramberg suggests that an illusionary surface, clearly in reference to her other works concerning gender roles, conceals a vast array of emotion and complexity.

Nicola L., White Foot Sofa, 1968 and La Femme Commode, 1969-2014

Nicola L. describes her installation Atmosphere in White, which includes a foot-shaped leather seat, a head-shaped bookcase and a chest of drawers resembling a woman, as ‘a sort of dream-memory’. It is perhaps not a coincidence then, that the body in Atmosphere in White is made alien and unfamiliar. Nicola L.’s depiction of the body is distinctly fetishised: the body is made pristine and aesthetic and becomes a source of detached utility, as furniture, rather than a cohesive organism. Nicola L. attempts to create a dream-like landscape in which the self and the body become separated from their function and, thus, are able to transform.

For Nicola L., the body has infinite possibilities and can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The stark use of the colour white makes the body unknowable, and ‘other’, which encourages the audience to attach their own memories and dream sequences to the work. The artist compels the audience to make the work their own. Her use of the colour white, as a sort of blankness, contrasts with Christina Ramberg’s vivid use of the colour red. Red immediately evokes a number of associations - love, romance, menstruation, danger, lipstick and passion. In both Hand, Hankerchief (1971) and Untitled (torso with pants, 1982), Ramberg uses the colour to draw attention to the image’s feminine aspects: nail varnish and the concealed wish to wear trousers, rather than a voluptuous skirt, are marked in red. While Nicola L. attempts to disrupt the audience’s associations with the physical body, making it unknown and peculiar, Ramberg uses the audience’s preconception of the body (the associations of sex and birth with the colour red) to interact with the audience’s preconceived ideas of ‘the feminine’.

Christina Ramberg, False Bloom, 1971

Both Christina Ramberg and Nicola L. continue the tradition of the artistic exploration of the body through their work. Art and anatomy have always had a peculiar connection, evidenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1490) and the medical drawings of Rembrandt (The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632), in which artists have continually sought to question, and interrogate, the limits of humanity. The works of Nicola L. and Christina Ramberg continue this dialogue about what it means to be human, the limits of corporeality and the complications of representation. 

By Holly Rimmer-Tagoe

Nicola L. and Christina Ramberg's work is on display at The Old Blind School until 26 October as part of Liverpool Biennial 2014

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