Which is more unsettling: a sculpture that depicts an artistic interpretation of the human body, one that would be utterly terrifying if it came to life? Or a sculpture that is eerily realistic, as if it was already alive? It’s a question one can’t help but wonder while wandering through the Met Breuer’s new exhibit, Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300-Now).
“We wanted to actually start questioning what we had, as art historians, and what the general public also understand as this ‘perfect’ human figure,” said co-curator Sheena Wagstaff, explaining why the exhibit begins with a room of classical Greek statues, and a series of work challenging the tropes that make them so recognizable—mainly that they are white, or unpainted (something which Wagstaff points out was a bit of a fallacy. The Greek statues were originally polychromed, or colored with paint), and in peak physical form.
Featuring 120 works that span 700 years of art history, what makes the show such a fascinating display is not necessarily the individual pieces exhibited (although they are uniquely interesting). Rather, it is the way in which they are displayed that gets the mind going.
“I’ve never done a show which crosses time this way, let alone from the historic to the contemporary,” co-curator Luke Syson said, mentioning how this one was of the most challenging exhibit he has ever worked on. “How to make each object historically and geographically situated, and at the same time understanding what its larger sort of meta-historical meaning might be, was really a huge task. We were asking ourselves to think beyond the traditional mode of art historical research and into something which was more about imagination.”
Of course, one’s imagination can’t help but going to dark places with this exhibit, especially when an entire room of it is dedicated to reclining bodies, a few of which outwardly reference death. Then there are the pieces—like Marc Quinn’s Self, which features real blood, or Thomas Southwood Smith’s “Auto-Icon” of Jeremy Bentham, a wax figured of the philosopher that houses his real skeleton—which completely blur the line between real and replica. It’s a little macabre, it’s a lot creepy, but ultimately Like Life is an engrossing exploration of humanity, and weirdly, what it is to exist, to be alive.
“The definition of a work of art isn’t one that can be limited by what you traditionally see in an art museum,” Syson said of what he hopes people will take away from the exhibit. “And that you don’t have to have learned a vocabulary for art…all we need to be able to do is look at each other.”
Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300-Now) is now open at the Met Breuer, and runs through July 22