Curated by Brendan Griebel and Jude Griebel
For years, we have acquired examples of crafted bodies as part of our private museum collection, a research bank for our careers in anthropology and the visual arts. In 2017, we opened the Museum of Fear and Wonder in a repurposed army barracks outside of Bergen, Alberta, to house and share our gathered archive of historic craftworks. The exhibition Care and Wear: Bodies Crafted for Harm and Healing critically reassesses a selection from this collection through presentation within a contemporary art gallery. Attempting to sidestep the authoritative voice inherent to more traditional and colonial forms of museum exhibition, this presentation at Esker Foundation is less a definitive statement, than the initiation of a conversation surrounding past understandings of the body at a critical moment when bodily experience and creative output are being actively redefined through technology, AI, and the digital realm.
This exhibition looks at two key roles of the crafted body: care and wear. From a young age, many children are guided into the gentle handling of humans through dolls and anthropomorphic playthings. Professional practices and procedures take place on manikins as training for genuine extensions of medical and therapeutic comfort. While some crafted bodies are used as tools for healing and empathy, others are designed as objects to be degraded. While the binary of care and wear helps frame this exhibition, the reality is that the objects rarely fall squarely to one side or the other. The physical and emotional patina evident on these objects attests to the many, varied lives they have impacted and been part of in their passage through time; and the objects themselves are shaped through cycles of collective use and mending, which often blurs their character, authorship, and intended purpose.
The objects in this exhibition have mostly been created by unknown craftspeople, custom produced by niche firms and factories during periods of production that still required skilled hands for making. The sense of mystery surrounding their origins is also part of their allure. Someone in the past transmuted materials into a story about corporeal experience, and though names and circumstances may have faded, we are left with a unique window into their world and insights to ponder. Despite being functional pieces optimized to serve specific roles, many of the objects in this collection span multiple disciplines and traditions of making. The medical and toy industries, for example, used overlapping techniques for building bodies, inspired by similar goals of product durability, affordability, and aesthetic appeal. Across disciplines, strategies for articulating human likeness from inanimate materials have been mimicked, shared, and improved upon as part of a collective effort to build sturdier and more accurate representations of the body.
The dialogue between people, materials, and identity changed through the process of industrialization as machines became the new manufacturers of anatomy. In most cases, human hands no longer shape the surrogate bodies society uses to learn about being human. The mechanization of body-making removes the human touch that allows for inconsistency and difference—the slip of a brush stroke, the application of lip color a shade too bright, one eye made slightly larger than the other. Today, mass-produced surrogate bodies are pumped out in perfect imitation of each other, becoming devoid of the uniqueness that defines individuals. In parallel, many of us have been shaped through technology in the present digital age. Ideas of personhood and identity have decoupled from the physical body, and have spread across the myriad online platforms, handles, and avatars that many of us use to extend our global reach. The experience of being somebody, without a body, is often the new foundation of our reality.
Curating this exhibition has challenged us to even further recognize how these crafted representations of human physiology can become a source for exclusion. The process has highlighted the difficult realities about what kind of bodies are selected to represent “universal” human experiences—whether it be dental surgery, childbirth, or non-therapeutic aggressions—and what bodies are systemically omitted. In considering these objects, we hope to reflect upon, critically question, and inspire improvement in the social norms that surround our choices when defining humanity through inanimate materials. The lack of representation in the objects exhibited here is also part of this conversation. We hope this exhibition will be a catalyst for discussion with many additional voices that will continue to enrich our thinking surrounding the crafted body.
Brendan Griebel and Jude Griebel
The Museum of Fear and Wonder