BODY OF GLASS - AFTER CARAVAGGIO, dual video and stereo audio and water installation, the Johanniterkirche, Feldkirch, Austria, 2006. Curator: Eva Jakob

The Body We Own and the Body We Are.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes, “my body is the fabric into which all objects are woven, and it is the instrument of my comprehension.”

To treat the body as concept is to turn both body and concept into objects or things. This occurrence frequently happens both in real life as well as, and even more so, either consciously or not, in art. If we take this consideration to its extreme, people who seem most body centered, that is people who perform outstanding heroic body acts, like the most challenging extreme sports for instance, may be treating their bodies as things, tools or instruments – the body therefore serves as a means to an end. In order to do this, some beat the body into shape through aggressive and uncompromising training – body-builders and fashion models here come to mind. On another level, others train the body with adamant discipline, as if to civilize it, or perhaps redeem it – one can here mention extreme self-sacrifice and containment to escape the hands of the Devil. The body can therefore at extreme times become the site of a massive struggle bringing about heightened joy or abyssimal torment with countless variations in between. But have we ever stopped to consider the following fundamental question – “should the body be the Object or the Subject of experience?”

Body of Glass is a work that seeks to address this issue. It is aesthetically inspired by two of the most important paintings by Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio, from his period in Malta around the early 1600’s, namely, the Beheading of St. John and the St. Jerome. These works hang at the Oratorio di San Giovanni in the unique Co-Cathedral of St. John’s in Malta’s capital, Valletta. Reflecting the same chiaroscuro idiom, this video work makes references to the human body as being both a performer and a performative object capable of providing spectacle. In this work, gesture and action have a rhythmic and melodic structure where body parts play off each other to create sound and texture within the church’s environment.

Like the old woman, the youth and the bearded nobleman witnessing the spectacle of the Beheading of St. John in Caravaggio’s masterpiece, the visitors to this installation are placed in a voyeuristic seat in order to compare and contrast the executioner’s tense muscles in the decisive moment of the beheading with time’s effect on the susceptible body of the elderly St. Jerome – a continuous juxtaposition of duration and endurance, only this time set to the background rhythm of body sounds.

Just as in Caravaggio’s paintings, Body of Glass not only makes use of the body as a medium of spectacle, sculptural component and primal material, but also takes the concept further and addresses the body as a unique object, which, because of its cultural history, has the ability to transgress its physicality.

This video work therefore explores the notion of the body as instrument of conception, a fragile and yet resilient object, capable of a wide variety of transformation and re-invention through the process of physical self-interaction. As in its same title, Body of Glass also treads the obscure border line between conventional opposites such as resilience and vulnerability, music and noise, beauty and repulsiveness, highlighting the phenomenological distinction between the body we own – as the object of experience – and the body we are – the subject of experience. Modern science habitually focuses on the study of the body as object, as an external entity about which one wants to gather as much knowledge as possible. In art, on the other hand, an increasing attention for the aesthetic experience has meant that the subjective experience of the viewer has become the focus.

Flesh is an ambiguous and fragile territory, where we can, generally speaking, investigate the fluid boundary between being and not being, presence and absence. Where does the possibility of thinking of the body as an object begin and end? If each creative gesture is the source of its own extinction, what keeps the body going? What is it that makes this locomotion go on? Is it an almost masochistic will to endure? Are we literally stripped down to the skin or are we about to be skinned? 

BODY OF GLASS - AFTER CARAVAGGIO, dual video and stereo audio and water installation, the Johanniterkirche, Feldkirch, Austria, 2006. Curator: Eva Jakob

BODY OF GLASS - AFTER CARAVAGGIO, video and stereo audio and mirror installation, Galerie der Schwarze Punkt, Konstanz, Germany, 2006. Curator: Dr. Johann-Peter Regelmann

Body of Glass (After Caravaggio)  (2006).

Drawing inspiration from Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of St John” (1608), Vince Briffa’s powerful single screen video work “Body of Glass” adopts the painting’s dramatic chiaroscuro lighting to evoke the fragility, temporality and physicality of the human body. Initially trained as a painter and sculptor, but working with video since the early 1990’s, Briffahas a deep understanding of image and sound.  “Body of Glass” is a masterful blend of carefully choreographed camerawork, controlled lighting and stereo sound. The work makes effective use of high contrast monochrome images, presenting close-up details of the male body to“make references to the human body as both performer and a performative object, capable of spectacle.” [1]

“Body of Glass” operates within a range of co-existing dualities. It skilfully exploits one of video’s most interesting and curious contractions; the medium’s capacity to portray and present the intimate and the personal, whilst at the same time establishing a distance and sense of detachment in the viewer. We are shown personal details and enter into a private world of tactile images and yet are denied the crucial sense of touch- we are always behind the glass, and yet we are free to draw on our own memories and experiences.   In “Body of Glass “ the scale and impact of the fragmented human body- hands, skin, facial features, hair, is presented in ways that simultaneously suggest vulnerability and resilience.  The artists’ decision to drain the colour from the image deliberately distances us from the subject of the camera’s gaze, abstracting the image and generalising the details- the image sheds its specificity to symbolise all men and by extension, all humanity, and although composed of particular and specific moments and details, it becomes timeless.

The soundtrack echoes and enhances this image treatment, supporting the detailed fragmentary close-up camera work and montage by presenting percussive acoustic patterns. There are no spoken sounds or language- no words are uttered. We are given sounds made directly by the body; hands clapping rhythmically, fingers snapping, the tongue clicking, skin on skin, tissue against tissue- the sound of the flesh itself. This sound has the capacity to engage us very directly. Although sounds are mediated in a similar way to images and we know them to be recordings of the original activities, we experience them more viscerally- they occupy our space more convincingly. The images remain beyond us within the screen, but they are lifted by the power and agency of the sound.

Caravaggio’s masterpiece is housed in St John’s co-cathedral in Briffa’s native city Valletta, and he has clearly drawn inspiration from the painting, its imagery and its powerful and evocative technique of light and shade. But “Body of Glass” also knowingly references the more recent traditions of artists’ video in its representation of the human body, both as an “instrument” and the subject of performance. “Body of Glass” can be seen to relate directly to the early video work of American artists such as Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman and Joan Jonas who explored the phenomenological relationships between the body, the electronic image and physical and emotional space in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The high contrast monochrome images of “Body of Glass” further reinforce this reference and provide an important context for the work.  In these early works the artists often performed directly to the camera, creating an ‘on screen’ persona that drew from broadcast television but also appealed directly to the viewer. Acconci, writing about his approach to video in 1976, described the complex and ambiguous confrontation between the viewer in the gallery and the human subject on the video screen:

My image breaks the face-to-face contact: The viewer faces a screen of me, an image under glass, me-in-a-fish-bowl. Rather than being in a situation with me, the viewer is in front of a situation about me.  

In order to keep up my image, I should give up my person. I could be dead- and therefore have no recourse but this ghost of myself…I’m here to give you information, that’s all you need to know, you’ll never get me.[2]

In Body of Glass the viewer identifies simultaneously with the physicality of the image (and sound) and the subject of the gaze of the camera, and with the fact that they themselves possess a similar body, subject to the same physical laws of gravity and time.

Briffa’s work clearly references and acknowledges its antecedents, but also extends them. “Body of Glass” is very clearly a contemporary piece, drawing on traditions from earlier work and developing and extending these themes into the digital era. The work is designed for large-scale projection, deliberately approaching the cinematic to provide a more immersive experience. This expanded field, when combined with the spatial effects of the stereophonic soundtrack engage the viewer in an intimate reflexive environment- a personal space for the contemplation of the core reality of our existence, our own simultaneously fragile yet remarkably resilient and enduring physical form.

Chris Meigh-Andrews, London, Oct. 2008.


[1] Vince Briffa, artists’ statement.

[2] Vito Acconci, “10-Point Action Plan for Video”, Video Art, Ira Schneider and Beryl Korot, eds, Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovitch, New York and London, 1976.