The Body as a Complex System

August 2022

Artists have investigated the temporality, contingency and instability of the body, and have explored the notion that identity is ‘acted out’ within and beyond cultural boundaries

(Tracey Warr)

Cultural notions of the body are in flux—that much is a truism. In operating within the times, artists inexorably imbue works with the quality of the zeitgeist (and thus parallel sociocultural boundaries). Throughout every social conception of body-as-identity, our embodied selves have ceaselessly mediated sensory exposure. This is therefore an experience subject to change, as the embodied self continues to evolve. The result: imbalance; instability; temporality.

The body is a complex system. Anything outside the system confines is the environment, which presses up against a boundary accessible through use of an interface. The body is not a closed system—there are inputs and outputs, which are needed in deferring entropic forces. These interfaces colour our perception of the world at large, shape our ongoing development, and leave a trace. A closed system could self-sustain indefinitely, but a complex system cannot be modelled; not while it remains contingent on relationships to the external world.

A rich creative practice exists within this space. Practitioners investigate the inconstant embodiment—not just conceptually, but also in adopting the body as a mode of creation. This can manifest in performance, in gestural acts, or even in the attempt to obfuscate all trace of touch. In every case, artists necessarily engage with the cultural dimension. The works included hereafter will attempt to contextualise the theoretical concepts discussed, and critically situate themselves within our present knowledge. Expect analysis on the nature of bodily experience, challenging conventions from self-definition to bioethics.

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In his final work, Galileo recalls an anecdote. A large marble column is stored lengthwise, supported by two piers. After some time, it occurs to a mechanic that a third support may be necessary to bear the weight. Months later, this is where the column splits: one side had sunken and eroded over time, causing half the beam to protrude without support. “Under these circumstances the body therefore behaved differently from what it would have done if supported only upon the first beams;” the intervention itself proving to be a source of bodily contingency.

Produced in 2008 and housed in MoMA, this “Artificial Biological Clock” delves into a feminist read of the critical posthumanities. Explored are bioethics, cultural notions of ‘readiness’, and the radical technologising of conception. Revital Cohen has crafted a clock that evaluates physical, psychological, and economic readiness; respectively sourcing data from her “gynaecologist, therapist, and bank”. This is novel horology, and a mechanised sculpture. Only once these variables coalesce in syzygy can the device awaken, and proclaim: “You may now conceive!”

The promises posed by new reproductive technologies such as IVF, test tube babies, and egg freezing are blurring perceptions of the reproductive cycle amongst women, and consequently, the age of conception is constantly being challenged. (Revital Cohen)

As far as the posthuman perspective is concerned: critically, Cohen does not merely relegate self-determination to this external organ (an externalised locus of control). Rather, she authorises it as an agent of sympoietic1 decision-making—a glass aorta willingly melded with the flesh as a similarly integral bodily component. If the integrity of the body is subject to change, that then begs the question: ‘Can this aforementioned contingency be directed at will?’ Especially given the work analyses the social fabric of reproductive technologies, could that be taken to suggest a determinist bent?

More narrowly than simply adopting a cybernetic organ, the use of conception is a very deliberate co-option of scholarship on the politics of living and dying. Foucault argues for a bipolar model of power over life; one separated by ‘the body as a machine’, and ‘the body imbued with the mechanics of life’. The first necessitates a bodily framing through which we can extract utility—i.e. the ‘controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production’. The second is a model of propagation, longevity, and birth. This is the pole under which the piece interacts with bio-political and bio-ethical matters. Artificial Biological Clock is the marriage of mechanised means and anatomic ovum: a model of birth and cognition.

Cohen argues that fertility is fragile. I would agree, but also find her work frames fragility as an emergent property of complex systems2. Emergence, of course, refers to attributes of the whole not reducible to components therein. ‘The whole’ refers to the body; or the reproductive system; or any infinitely regressed system of systems. From there we build our thesis: the body as a complex system. Fertility, of course, has never been ‘new’. As a biological process refined over millennia, we bear witness to immense intricacy. What is new is an interaction with the technologised interface; one in which we can extract, implant, cultivate, manipulate, and even pause the reproductive cycle. This is generative of a new ecology, that positions bodily instability as a process capable of intellectual hegemony. Much like Galileo and the marble columns, each new complexity adds a point of failure. Consequently, fragility.

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In 1972, Eleanor Antin produced a seminal work of feminist art. This was sculptural, photographic, conceptual, and performative; a cultural artefact produced with near contemptuous disregard for established boundaries of media. Over a period of thirty-seven days and a grid of one-hundred-and-forty-eight gelatin silver prints, we scrutinise her most intimate diary. Captured is the temporality of corporeal form and image, as Antin proceeds to shed ten pounds. “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture”.

Technically it is carried out in what can be considered the matter of archaic and classical Greek sculpture (peeling small layers off an overall body image until the image is gradually refined to the point of aesthetic satisfaction). (Eleanor Antin)

This presents itself as a lengthy meditation on diet, on weight, on image, and on culture. It is durational, and thus a reflection of bodily temporality. It is also a fixed snapshot, and thus a document that can resist temporality (an incomplete cartography). Id est: a timeline, once drawn, cannot evolve to reflect the present condition. It is incomplete by nature. In this paradox the work most profoundly interacts with time. How can the artist best manifest the body, a copy in motion? The body regenerates, defying entropic forces. The body can shed, mend, accumulate, deteriorate. And when captured photographically, it ceases to do any of these things.

Forty-five years later, the series was restaged in response to the loss of her husband. This was an act of ‘physically spoken’ grief, in which she committed to the loss of her body alongside her partner3. Whether reflected in that lived journey or not, this act implicitly charged the existing rendition with new meaning: what was produced as a reflection on bodily instability expands, and begins to retroactively address age. There is a tether established between the two, under which each iteration holds a semiotic impression of the other.

It is easy to frame the work as documentation of an idea, or as spent performance. You would find yourself in alignment with the curators of the Whitney Annual4, who rescinded her invitation to exhibit on grounds that it did not constitute sculpture. To do so would malign the aesthetic merit of the resolved work. Though she could merely have photographed either end of the journey, the emphasis on process is what generates the body at large5. The trace of this process is depicted, but not the technical manner of production. Importantly, the entire series cannot be comprehended at once. It simply stretches too far out of your field of view. In other words, you can step back and appreciate time (the scale of the installation), or step forward and appreciate space (the detail in the body); not both. This is where she becomes sculpture. In just one column, the body could be mapped photogrammetrically —but this discards the resolved notion of carving as an analogue to marble or stone.

In mode of presentation, a formal grid mounted upon the gallery wall, there emerges a quality of synoptic veillance6. Ultimately, this has been staged: by the artist, for the audience. The audience may be many, but they consume an image tempered by whim of the artist. This image is refined according to the identity assumed—the aesthetic ideal a dictum of cultural boundaries, and acted out in the resulting work. This is the nature of self-representation. Why would the state leader commission and disseminate a portrait, if not to push a political agenda? We then return to the determinist bent: the body is altered through force of will, but according to a cultural situation over which it had no control.

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The body is a complex system. It defies entropy. It can shed, mend, accumulate, deteriorate. It accepts inputs: sustenance and sight and smell. It returns outputs: excrement and thought and speech. In doing so, it becomes contingent on the outside world, and defies attempts to understand or model its inner function.

The body is a temporal system. It digests and it grows, it shrinks and it ages. It lives in instability. In remaining contingent on the outside world, it allows itself to be shaped by its situation. It remains capable of change and evolution, refined only with a further impression of a temporal past. It thrives within and beyond cultural boundaries.

For all my own beliefs towards posthumanism; determinism—I am deeply humanist in at least one sense. I do not believe in the divisibility of experience and bodily experience, nor of perception and bodily perception. They are one and the same. As the embodiment evolves, so therefore is your own subjective experience subject to change. This can also suggest a bilateral interaction with the cultural interface; not simply a stage for the acting out of identity, but an inhabited fluid that responds to the motion of its occupants.

Artists are such inhabitants. Whether through performance, the act of making, semantic content or otherwise; the idea of a body-in-flux is central to an entire field of creative practice. As an entirely subjective source of knowledge, there are endless permutations through which the subject can be framed. Accordingly, it is only reasonable to anticipate the further production of richly considered and culturally bounded works. Generative and contingent perspectives to follow.


  1. making-with; collaborative

  2. That is not to call it an inevitable property; especially given recent popular focus on the concept of antifragility (eg. the immune system)

  3. I can’t help but wonder if this manages to straddle a line between self-care and self-abuse

  4. For which the work was commissioned

  5. Similar to Fluxus artists (media-transgressive and process oriented)

  6. The observation of the few by the many