Marilène Oliver


Marilène Oliver

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1977 Born in UK

Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design
BA (Hons) in Fine Art, Printmaking and Photo media

Royal College of Art, London
M A (RCA) in Fine Art Printmaking

Artist in Residence, Takumi Studio, Gifu, Japan

Fine Art Digital Co-ordinator, Royal College of Art, London

Visiting Lecturer, Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design, London

Visiting Lecturer, Brighton University

Visiting Lecturer, The Ruskin School of Fine Art, Oxford University
Visiting Lecturer, Royal Academy, London

Visiting Lecturer, Royal College of Art, London

MPhil, Royal College of Art

MSc Imaging, University of Edinburgh

Assistant Professor of Printmaking, University of Alberta

Solo Exhibitions

Under the Surface, McMullen Gallery, Edmonton

Tagged, Rio de Janeiro

Corps de Filet, Halle à Marée, Cancale, France
Confusào, Edinburgh Printmakers, Edinburgh

Le Corps Transcende, HUG Geneva

Carne Vale, Beaux Arts, London

Digital Subjects/Digital Objects, Riverhouse Arts Centre, Walton-on-Thames
Dervishes, Herrmann and Wagner, Berlin, Germany

Le Grand Jeu, Beaux Arts, London

Selected Works, The Hospital, Covent Garden, London
Family Portrait, Howard Gardens Gallery, Cardiff
When Two Worlds Collide, Beaux Arts, London

Intimate Distances, SPHN Galerie, Berlin, Germany
Intimate Distances, Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham

Intimate Distances Beaux Arts, London

Group Exhibitions

22 Printmakers, Standpoint Gallery, London

Screensavers, Lauderdale House, Archway, London

Now Vision, Victoria and Albert museum, London

Divine Expiration, Takumi Studio, Gifu City, Japan

Never Look Here, Foyles Gallery, London

ART2002, Beaux Arts, London
Beaux Arts, London

Print Open, Invited artist, RWA, Bristol
Summer Exhibition, The Royal Society, London
Gods Becoming Men, Frissarius Museum, Athens, Greece
Beaux Arts, London
The Magic Inside, The Science Museum, London
Technique, Royal College of Art

Art 2005, Islington Design Centre
Royal Academy Summer Show, London
Young Masters, Art Fortnight, London
Summer 2005, Beaux Arts, London
MiniArttextil 2005, Como, Italy
Oliver & Perucchetti, Beaux Arts, London

Acts, Kulturhof Flachsgasse, Speyer, Germany
Royal Academy Summer Show, London
Summer 2006, Beaux Arts, London
Kunst-Körperlich Kunsthalle Dominikanerkirche, Osnabrück, Germany
Medicine and Art, Kunst Museum Ahlen, Germany
Universal Leonardo, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford
Sculpture Now, Hermann and Wagner, Berlin

Art 2007, Islington Design Centre
Seen and Unseen, The Hub, Sleaford
Productive Matter, Café Gallery, Southwark
Interim Exhibition, Royal College of Art, London
Through the Looking Glass, Building 1000, London
Have A Good Nose, Kunstverein Bad Salzdetfurth E.V. Bodenburg, Germany
Diagnose Art, Kunstspreice Wurzburg, Wurzburg, Germany
Royal Academy Summer Show, London
Summer 2007, Beaux Arts, London

Summer 2008, Beaux Arts, London
East Wing Collection 8, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

The Space Between, The Crypt, St Pancras, London
RCA Degree Show, Royal College of Art, London
Print Open (invited artists), RWA, Bristol
Summer 2009, Beaux Arts, London

Summer 2010, Beaux Arts, London

The Physical Center, Guest Projects, London

Perception of Promise: Biotechnology, Society and Art, Edmonton Musuem of Art, Canada
Digital Aesthetic 3, The Harris Musuem, Preston
Le Corps en Question(s) curated by Isabelle Van Grimde, Galerie UQAM, Montreal, Canada

2011 – 2013
Life Science Fiction Reality Otzi 20, Südtiroler Archäologiemuseum – Bozen

Tree Exhibition, Beaux Arts London

2014 – 2015
It’s Only Human, Mass MoCA, Boston

Summer Exhibition, Beaux Arts London

Summer Exhibition, Beaux Arts London
Le Corps in Question(s)/ The Body in Question(s) at the University of Alberta Museums Galleries at Enterprise Square

Homo Sapiens, Beaux Arts London

Summer Exhibition, Beaux Arts London

RA Summer Exhibition 2018, Royal Academy of Art, London

Print is Deep, Santander, Spain

Re-Stitched and Re-Touched: Materializing the Medical Data Body, International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago

RA Summer Exhibition 2018, Royal Academy of Art, London

Summer Exhibition, Beaux Arts Gallery, London

5th International Print Triennial, Jyväskylä Art Museum, Finland

Embodiment, Espace Corps Secrets – 1881, rue Saint-André – suite 302, Montréal

Public Collections

The Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham
Fundación Sorigué, Lleida, Spain
Suttie Centre, Aberdeen
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The Wellcome Trust, London


The Times, page 5, 30th May
Friday Review, The Independent, 1st June
Bizarre Magazine, August
Printmaking Today, page 5, Autumn

Art Review, December / January
Art Tomorrow, Edward Lucie-Smith, Vilo International, October

Jeanette Winterson, Catalogue Essay, Beaux Arts
The Art Newspaper, no.139, September
Wallpaper, page 245, October
Printmaking Today, page 21, Autumn

Familienfotos aus dem Kernspin-Tomografen ART-Das Kunstmagazin
Intimate Distances Exhibition Guide, Kunsttermine, page 30, January
Körperscheiben, taz Berlin, 21st January
Ungewöhnliches Abbild einer Familie (M. Lintl), Neues Deutschland, 23rd January
Erkundungen an verschlossenen Orten Berliner Zeitung, Kulturkalender,
Blick unter die Haut Berlin Live, Berliner Morgenpost, page 23, 15th January
Geisterfamilie (R. Preuß), Der Tagesspiegel, Ticket No. 3, page 10, 15th January
Exhibition Guide artery Berlin – Berlin Gallery Guide, January/February
Intimate Distances The Exberliner, No.12, page 102, January
Intimate Distances Prinz magazine, February
Marilène Oliver: (Skulpturen) Highlights Kunst, tip Berlin page 102, February
Kunstforum International, page 230, February
Die Welt, 13th February
Marilène Oliver: Intimate Distances (R: Berg), Kunstforum International, vol. 169, page 230-231, March/April
Marilène Oliver: (Skulpturen) tip Berlin, March
Marilène Oliver: (Skulpturen) tip Berlin, April
Printmaking Today, page 10/11, Summer
Metro, Metro Life, page 17, 27th July
Evening Post, page 21 2nd September, page 3, 30th July
The Independent, The Information page 13, 24th July
The Guardian, The Guide, 21st August
Leonardo Magazine, Issue 37:5, Artist Statement, Autumn

Daily Telegraph, page 19, 1st June
Evening Standard, page 18, 20th June
Eine Rekonstruktion des menschlichen Körpers (J. Schindelbeck),
Speyerer Morgenpost, 10th October
Akt-Ein Spiegel persönlicher Wahrnehmung (S. Mertel), Die Rheinpfalz

Michael Symmons Roberts, Catalogue Introduction, Beaux Arts
Prints Now by Gill Saunders & Rosie Miles, V&A Publication, Spring
Kunst Körperlich, Körper Künstlich, Osnabrück

Diagnosis [Art] Contemporary Art Reflecting Medicine Wienand
Research RCA Royal College of Art
Rising Stars of the contemporary art world The Times, 28th June
Amelia Jones, Catalogue Essay, Beaux Arts

Awards, Prizes & Commissions

Now Vision, Cannon Photography Prize

Alf Dunn Prize
Printmaking Today Prize

Sound response by Max Richter to Intimate Distances

Art meets Science Award, Highly Commended

Matthew Hay Commission, The Suttie Centre, Aberdeen University
The London Original Print Fair Prize, Royal Academy of Art Summer Exhibition

The Arts Club Charitable Trust Fund Award, Royal Academy of Art Summer Exhibition

Broadcasts, Talks and Presentations

FAB (Fernsehen aus Berlin) Kultur-Check, Ausstellungsbeitrag, 22nd January
RBB Kulturradio (M. Groschupf), 3:15pm, 28th January

Putting the bits and pieces back together again, RSA, 23rd November
The Great Lady. Discussion with Francis Wells, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, 31st October

Resurrecting the Digitised Body: The use of the ‘Scanned In’ body for making artworks. Presentation at Eva, London, 13th July
Leonardo’s Great Lady. Discussion with Marilène Oliver and Francis Wells, presented by Geoff Watts on Leading Edge, Radio 4, 26th July

Patricia Singh 2013

Tree Exhibition Essay by Patricia Singh

Marilène Oliver In 2001 in a moment of rare agreement, we purchased Marilène Oliver’s Royal College graduation piece, I Know You Inside Out. The sculpture involves an African‐American who had given his body to science in exchange for a ‘lesser’ death penalty. His body was frozen, sliced, photographed and uploaded on to the internet. Oliver transformed the images into a haunting, life‐sized sculpture arranged horizontally on acrylic plates which stands now in our lounge, a belligerent comment on two centuries of race relations.

Thirteen years later Oliver is living in Angola, a former hub of the slave trade. Dug Out employs digitally downloaded images of a woman’s CT scan. The lateral sections are laser cut, scorched, with the insides gouged out to form an African canoe. The woman is neither white nor black, but serves as a tortured response to the desperate poverty which the artist is now confronted with. Disturbing and beautiful, it makes one wonder if women can still give birth to hope. In contrast her painted and hand bleached photo image, Escondida, (feminine form of ‘hidden’ in Portuguese) is a privileged woman hidden in an enclosed garden of exotic plants. A scanned body is floating in a black background, a weightless void ripe for dreams, nightmares, superstitions, myths and rumours. Faced with the inequalities of the first and third world, this is the most autobiographical of Oliver’s new works. Buffalo Thorn is based on the magical tribal tradition where a body is swept with branches of a thorn tree to ensure a smooth entry into the spirit world.

Oliver’s now sizeable oeuvre has concentrated on translating medical imaging into art. Therein she has made her niche. Our understanding of physical ‘self’ in this digital age evolves just as quickly as the technology that surrounds us.

In 2004 she took part in an event called The Magic Inside at the Science Museum, which was a celebration to honour Sir Peter Mansfield FRS, the originator of the MRI scan.  Paying tribute to Sir Peter’s work at Nottingham University, Lord Sainsbury pointed out that Sir Peter had been funded for years while he worked on a project that few believed would come to anything before coming up with the greatest non‐ invasive diagnostic tool that medicine has had. Lord Sainsbury also praised a university where, in these days of increased faculty isolation, there was still a great deal of inter‐disciplinary activity. It is the fruitful and innovative crossover of science and art that has provided Oliver’s inspirational stimuli.

Nottingham University is where Oliver had herself and her family scanned for the installation at her opening exhibition for Beaux Arts, Intimate Distances (2003). As author Jeanette Winterson put it, “Marilène Oliver has taken technology ‐ in this case the MRI scan ‐ and used it to re‐invent the portrait. If art is about manipulating the surface to get underneath the surface, what better way than by scanning the inside of a body, and using the ghostly results to figure the subject inside out?”

Since then, Oliver has taken part in a wealth of exhibitions where medical imaging is driving new insights and analysis into the human condition. In 2006, she worked with Dr Francis Wells to create a 3D reconstruction of Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomical drawing, The Great Lady. A year later she worked with the museum where Otzi (the five thousand year‐old mummy found in the Alps) is installed. She was struck by the details of the maintenance routine, where each month he is sprayed with water, creating a fine mist on the surface of the mummified body. Oliver used a plot of these ice crystals as the genesis of a new extraordinary sculpture.

A new turn in Oliver’s work came with her exhibition Carne Vale (2010) following her time in Brazil. There she had become versed in the art of weaving beads and feathers into her medical imaging. This led to Dreamcatcher, which created such a stir in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition this year. Two other pieces; Split Petcetrix and Orixa were vividly described by Laura Cumming thus: “The female figure that bends backward in an improbable arc is fanning out into chapters, her layers like the leaves of a book revealing inner arteries and organs, described in glittering beads. She is hallucinating, spellbound, caught in a trance like those Brazilian Candomblé dancers who have whirled all night and are finally receiving ancestral spirits.”

Oliver’s artistic production is radical. She works with the precision that is needed to transcribe medical imaging and creates images that are highly provocative, intensely emotional and incredibly relevant.  Marilène herself sums up her modus operandi: “The more time I spend working with and through computers the more I feel the way I interact with others and even myself is changing; I definitely have both a physical and a virtual reality but I am not confident of who I am in the virtual reality‐  am I a digitized version of who I am in physical reality or someone very different..?

Patricia Singh

Laura Cummings 2010

‘I seek to reclaim the body from the contemporary medical and digital gaze in order to poetically subvert it’.’ Marilène Oliver

Scene One. The woman surrenders herself to the stark white tunnel of the MRI machine. The noise inside is cacophonous. Time passes with excruciating slowness as the machine records the inside of her body in sections – from head to toe, side to side, inch by inch.

Somewhere else the scans are issuing forth in a room she cannot see to be read by a radiographer she does not know. The woman may never set eyes on them herself. Whatever they show of her – nothing wrong, something wrong, an inkling of her future health – these images may be dense with medical data but they cannot reveal anything of her essential life, neither her inner nor her outer self. MRI scans offer no sort of portrait.

Scene Two. The artist thinks otherwise. She has come across the woman’s full body scan on a website developed by scientists as an open source of software to help other scientists. The dataset, as it is called, consists of ninety lateral scans. From these images, she can deduce the woman’s age (roughly the artist’s own), that she was married (there is a telltale indentation on the ring finger), that she had a tumour and must have been fearful inside that machine.  The woman has a name, Melanix, or at least her scans have that name. She even has an appearance.

Or rather the artist, Marilène Oliver, will bring forth that appearance. She downloads the scans, prints each cross-section on a sheet of transparent acrylic cut to the precise proportions of the woman’s body and then assembles them in the right order. She puts the woman’s body back together again; she remakes her.

And then she suspends this figure above a cloud of white ostrich feathers. Melanix floats weightless and delicate, her body reclining, arms above her head: a fragile sleeping beauty, dreaming among the clouds, poised forever in suspended animation.

Dreamcatcher is one of several works in Oliver’s new show that have their source in medical images: MRI, CT and PET scans. These scans have a strange status in her work, quite rare in contemporary art. On the one hand, they are a direct form of source material – rather like the photographs that underpin the portraits painted by venerable artists such as Chuck Close or Gerhard Richter. On the other hand, they function rather like genetic code. There is the fundamental data of each human being – this woman, that man – from which Oliver creates a life-sized figure; and then there is the new life, the new behaviour she gives it.

A woman tumbles from the sky, arms flailing as she falls. In fact she has been given not two but eight arms, like the Hindu goddess Durga, in the hope that she may catch others before they fall to their deaths. The figure stops short, frozen just above the ground; it is – she is? – spectral as a ghost, formed of translucent plastic.

Another figure arches backwards, like a graceful ballet dancer or an acrobat, her articulated form twinkling with thousands of tiny beads. A third splits open, revealing her innermost organs traced in glittering patterns, a full-bodied female presence fashioned of something soft and crimson and opening up, as it seems, into an embrace.

These sculptures are a long way from the original scans, a long way from hard data. They seem to be spinning off into fantasy. And perhaps they appear very distant from Oliver’s earliest works, now in public collections such as the Wellcome Institute and the Victoria and Albert Museum, which seemed so much closer to the medical images.

But my sense is that there is a deep and poetic connection.

One of Oliver’s first major works was Family Portrait in which the four figures of the artist, her father, mother and sister were derived from MRI scans silk-screened on to ninety clear acrylic sheets stacked in order. The figures were fugitive, appearing and disappearing according to where you stood to look at these transparent columns in which the human form was refracted as if through layers of glass.

Oliver reported that many viewers thought they were looking at figures of smoke. How apt, and how poignant because the artist’s family were all living in separate places since her parents’ divorce. Her mother had held out her hands during the MRI scan, ‘in the hope that ours would join hers’.

The four members of the family are there and not there. You can identify them, more or less, and even detect a certain family resemblance, but you can also see the gaps between these layers of prints, the spaces in which there is nothing at all. The datasets from which they are conjured are real and precise, but the reunion is a figment, a work of wishful thinking in which the family is brought together again as frozen chimera.

This beautiful installation gets its visual and metaphorical strength from Oliver’s singular way of working, the way she uses flat prints to make fully rounded figures. Her medium is fundamentally two-dimensional – prints stacked or interleaved – but partakes of three dimensions.

An extraordinary fact about Oliver is that she sees herself as a printmaker, and not a sculptor. That she is able to interpret scans, to imagine them in aggregate as full-body forms, puts her on a par with the most expert radiographer. That the prints she then makes accumulate into figures that closely resemble sculptures by any definition seems less important to her than the idea of delving into the computer to rescue datasets trapped in the digital realm and body them forth in the world of actual people.

Lately, Oliver’s works have cease to be portraits by other means – of her family, of herself kissing her future husband – and are now approaching something more like archetypes. The sleeping beauty, the goddess, the carnival queen: all are reinterpreted, or reinvented, via her hybrid of sculpture and print.

Since moving to Rio with her geo-scientist husband, Oliver has absorbed all sorts of aspect of Brazilian culture. In Brazil, she writes, ‘I have seen much I covet: samba queen costumes made of thousands of ostrich feathers, a ruby laden bloody Christ, tree trunks painted and decorated to commemorate the Indian Xingu dead, mysterious candomblé rituals.’ All leave their traces in this show.

The female figure bending backwards in an improbable arc fans out into chapters, her layers like the leaves of a book, revealing the inner arteries and organs described in glittering beads. She is hallucinating, spellbound, caught in a trance like the candomblé dancer receiving ancestral spirits. She is also Melanix freed from the destiny revealed in her medical scan. No matter how impersonal the technology, no matter how theoretical the science that supports them, Oliver’s works are full of potent dreams.

And though it takes the most sophisticated artificial intelligence to acquire the data, the very simplest technology transforms it into art. Oliver prints in ink or acrylic, often using basic silk-screens. She works with silver beads and nylon thread, feathers and MDF, fishing wire, gold and bronze ink.

The separate layers of the dancer Orixa, as she is called, are printed on a cork-like rubber; each of the numberless seed beads that describe her contours is patiently hand-stitched. No matter how close to the bone the medical dataset of the original patient may be, the aesthetic is always delicate, verging on ethereal.

In Shredded, the artist’s own body scans are printed on to clear film and then shredded open. The shape of the figure is still just about discernible in the tangle of shreddings that halo the form like thistledown. The figure is downy, furry, strangely primitive for all the complex processes involved in its making. It might be contemporary, or it might be the relic of a woman who existed thousands of years ago.

Oliver has mobilised the Ice Man found in 1991 in the Alps: taken his MRI scans and whipped them up into a three-dimensional figure. This long-dead man appears in the round, one arm dramatically raised, legs stretched, on tiptoe almost as if pirouetting. It is something the computer can do too, of course, but what Oliver does is free the figure from inside this box of tricks where everything is into broken down into fractional bytes.

Her latest works are leaving the computer further behind every time. One feels Oliver could make Melinix almost without resort to the original dataset, so completely has this figure become her protean Everywoman – the mother, the saviour, the goddess, the priestess, the sleeping beauty.

But what is so distinctive about Oliver’s art is its spectral nature. Her figures are life-sized, so that you confront them one to one, as in a real human encounter. Yet they are not quite human in appearance. Fantastical, ghostly, weightless, fragile as an insect’s wings, all they really share with mankind is a vestigial outward appearance. Virtuality, that most elusive of states, has become part of their content. They are such stuff as dreams are made on: avatars finding three-dimensional form in the world of contemporary art.

Essay by Laura Cummings

Amelia Jones 2007

Failed Knowledge and the “Respect for Otherness” in Marilène Oliver’s “Le Grande Jeu”

In 1994 the US government’s National Library of Medicine (run by the National Institute of Health) famously produced the first installment of the “Visible Human Project,” documenting the body of Joseph Paul Jernigan. The corpse of this 39 year old convicted murderer was frozen and sliced to produce thin slabs of flesh that were then scanned using CT and MRI technologies to produce an array of visual imagery (with the actual body disintegrating into mush once scanned).  A woman’s body was later subjected to similar treatment.  The official website for the project notes:

The Visible Human Project® is an outgrowth of the NLM’s 1986 Long-Range Plan. It is the creation of complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional representations of the normal male and female human bodies. Acquisition of transverse CT, MR and cryosection images of representative male and female cadavers has been completed. ….

The long-term goal of the Visible Human Project® is to produce a system of knowledge structures that will transparently link visual knowledge forms to symbolic knowledge formats such as the names of body parts1.

The fantasy of “transparent” links between visual and cognitive knowledge –that seeing is knowing, that by taking the proper vantage point and using tools to enhance visual acuity so as to bring huge things closer or make microscopic things visible and so knowable— has a long history in European culture, finding its apogee in the theories of the Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophers.  In his 1435 “Treatise on Painting,” Leon Battista Alberti thus theorized knowledge through the act of vision, which was to be concretized by the painter or architect in visual and/or spatial form: “The painter is concerned solely with representing what can be seen…. [Painters should] know that they circumscribe the plane with their lines.  When they fill the circumscribed places with colours, they should only seek to present the forms of things seen on this plane as if it were of transparent glass”2.

Western representation itself thus hinges on this belief system, which posits seeing as knowing—a belief system pivoting around the observer as physical body in space (as is clear through Alberti’s description) and as subject mentally capable of transcribing the sensual knowledge of the world, gathered via the senses of the physical body, into intellectual and emotional knowledge. In fact, it has long been one of the fundamental goals of knowledge in Euro-American culture to come to an understanding of the human body– whether this understanding is visual, psychoanalytical, anatomical, biological, genetic, and/or chemical.

Marilène Oliver’s project is to use the tools developed through the “Visible Human Project” as well as those tools afforded by subsequently expanded and refined MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imagery, which is magnetic wave based) and CT (X-Ray based computerized tomography) scanning processes to explore the aesthetic, political, philosophical and conceptual issues posed by both the belief in seeing as knowing and the desire to comprehend the human body through visual knowledge. Oliver herself has argued that such digital imaging biotechnologies produce a new relation of vision that she calls “pivotoptic,” noting that this new relation “allows us to enter the information/world at ground level and spin around inside it.” Oliver continues to note that pivotoptic vision replaces Albertian laws of perspective with “density of information around the axis,” such that the “more we pivot, the faster we spin, the more information we acquire…. and it is impossible to get an overview of data.” For Oliver, given this new system, “the only way to find the information we want is to go inside it”3.

Oliver’s project richly explores the permutations and implications of pivotoptic vision, a thoughtful new concept of how visual knowledges accrue and come to mean in contemporary culture. I would suggest, however, that, rather than replacing perspectival vision, these technologies extend it into virtual space. In fact, the pivoting around an axis is, precisely, a reenactment through the terms of internet and computer imaging of the subject centered in vision  (albeit often, as in the case of internet gaming, via an avatar rather than an “actual” body).  So much is explored in physical and visual form in her new works Heart Axis and Womb Axis, two installation pieces that deploy the multiplanar reconstruction tool, which allows the user to set an axis point in the body (the heart and womb respectively in this case) and then pivot visual information around it, to refigure the dataset of “MELANIX,” an anonymous female body CT scanned and available to download as individual images. Approaching these “bodies,” we become acutely aware of the centres – or, in Eastern terms, Chakras—of our own bodies (women in particular will respond to Womb Axis, of course).  The fourth (heart) chakra and the second (naval/sacral) chakra are pivotal seats of bodily and emotional health, linked respectively to love and compassion and to desire, sexuality, and procreation. Even if the viewer is not aware of the theory of charkas, she would tend to respond viscerally to the layered body shifting in space via the part of her own body referenced by its axis.

Too the bodies thus abstracted might also remind a seasoned yogi of stretching and exerting her body in various yoga poses. At the same time, they decompose in space, their layers never adding up to the firm, heavy flesh we expect a “real” body to inhabit and enact. The decomposition shatters any holistic sense of the body particularly on close-up view at which point these arrays of transparent [Mylar?] sheets covered with vibrant greens and reds are revealed to be composed of tiny squiggles.  Approximating the doodles of a bored or psychopathic draughtsman (filling in an existing contour with obsessive and repetitive swirls), the squiggles of course “represent” the intricate layers of flesh that comprise the organs of the human body.  But the mode of representation has complex implications. The lines and shapes are a digital reconstitution of the X-Ray, a pattern of 0’s and 1’s arranged via digital imaging to indicate the exact original composition of the various parts of the body.

By re-working such representational systems in her work Oliver explores the shifting relationship between bodies (the body photographed; the body of the artist; the body of the viewers), visual imagery, and knowledge.   While most theorists of digital imaging have tended to argue that it is not indexical, that the digital relation breaks the material connection between (in this case) the body and the image, art historian Laura Marks argues for a more complex understanding.  As Marks notes, digital technologies are not exactly indexical but they do maintain a material relationship to the things they document or encode:   “within digital circuits, electrons continue to exert themselves in analog ways…. Although it no longer bears an analog relationship to its initial object, the digital image relies for its existence on analog processes [such as photography] and on the fundamental interconnectedness of subatomic particles,” which convey the signals that comprise the image and enable it to resemble with precision the “original”4.

Oliver’s description of the relationship between this vision and the information it provides– the necessity of going inside information—defines something radically new about how we approach the world now that such precise imaging technologies seem to promise an infinite array of information about (in this case) the body.  Heart Axis and Womb Axis seem both to put us “inside” the body and to defer the possibility of our ever attaining a holistic rendering that makes full sense of it. The question that is productively begged by Oliver’s work is whether this seemingly infinite array actually brings us any closer to “knowing” the body (as a specific subject or a universal sign, as promised by the Visible Human Project) than Alberti was through his model of painting.

What Oliver’s project ends up suggesting, in fact, is that the multiplication of images, and the fact that they are (in one form or another) “photographic,” digitally accurate and precise, ” rather than painterly brings us no closer to “knowing” what constitutes the human than did Alberti’s “cone of vision” model (the claims of the Visible Human Project, noted above, notwithstanding).   Her project also points to the limits even of the concept of visual knowledge itself: for what exactly is it that we seek to know from looking at the body?   Simply its mechanical secrets (as in physiological branches of biology)? Its chemical workings (chemistry)? Or, more likely, its role as a substantiation of the “subject” of the body herself (as in psychoanalytic models, the “identity” and “selfhood” of, in this case, MELANIX – paradoxically, an anonymous female).

Oliver’s 2001 I Know You Inside Out, which made use of the “Visible Human” data printed onto sheets of acrylic in order to (in her words) “put him [Jernigan] back together” again5, both mimics and mocks the pretensions of the project’s official website – the aesthetic rendering of Jernigan’s body is no more or less “truthful” than the 1871 cross-section CT images available (for a fee) through the website.  Her Family Portrait, 2003, in which she had herself and three additional family members MRI scanned (at 90 scans per body) and then printed life-sized onto acrylic sheets, reconstructing these in layers to approximate the bodies in space, also intervenes in these structures of knowledge and belief. Family Portrait reconstructs bodies out of the multiple scans; rather than delivering each family member to us in some “truthful” form, the piece renders instead ghostly traces of presence.

Even more than the melancholic effect of analogue photography (noted with such eloquence by photography theorists such as Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag), Oliver’s Family Portrait points to the inevitable failure of representation to secure the immortal existence of the “real” subject (its tendency, instead, to mark inexorably the retreat of the person always already into the past, her date with death always imminent if apparently deferred momentarily through the image)6.  Oliver herself has noted the melancholic personal dimension of this project for her. The four bodies hovering like ghosts in the space of the gallery and heir contingency on perception and the engagement of others is made evident through the fact that they shift in space, disappearing from some angles while looking almost  “complete” from others. This contingency marks the impossibility of their actual togetherness as a family: her parents divorced long ago, and all of them live across the globe at this point7.

In her new work Oliver takes the relationship between the body and technological imaging processes and animates it even further. Through the use of a Macintosh-friendly freeware DICOM viewer system called OsiriX (which includes the multiplanar reconstruction tool noted above), she takes existing CT-based information and cuts through it along multiple axes, exploding its static informational status as horizontal slices and making it (in her words) “pirouette around internal or external axes,” thus animating it in three dimensional space8. In Dervish she makes use of the MELANIX CT dataset. Evoking the “pivotoptic” gaze noted above, she animates the body of MELANIX in three dimensions—and each of the five reconfigured MELANIXes pivots around a different axis (centre, spine, belly button, left side, right side). The resulting installation is again a ghostly refiguring of a body in space in multiple forms (each of which, as she notes, offers a “differing encounter… with the body”9), one that begins with purely virtual digital code, reconstituted and manipulated through the OsiriX software, materializing it in physical form.

But what, in 2007, does “purely virtual” mean?  Can we assume that there is a distinction between a “real” or “material” body and a “virtual” one? As Marks’s theory suggests, there is not so clear an opposition between the virtual (or digital) and the analog—both enfold information, and rely for their appearance and form on “the fundamental interconnectedness of subatomic particles”10.

In fact, the most important insight afforded through an encounter with Oliver’s work, I want to argue, is that there is no clear distinction between the virtual and the real, between the coded and the analog, between the body and representation (clearly, in terms of the latter, the very existence of these datasets, based as they are in the case of the Visible Human Project on documenting micro-slices of human flesh now dissolved, begs the question of how different these latter two are).  First of all, on an experiential level and in phenomenological terms, as Oliver notes, scanning and manipulating images that emanated originally from a fleshed body (or corpse), in itself affords an exchange that redefines her relationship to the bodies of others and thus to herself (“I have been able to invest myself and my ideas into it…. I wanted to create a sculpture that … exposed not the body itself but that exposed the vision that is seeing that body”11.

Secondly, in terms of theories of representation, we have come far from the Platonic and modernist belief in that there is a “real” body that is then secondarily (and in an inferior way) rendered through representational means.  As Judith Butler notes, bodies “matter,” but their matter does not secure their meaning or truth; nor is the “material” body somehow more “real” than the representational one. Both are equally discursive, and reciprocally determined in relation to the world:  “As a projected phenomenon, the body is not merely the source from which projection issues, but is also always a phenomenon in the world, an estrangement from the very ‘I’ who claims it”12.

The bodies in Oliver’s works are “projected phenomena,” and aggressively so. They are clearly representational and yet also vaguely “material” (they exist in space; they are recreated from photographically precise images of sections of bodies).   By concretizing aspects of MELANIX’s body through the maquettes in her new Grand Finale project, for example, Oliver further explores the tension between the “real” or “material” and the “virtual.” What does it mean to make solid objects – tiny colored transparent “bodies”— out of informational animations based themselves on an anonymised body of a woman we can never “know” (either as a person or as a biological entity, in spite of the detailed photographic information available)?

Oliver’s new work points to the tension between knowing and not knowing, between seeing and knowing; it also ultimately exposes the tension between our desire to know the other and our desire to have him (the beloved, in particular), which in turn links up to our desire to know (ourselves) and to be in some stable way, usually defined in our culture through a relationship to a body that secures us.  By wanting to know the body of the other we hope to reveal something fundamentally true about ourselves, just as by wanting to have, to love, the other we yearn to know ourselves.

While other artists and entrepreneurs have explored these tensions to different effects—from Orlan’s public plastic surgery events from the past decade, in which she has her body flayed and reconstructed with scalpel and stitches, and Mona Hatoum in her brilliant 1994 Corps Étranger, in which the viewer is confronted with video footage of Hatoum’s interior body taken through a anthroscopic video camera, to the ridiculous but also menacing plastinated human corpses in Gunter von Hagens’ recent Body Worlds exhibitions—Oliver takes this exploration further and subjects it to a more extreme interrogation, addressing it on the level of the signifier itself.

While Orlan brilliantly questions our desire to remake our bodies medically in order to match internal or external ideals, and Hatoum questions the boundaries between the inside and outside of the body (and suggests that we cannot “know” a subject through such photographic explorations)13, and while von Hagen is happy to suggest that his plastinated corpses render the truth of the human body, Oliver continually questions her own motivations and pushes the technologies to their limits ethically and philosophically14. Ultimately, by querying the link between vision and knowledge at the levels of the body and the signifier, Oliver produces works that activate the viewer and encourage her to acknowledge the limits of the fantasy that seeing is knowing.

As noted, our new regimes of digital imaging and globalised circuits of information exchange exacerbate the tendency in the West to disembody vision, adequating it with knowledge itself. Laura Marks notes that a haptic approach to vision “might rematerialize our objects of perception,” leading us to an awareness of how we “change in the process of interacting” and thus reembodying vision15. Oliver’s project engages us in what Marks calls a haptic visuality, evoking an erotic relation that returns us to the politics of an embodied relation to the world:

By engaging with an object in a haptic way, I come to the surface of myself…, losing myself in the intensified relation with an other that cannot be known. … I lose myself as a subject (of consciousness) to the degree that I allow myself to be susceptible to contact with the other…. What is erotic about haptic visuality, then, may be described as respect for otherness, and concomitant loss of self in the presence of the other16.

This “respect for otherness” is completely lost in van Hagens’ Body Worlds and the Visible Human Project – both of which purport to deliver the “truth” of the other by rendering his body in explicit (and excruciatingly precise) detail, while in fact evacuating the bodies of whatever (unknowable) experiences and emotions  made them human while they were animated in and alive17. But the respect for otherness is precisely what  Oliver expresses both in her written descriptions of these new works in “Le Grande Jeu” and in the projects themselves. Explicitly acknowledging the impossibility of knowing the other through visual (or bio-technological) means, no matter how “advanced,” the works in “Le Grand Jeu” render these mostly anonymous bodies in tender and (in Marks’s terms) erotic ways. Noting herself that she gives as much as she takes with these works (“[t]he more time I spend working with and through computers the more I feel I they way I interact with others and even myself is changing. I definitely have both a physical and a virtual reality but I am still not confident about who I am in the virtual reality – am I a digitised version of who I am in physical reality or someone very different?,”)18. Oliver’s project sparks us to an awareness of both the limits and the infinite possibilities of our connection to other bodies in the world.


  1. See The website also document s a female body, with more precise imaging at .33 mm (versus the male body’s 1.0 mm) intervals.
  2. Alberti, On Painting (1435-6), tr. John R. Spencer (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1979), 43, 51.
  3. These citations are from Oliver’s fascinating article describing her technique and the processes she makes use of, “Making Dicom Dance: The Use of Medical Scan Data to Create Time-Based and Sculptural Artworks,” 2007; manuscript p. 10. I am grateful to Oliver for sharing this text with me.
  4. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 171, 174.
  5. Oliver “Making Dicom Dance,” ms page 1.
  6. See Barthes’ Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography , tr. Richard Howard (New York:  Hill and Wang, 1981), where he explores the melancholic contingency of the body in the photograph: “what I see [in the photograph] has been here, in this place which extends bet infinity and the subject (operator or spectator);  … it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred,” 77.
  7. See Oliver, “Making Dicom Dance,” ms p. 4.
  8. Ibid., ms p. 2.
  9. Ibid., ms p. 11.
  10. Marks, Touch, 174.
  11. Oliver, “Making Dicom Dance,” ms p. 11.
  12. See Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993), 17.
  13. See my discussion of Hatoum’s work in chapter four, “Cinematic Self Imaging and the Televisual Body,” in Self/Image: Technology, Representation, and the Contemporary Subject (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).
  14. That there is a religious dimension to the desire to know and to secure the immortality of the human body is clear through van Hagens’ Body Worlds project and in the way it is marketed in particular.  His plastination techniques are embraced by religious organizations, such as the Catholic church: “In 1983, Catholic Church figures asked Dr. von Hagens to plastinate the heel bone of St. Hildegard of Bingen, (1090-1179)….. His later offer to perform Plastination on Pope John Paul II foundered before serious discussions.”  And, as if the plastinated human body gives access to transcendence,  van Hagens himself has noted: “I hope for the exhibitions to be places of enlightenment and contemplation, even of philosophical and religious self recognition, and open to interpretation regardless of the background and philosophy of life of the viewer.” See “Dr. Gunther van Hagens,” on the Houston Museum of Natural Science website, not only eschews such fatuous “spiritual” claims; she offers a complex intellectual exploration of biotechnological and visual renderings of the body that is also aesthetic and open-ended. Her project acknowledges the gap between visual knowledge and emotional impact without fetishising the unknowable in religious terms, as do van Hagen and his followers.
  15. Marks, Touch, xiii, xvi.
  16. Ibid., 19, 20; she is citing Levinas’s work in this concept of losing the self.  The idea of haptic visuality echoes Barthes’ theories of photographic meaning cited above; in Camera Lucida Barthes writes: “the photograph is the advent of myself as other:  a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity,” 12.
  17. On the lack of respect for the subjects who originally inhabited van Hagen’s plastinated corpses, see Lawrence Burns,  “Gunther van Hagens’ Body Worlds: Selling Beautiful Education,” The American journal of Bioethics 7, n. 4 (2007); available on-line at
  18. Oliver, “Making Dicom Dance,” ms p. 13.

Amelia Jones 2007

Poem by Michael Symmons Roberts 2006

Poem by

Civilisations swell and fall. They know this.
Cities burn back to the earth’s rind,
or blow empty in a sandswept waste.
Some fold into the oceans as they rise.
A city’s soul – its ether life of voices,
texts and images – dies when it does.
Sun plays with angles on the ruins,
but not a scrap of matter will be lost;

all weight returns to light, dust, heat.
And somewhere underground great silent
halls are stacked with airless jars of gems:
the crimson ones are skipped beats,
blues are held breaths, vows magenta,
curses curled like gold leaf, delicate as flames.


When we broke the paper walls we fell
and knelt before an army set in glass.
Men had been scanned – scalp to sole,
a hundred slices – cross-sections
as snapshots of a moment’s heat, flow, beat;
each image set in plate glass, then the men
rebuilt like spectral mummies, packed in ice,
held captive in an agony of light.

Some said this was a tomb of kings in vitro,
others said a freak show or a temple.
In truth, these men were killers,
and their colours are a road map of the soul,
a hall of infamy that shows – if only we
could read it – how evil prints into the body.

So this is beauty, beyond sleep, her lovers
long since forked into the soil. Her bed
is dust, but she has cheated death, distilled
into a thousand drops of sweat. Some magic
holds her prone in air forever,
like a photo of a chandelier in free-fall.
She hangs – a conjurer’s assistant – weighted
to perfection, waiting for the trick

to end. Clad in aqua binary – space, drop, space –
she once wore finery, perhaps a crown.
A single touch could break the tension
and reduce her to a pool. For touch, read kiss.
Her heart – a rare black truffle –
is a paperweight on some remote king’s table.

Jeanette Winterson 2003

What is a portrait?

A likeness, is the obvious answer, but by likeness, do we mean the faithful representation of the simplest camera shot, or a re-presentation of this particular human being at this particular time?

Picasso was excited by the invention of the camera, because he thought it would free portraiture from the burden of representation. Ordinary painters feared they would be put out of business. Better artists, as ever, would use the new technology directly, as a new means of expression, and indirectly, as a chance to experiment.

For Picasso, the portrait became a kind of psychological theatre; a collusion of the sitter and the artist, to create a way of seeing that was not dependent on surface reality; other realities were forced through in fragments and colours, they way that dreams force their way through to unsettle our day time stability.

The portrait goes on evolving, side by side with its most traditional manifestations. This doesn’t matter, there is no right or wrong, there is only art or not art, however you make it. What does matter though, is a commitment to experiment; we understand that science has to experiment to move forward. We don’t always understand that the same is true for art.

Marilene Oliver has taken technology – in this case the MRI scan  – and used it to re-invent the portrait. If art is about manipulating the surface to get underneath the surface, what better way than by scanning the inside of a body, and using the ghostly results to figure the subject inside out?

The inside of the body is a fearful place, usually left to the medical profession or the horror industry. Damien Hirst’s medieval goriness is well known enough to be comfortable now, but slicing up cadavers – the meat-art of the slaughterhouse, shocked us in the 1980’s because the inside is the place we don’t look. Freud and Jung made the inside of our heads fashionable. The inside of our bodies is still taboo.

The great surprise of Marilene Oliver’s work on the inside out, is that it is beautiful.

Beauty is still a suspect word in art, but it is time to reclaim it, and to do so without compromise or sentimentality.

We’re not talking about prettiness, but about something grand, imposing, compelling and fierce. When we look at Family Portrait, the bodies are vulnerable and frail (can we really be made up of so little?) – but they also allow us to contemplate the proportions, the architecture, the skill and scale of the human being.

While our society worships looks and style, and makes its judgements accordingly, the judgement of the body is very different. The cells, systems, tissues and cavities of the body are perfectly made. Marilene Olivier has re-constructed us, so that we can view ourselves differently. This is both poignant and liberating. We are more and less than we thought. We are movingly similar – her family is our family, is each one of us. In the context of the exposed, inside-out body, our separate personalities are temporarily erased, freeing us from the worry of self, into a united place that all of us share.

It is this united place that art makes possible.

But look closely, and the differences are there, even in the bodies we share. Self is cellular.

In the twentieth century art broke all traditional boundaries. Mixed media and combinatory forms have challenged the clean lines of sculpture, painting, print making etc. Marilene Oliver’s work is a robust and bold amalgamation of separate skills and styles, with an utterly contemporary feel for the cross-over of art and technology. Moving from the esoteric possibilities of the MRI scan, she has taken the ordinary mobile phone and turned its text messages into a series of direct hits on the body. Words become arrows. Language is piercing. We are shot through with signals.

Again, the piece is beautiful – a scale version of her own body, made porcupine with copper darts. Like Antony Gormely, she uses herself, because her self is what she knows, but always the self is transformed into a place of imagination and contemplation. The landscape of the body becomes the body of the world.

In the world, there is no place left where a text message can’t reach us. Indeed, other people’s text messages are continually passing through our bodies, as we act as innocent antennae for the vast vibrating communication of modern life.

Communication. Communion. St Sebastian is here, and the crucified Christ. Common humanity is what we share, and we suffer for it – our progress leaves us little private space. We can always be found – and our bodies bear the secret marks of so much intrusion.

That we have no private space is amply demonstrated by these personal messages available for all of to read. Text messages, the most impermanent of communications, are held here like tags from scripture. They are indeed ‘texts’ – primed with meaning, layers of life, mine, yours, written on the body.

But this is a joyful, playful piece of work too. The body is not pinned down. The body bristles with life. Text Me is an eloquent joke, a humorous response to the thickets of signals we negotiate every day. And the obverse of the piercing is defence. This body has its own force-field. The texts are protection as well as intrusion.

And some of them are very funny…

The utter sadness of Ophelia uses a different kind of message – the email, for a woman who has drowned in words. As she lies in her lit –up sarcophagus, the light flowing round her like water, she is an icon of despair. The modern world brings its own special pain – pain of distance and separation and loss, but mediated through the brutal impersonality of computers. What can seem so close and familiar – communication across the world, is also the easiest way of hurting someone without hurting yourself.

Hamlet’s Ophelia dies of a misunderstanding. Misunderstanding is the strange paradox of the computer age – information is everywhere, but the meaning is lost inside the data.

Oliver’s Ophelia is like visiting a saint’s shrine. It is in the tradition of reliquaries, yet utterly modern. Like all her work, it has a narrative, but the narrative never gets in the way of simple contemplation. All of these pieces are for looking at, for long musings, for new insights, for visual awakenings.

I love her work because it does what art is supposed to do; open the way to another world.

Jeanette Winterson, 2003

Past Exhibitions
CARNE VALE 6 October - 10 November 2010
LE GRAND JEU 10 October - 10 November 2007
When Two Worlds Collide 1 February - 1 March 2006
First Solo Exhibition - Intimate Distances September 2003

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