Tracing the Absent Body: Jolana Havelkova’s “First Time Skating”

A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. For our Spring 2016 programme, we have invited students from the Department of English at the University of Westminster, London. Here, Isabelle Coy-Dibley selects an image by Jolana Havelkova, which features in our current exhibition Double Take: Drawing and Photography.

 03_Press Image l Double Take l Jolana Havelková, First Time Skating 2008-09.

Solana Havelkova, First Time Skating, 2008–09. Courtesy the artist.

Like a fingerprint trapped in ice, the unique contours of a body inscribed in a transitory moment, imprinting what will be lost once the ice thaws, fleetingly capturing a temporal and spatial pattern drawn by an absent body refusing to be forgotten.

The motif of fragmentation, shattering the coherency of a unified body, became the visual rhetoric of modernist art, rupturing the sense of totality within the individual subject. Havelkova’s First Time Skating extends and surpasses this rupture through the disembodiment of the body in its entirety. This displacement leads to a complete absence of the human subject that arguably literalises how Western society ‘is typified by a certain “disembodied” style of life,’[1] where the onset of machines and technology transcends the need to feel as connected and embodied within the material body. The traces left by the ice-skater’s blades, with the skater nowhere to be found, exemplifies the state of our current culture, calling attention to our “decorporealised” existence; to how we have lost our sense of the body.

Someone has felt the making of these markings. Markings that signify a process of becoming-a-body, cutting a body out of movement, feeling the wind flit across the skin, breath visible as it escapes the lips, muscles contracting, possibly unsure, unsteady, unbalanced; threatening to fall as the body gathers grace and learns to glide, never staying static.  

Yet strangely, the absent body, through this very corporeal absence, becomes a defining subject of the work, materializing as the photograph’s frame. Reference to the human subject is constructed through the absence of the body. The spectator grapples to find meaning through questioning the existence of the absent skater – what type of lived experience leaves such traces? How did they move, perceive this world, “be” within this scene? Their essence, whoever the skater may be, is encapsulated within the traces, whilst their absence heavily borders the photograph, creating an enigmatic absent-present body that cannot be forgotten at the same time as it cannot be remembered. Similarly, the elusive subject questionably articulates a dual position of inhabiting both past and present within the photographic medium, whereby photography always operates within the past tense by capturing a moment for future observation, whilst simultaneously being discussed within present terms when the captured moment is exhibited. The absent body, similarly ever-present as the unforgettable bordering of the gestural marks, highlights the temporal displacement of all photographic subjects; the simultaneous presence and absence of the subject matter in which the static subject is at once frozen in time, always in a present moment that happened in the past. And what of the cuts and gashes, the beautifully violent marks left behind to signify the absent body, which are similarly caught before their approaching death as they face the melting away of their traces?

The image of two dancers etched in ice, brutally carved and split in two by the slash of the ice-skater’s blades. The spectator, drawn to their inscription, their meaning; their embodiments, creates the traces of subjectivities in their own rights, in the absence of a body. Even now the eye desires a form, to make bodies out of lines – the traces materialising like the outline of a ballerina, stretching for the other’s touch.

Since there are no visual cues to hint at the ice-skater’s identity, preventing the spectator from constructing a specific subject, the weight of subjectivity falls upon their residual markings. The gaze has been subverted from the body and its preferred objectification by the spectator, and yet, by displacing the body’s position in front of the lens, the gestural marks become the epitome of the absent subject – the remaining meaningful essence of the absent body.

Cuts, gashes, lacerations that literalise the split in self through the fragmentation of traces never entirely connected to one another, but violently sliced into imperfect contours, refuting the circular, never-ending connectivity of subjectivity.

Denied access to the body, the traces take on the body’s subjectivity, usurping and relegating it to the sidelines. Yet, through this displacement, the absent body exceeds the confines of the grid, the rigid placement of the photograph’s frame, since it cannot be restricted or forced to adhere to the photograph’s aesthetics. The body is no longer constricted but present in its absence, surrounding the photograph and exuding meaning through the breaks in the traces; the gaps in signification. The body becomes excess, exceeding the borders, exceeding the boundaries, exceeding the gaze.

The body cuts itself into the ice, etching the lines of its existence. In its absence, you will remember its being – the remaining marks will always lead you to the body’s disappearance and the fissure this creates. Until the ice thaws, the elusive presence of the absent body is omnipresent.

Isabelle Coy-Dibley

[1] Leder, D (1990) The Absent Body. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, p. 3.

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster. In 2012, she gained a First class honours in her BA English Literature degree from the University of Westminster. Following this, she completed an MA in English: 1850-Present at King’s College London in 2013 and an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture at Birkbeck, University of London in 2014. Her research interests are predominantly within contemporary women’s experimental literature with an interdisciplinary theoretical approach, presently exploring concepts of female corporeal memory and bodily semantics and methods of inscription upon the female body. She has presented at multiple conferences both in the UK and internationally.

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