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The Body Undone: Fragmentation in Process

Babette Martini



The paper aims to illustrate through four cases of artistic practice that the fragment plays an essential part for the making of the figure and influences its expression. Following Kenneth Clarke and Sigrid Schade, there appears to be a long tradition of making the figure through fragments. Elaine Scarry’s examination of the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the writings of Marx suggests that creation is based on making and unmaking. Scarry’s theory implies that creation is essentially an act of hurt which marks and fragments the human body and from which, one could argue, expression occurs. This suggests that regarding the artistic process the fragmentation of the figure could be viewed as a form of expression rather than a sign of destruction.

Key words: Fragmentation, artistic process, Elaine Scarry, Sigrid Schade, expression


When viewing a fragment of the marble arm, attributed to the figure of Isis, on the west pediment of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, one notices its polished surface and the elaborate carving of the drapery. One can also observe that both ends of the piece display a jagged and uneven texture, forming a sharp contrast to the overall smooth appearance of the outer skin of the arm. The exposed inner texture of this fragment appears to draw in associations of injury. The trauma evoked through this fragment is described by Linda Nochlin as symbols of a lost culture, emphasizing the element of destruction associated with the fragment.1 Yet, she explains that these feelings are not only the mourning for the loss of the past heroic and ideal times but also declares them as major elements for the construction of the ‘essence of representational modernism’.2

The fragment as the essential building block appears to be the prominent feature in the photograph by Daniel Chester French, portraying the installation of the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, 1919.3 It illustrates the creation of the figure through the addition of individual segments. In contrast to the arm of the Classical sculpture, which results from destruction, the fragmented sculpture in French’s photograph represents the construction of the figure through segments. Although the association of damage might be very closely linked to fragmentation, the fragment appears to suggest also the opposite by evoking equally an association of becoming.

Accounts by Kenneth Clark and Sigrid Schade claim that the making of the figure in pieces appears to have a tradition reaching back to the Renaissance and antiquity. Based on Pliny’s report about Zeuxis, making his sculpture of Venus from the combination of several parts from a number of figures in order to create the perfect whole, Clark implies that the process of assembling different body parts appears to have been a general practice in antiquity.4 Similarly, Schade reports that the Renaissance artists Dürer, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci produced their figurative work by first dissembling the body. Dürer’s method of drawing the human figure by looking through a grid, which partitions the body into small quadrants, is compared by Schade with the carving up of animals for slaughter.5 Michelangelo and Leonardo relied on actual dissections and anatomical studies of corpses. Schade concludes that the taking apart of the body precedes the unification of the figure.6 She claims that the making of the figure in sections is within the context of the production of art, rather a method of deconstruction (Dekonstruktion), which she distinguishes from the negative understanding (according to Schade) association of destruction of the figure (Destruktion). She argues that deconstruction does not mean, in contrast to destruction, violently injuring or destroying the whole.7 Rather, she feels that deconstruction reverses the effects of destruction by promoting the conditions of the production and the making as the central theme of the work.8

The proportionality between destruction and construction is examined in the theory developed by Elaine Scarry, claiming that the principle of making is closely linked to unmaking. Drawing on the writings of the Judeo-Christian scriptures and Karl Marx, Elaine Scarry claims that the act of creating and pain become ‘sharable’ within the artefact.9 Scarry considers the Judeo-Christian scriptures as a narrative of the principles of creation and she equates the structure of believing to the structure of making.10 Drawing on the Old Testament, Scarry illustrates that God endlessly modifies man through illness, human labour, childbirth and catastrophes. Her examples elucidate that God shatters the human body and he rebuilds the body through granting fertility, for example. From this Scarry concludes that the mediated principle of creating within this relationship is symbolized by a weapon. Another critical part of this relationship is that God’s presence is disembodied and immune to hurt in contrast to the intense bodily and suffering materialization of man.11 Scarry argues that God substantiates himself within the feeling human body, which becomes particularly crucial in moments of doubt.12 She concludes that ‘wounding re-enacts the creation because it re-enacts the power of alteration that has its first profound occurrence in creation’.13 One could say that the principle of making is essentially based on an ongoing modulation and the act of wounding.

Based on the concepts presented by Schade and Scarry, this paper analyses four examples of contemporary artistic practices, where fragmentation becomes a principal method of the making of the figure

1st Case Study – Christie Brown

In Christie Brown’s figurative work fragmentation becomes a key element as the figure is made from segments, formed in separate moulds. According to the artist, the moulds started as a technical solution but gained more and more a metaphorical association. For Brown they represent repetition, trauma, cloning, and the inherent fragmentation of the figure through the applied process becomes a major means of expression in her work. When observing the production of Ex Votos–Insignificance (2003) (fig. 1) it becomes evident that the fragmentation in her work starts already with the lining of the moulds (fig. 2). Sections of clay slabs are individually lowered and pressed into the mould. Therefore each mould, representing a part of the figure, such as a thigh, consists of a number of segments. Once the clay is lowered into the mould, Brown pushes with a small sponge the soft clay against the hard wall of the mould forcing it into shape, joining the overlapping clay segments (fig. 3). The sensation of the segmented body is increased when looking at the moulds which become reminiscent of body limbs cut lengthwise in half: the red ceramic material appears to be the inner fleshy lining of bodily fragments and transmits the impression of the inner body framed by the thick walls of the mould (fig. 2).



The evocation of bodily conditions and the interior body continues when the forms are released from the mould. The hardened clay slabs could be compared to the shape of pieces of flesh or muscles (fig. 4). The cast segments take on the shape of the mould and simultaneously the strong material suggestions seem to take precedence over this cast outline. In its fired state, the lining up of the individual ceramic segments of Ex Votos–Insignificance create seams which could be associated with sinews (fig. 5). These sinews visually segment the surface, and simultaneously unify the form, as the figure is held together at these crucial points. Moreover, these sinews create a dialogue between the exterior formed by the mould and the interior of the piece, which would be revealed when the seams became undone. The seams and cracks reveal Brown’s method of first segmenting the figure in order to unify the individual slabs inside the mould. In terms of Schade the method of making the figure in sections reveals a way of assembling the artwork from which one can re-construct how the figure was made, and for her this amounts to reversing the initial fragmentation of the figure. The fragmentation of the figure is not simply a form of disintegration but a form of expression as she describes fragmentation as a way of exposing what is hidden inside.14 Through the sensation of the interior of Ex Votos–Insignificance, associations of human fragility are evoked and the cast figure appears to be no longer merely a replicated artefact but moves into the realm of a feeling being.


2nd Case Study – Sabine Heller

In the artistic practice of Sabine Heller the destruction of the artefact appears to become a form of reanimation. Heller carves the figure with a spatula from unfired insulation bricks, stacked according to the posture of the figure (figs. 6 & 7). The leading impression, when observing and interviewing Heller, is that she feels the figure is already inside the block, waiting to be revealed. The cutting into the brick exposes unseen interior openings inside the insulation bricks, which lead the viewer’s gaze to the inside of the figure and becomes significant for the expression of the artwork. Heller’s drilling and levering into the clay transforms the solid exterior of the brick into an organic and eruptive surface which becomes reminiscent of a boundless skin (fig. 8). This impression is increased through Heller returning some sections of the cut-off parts back to the figure, so that the form is simultaneously shrinking and expanding (fig. 9). The artist feels that the insulation bricks are technical due to their manufacturing. Simultaneously she claims to sense an expressive figure inside. This combination induces a process of shaping the material which Heller herself describes as destruction with anger (‘mit Wut zerstoeren’ ). The tool described by Scarry as the sign of a weapon, reappears in Heller’s use of her spatula. With her spatula Heller seems to lever out the material rather than just carefully carving it away, generating the impression that her tool is not only an implement of creation but also an instrument of demolition. The ambiguity or instability of the tool is, according to Scarry, a major characteristic responsible for the ‘partial deconstruction of making into unmaking’.15 Following her argumentation, it is the surface on which the tool acts which defines its identity: a weapon acts upon a ‘sentient surface’ while a tool operates on a ‘non-sentient surface’.16 This means that Heller’s striving to reveal the figure inside turns her spatula into a weapon as it creates vulnerability and feeling.



Heller appears to sense a division between the lifeless, vacuum pressed form, and what is contained inside. Similar to Brown’s figure, Heller’s work is generated through segments and in both cases the expression of vulnerability and feeling contrasts with lifeless replication. But in Heller’s case it is important to understand that these bricks are already an artefact and that they have already a representational value. The impression is gained that what is presented on the exterior of the building blocks seems to be incongruent for Heller with what apparently resides inside. In her examination of the relationship between artefact and the capacity of feeling Scarry also draws upon the writings of Karl Marx. The changed meaning of the artefact through mass production is illustrated in his analysis of nineteenth-century industrialization. According to Scarry, Marx’s definition of the artefact is twofold: in the first instance he designates the artefact as a ‘body’ and in the second as a ‘materialized objectification of bodily labor’ [sic] 17. The first notion is based on the utilitarian aspect of the artefact: the way it recreates bodily behaviour, here the insulation bricks preserve temperature.18 The second notion is founded on the memorizing of the embodied labour, which ‘it endures long after the physical activity itself has ceased’.19 Referring to the second notion, the artefact arises from the contact with a human being, thus the activity of making is, following Marx, an activity of ‘animating the external world’.20 Against this, it might be imagined that the immediate human contact or a trace of labour seems to be undetectable within the machine (vacuum) pressed bricks; and equally the projection of the bodily behaviour and human animation cannot be felt on the outside of the bricks. This is what I think Heller’s work challenges. Heller’s ‘demolition’ or fragmentation of the stacked bricks could be regarded as a reinvestment or rediscovery of human capacity of feeling in the machined object (figs. 10 & 11).



  1. Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces, London, Thames and Hudson, 1994, p. 7. back to text
  2. Ibid, p. 8. back to text
  3. See Nicholas Penny, The Materials of Sculpture, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1993, p. 57. back to text
  4. Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art, London, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 10. back to text
  5. Sigrid Schade, ‘Der Mythos des ganzen Körpers’, in Barta, Ilsebill, Breu, Hammer-Tugenthat, Zita, Jenni, Ulrike, Nierhaus, Irene, Schöbel, Judith, Frauen, Bilder, Männer, Mythen, Berlin, Dietrich Reimer Verlag, pp. 247-249. back to text
  6. Ibid, p. 249. back to text
  7. ‘Dekonstruktion bedeutet im Gegensatz zur Destruktion – ein Begriff, der immer schon moralisch besetzt ist – nicht die gewalttätige Verletzung oder Zerstörung eines “Ganzen”, sondern macht diese sozusagen rückgängig, indem sie die Bedingungen seiner Herstellung thematisiert und die Verdrängungen offenlegt, die sich in ihnen verbergen’, Schade, in Barta et al, pp. 249-250. back to text
  8. Ibid, p. 250. back to text
  9. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 170. back to text
  10. Scarry, The Body in Pain, pp. 181-182. back to text
  11. Ibid, pp. 173, 183 and 192. back to text
  12. Ibid, p. 200. back to text
  13. Ibid, p. 183. back to text
  14. Sigrid Schade, in Frauen, Bilder, Männer, Mythen, p. 250. back to text
  15. Scarry, The Body in Pain, p. 180. back to text
  16. Ibid, p. 173. back to text
  17. Scarry, The Body in Pain, p. 247, Karl Marx, Grundrisse (Foundations of the Political Economy, Rough Draft) translated by Martin Nicolaus, London, Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1973, p. 272. back to text
  18. Scarry, The Body in Pain, p. 246. back to text
  19. Ibid, p. 247. back to text
  20. Marx cited in Scarry, The Body in Pain, p. 247. back to text

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The Body Undone • Issue 8