value the brain & cut the priviledge
essay by Abby Paige
Shannon Scanlan’s soft sculptures and messy, pink installations are festive, sexual, and gross. Sewn, embroidered, and embellished, her biomorphic creations use the materials of traditionally feminine craft to explode our perceptions of the female form and confront us with the unsanitized facts of the living body. Scanlan’s work is grotesque in precisely the manner described by Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin: it “does not obey the aesthetics of the beautiful or the sublime,” but laughs in the face of conformity, rejoices in conjoining death and rebirth, and embraces transformation in all its the gory glory.
Originally from British Colombia, Scanlan earned her BFA from the University of Victoria and her MFA from York University in Toronto, and she has exhibited in cities throughout Canada. The pieces in this exhibit are designed to both attract and repel. In her words, they “play on both the viewer’s desire and hesitation to touch them and the known conventions of the gallery setting.” Cluttered with lace, pearls, zippers, ruffles, and flaps, and covered with orifices and appendages, they explore perceptions and representations of the body by subtly referencing the visual languages of medicine, art history, pornography, and fashion.
“The Many States of Lizzie” was created as a response to Mona Awad’s Giller-nominated novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. Roughly the shape of a dressmaker’s form, the sculpture is comical and grotesque even as it echoes of the iconography of femininity. Its shape recalls silhouettes from fashion and portraiture: think of a silk evening dress by Italian designer Roberto Capucci; John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau; or the hourglass figure of any woman on a Hollywood red carpet, draped in layers of soft pink, creating the shape of a flower or a fountain. Here, not just the gown, but the woman herself is turned inside out. The pinks, reds, and oranges are those of flesh and muscle, and spilling across the floor in an elegant and off-putting wave is not fabric, but guts. Foam insulation bursts from her middle, as though her interior can’t be contained. The contradictions between the idea and reality of the body, between the imagined woman and the actual woman, are on display. The messy, bloody, and fecund body asserts itself.
Scanlan’s “Soft Manipulations” are wearable sculptures or unwearable garments, frilly, ugly, richly-embellished pieces in loud colours that resemble sewn anatomical models of imagined organs. Where conventional garments are designed to hide the body’s ugly bits, the “Soft Manipulations” are covered in lumps, protrusions, and vaginal folds, foregrounding the body’s interior. When worn, they force the wearer to contort herself, transforming posture as many women’s garments do. But where a corset or stilettos force smoother lines and elongated shapes onto the body, here it is made more lumpy, lopsided, and awkward, bent and tangled into itself, inviting us to question how normative notions of beauty enforce their own contortions.
Surely part of the beauty of Scanlan’s sculptures would be to encounter them in person, body to body, and to have the direct experience of attraction and repellence they invoke. Here, though, we are given a sense of the scale and texture of her work through her video, “Instructions.” The artist models her “Soft Manipulations,” and human hands interact with those and other sculptures. Fingers unzip pockets and explore openings, probing fabrics and seams. The video is overtly sexual, and again recalls Bahktin:
“…the grotesque body is not separate from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world. This means that the emphasis is on the apertures or the convexities, or on various ramifications and offshoots: the open mouth, the genital organs, the breast, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose. The body discloses its essence as a principle of growth which exceeds its own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking, or defecation. This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body…”
With “Instructions,” we watch as Scanlan’s work “transgresses its own limits,” underminding the status of both the body and the artwork as objects. After all, is that panting sound you hear the artist, the viewer, or the artwork itself responding to touch? Whose body is being stimulated? And who is doing the stimulating?
In all these works, the body is generative, creative, and reactive. Its primary function is not to be admired, perceived, or represented. It is not made to be beautiful —or to be made beautiful— but instead to disturb, to seduce, to implicate, to arouse. Profoundly playful and delightfully subversive, Scanlan’s work affirms the female body as a creative agent and disrupts our venerated association between beauty and truth. Real truth is associated with the ambiguities, transience, humanity, and filth of the grotesque. The grotesque celebrates a different kind of beauty, a beauty that cannot be contained.
Learn more by author and artist Abby Paige.
 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 35.
 Shannon Scanlan, Artist Statement, http://scanlanshannon.wixsite.com/shannonscanlanart/artist-statement
 Ibid, 26.