Design, Art, and the Human Body

Our present time confronts us with the need to investigate more deeply and learn accurately about our human body. At a moment in history that has the name of a virus, and a pandemic has put our bodies and minds to the test, we need to reflect on their limits, unexplored potential, fragility and strength, resilience, and even their evolution.


Matilda Bathurst | Arts at MIT, June 1, 2021 @photo credits MIT news

Design and art have a long tradition of research and experimentation around the human body. As we can read in the section “Learning” of the MoMa, The human body is central to how we understand facets of identity such as gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. People alter their bodies, hair, and clothing to align with or rebel against social conventions and to express messages to others around them. Many artists explore gender through representations of the body and by using their own bodies in their creative process.”

In the 60s and 70s the feminist movement used women bodies as a medium to provoke, debate and shed light on sensitive issues, as in the works of Hannah Wilke, Yoko Ono and Frida Kalo. In the same years, the performance art becomes a very powerful current in which the artists very often use their body as a medium - both the subject and the object - of expression.


Installation view of "Starification Object Series" by Hannah Wilke in the exhibition "Artists Make Toys" at the Clocktower Gallery, Photograph by Lois Greenfield, @ photo credits MoMA archives web


Cut Piece, Yoko Ono,1964. Performance.

it is immediate to recall the works of Rebecca Horn, a German visual artist, who is best known for her body modifications such as Einhorn (Unicorn), a bodysuit with a very large horn projecting vertically from the headpiece and the body sculptures, in the form of body extensions, such as Pencil Mask, made up of six straps running horizontally and three straps running vertically around her head. Where the straps intersect a pencil has been attached. When moving her face back and forth on a near a wall the pencil marks that are made correspond directly with her movements.


“Einhorn,” by Rebecca Horn (1970-2)


“Pencil Mask”, Rebecca Horn, 1972. Tate Modern

The design is, for its own nature, based on the close observation and analysis of the human body, and some designers have been very sensitive to the theme of the expressiveness and the identity of the body, its need for comfort and care. Do you remember the famous “Supplemento al dizionario italiano”, by Bruno Munari? He draws "talking forks", which translate a simple object of common use into a series of semiotically human characters, reproposing all the expressive gestures of the hand and transforming the perception of everyday life with new morphologies. What about the provocation in “Seeking comfort in an uncomfortable chair” published by Munari on Domus magazine in 1944? He uses pictures of the human body to make a harsh critique of some approaches of the design.


Bruno Munari, Supplemento al dizionario italiano, Corraini Edizioni, 1,1993

One of the fathers of the modernity, the architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier, has assiduously been working to find the perfect correlation between the human body and the surrounding, both the built and the natural world. 

Jumping to the present day, the human body becomes an obsession for designers and artists who imagine extreme scenarios where the body is, at the same time, the object, and the means of design. Many creatives are compelled by the urge to provide the body with solutions for a world to come and others to provoke debate, reflections, and reactions.

They envision ways to enhance the body’s defence, fortification, and evolution to achieve an empowerment from its biological constraints.  

Collection Wanderers, for example, are wild biomorphic spacesuits designed to survive hostile Planets. Neri Oxman, from the MIT Media LAB, explain that they are designed to store oxygen using spherical pockets for algae-based air purification and biofuel collection to enable life on the moon.


Collection Wanderers, Neri Oxman, MIT Media Lab

AMPHIBIO, by the Korean designer Jun Kamei, is a 3D printed amphibious garment which function as a gill. Designed for a future where humankind lives in very close proximity with water, it provides daily comfort to people who spend as much time in the water as on the land.


AMPHIBIO, Jun Kamei, 2018. @Jun Kamei

Lucy McRae, the Australian artist listed by Fast Company as one of the ‘fifty people shaping the future’, selected, in 2018, as a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum define herself as a body architect, science fiction artist, filmmaker and inventor. Her work speculates on the future of human existence by exploring the boundaries of the body, beauty, biotechnology, and the self. She pushes the human body to the limits and imagine its evolution and transformation in a world led by science and cutting-edge technology. She redesigns the body. She invents body architectures. One of the main goals of her work is to provoke public reflections and ethics concerns. Many of her creations look like dystopic bodies, monsters, caricatures of the human beings; they seem to instigate a sense of discomfort and contemplation.


On the left, Evolution, 2008, Lucy McRae and Bart Hess. On the right, Transnatural #2, 2009, Lucy McRae. Photograph: Lucy McRae

Montreal-based designer Ying Gao has created ‘Flowing Water, Standing Time’, garments that move as they adapt to colors in their environment. Formed of silicone, glass, organza, and electronic devices, they can adjust in reaction to the chromatic spectrum, taking on a liquid, chameleon-like form as they respond to their environment. “Whilst they may appear at first to be garments of the future, Gao does not think of them as futuristic articles, but rather a reflection of the immediate present. In their continued state of flux, the garments mimic the ever-changing nature of the world, along with its uncertainties.” (cit. Emily Grundon, Ignant)

Those clothes provoke an immediate association with the current pandemic where we wear masks, we protect our bodies from contact. The designer imagines how we could still feel the environment and the surrounding while we must protect every piece of our body for the “outside” and the “otherness”. My question is “To what extent a garment can be more reactive than our body, and how to accept to rely on an interface to be able to perceive the world around us? Is it scary or exciting?”


Flowing Water, Standing Time, Ying Gao, @ Malina Corpadean


Flowing Water, Standing Time, Ying Gao, @ Malina Corpadean

Today, it is very suggestive that stream of investigation which recognizes the human body as a source of raw materials for the design and art. For example, the designer Hyun-Gi Kim creates furniture, called “Red Series”, made from hundreds of tubes that circulate blood around it. The Korean author says: “There is a metaphorical meaning in this work. There must be a lot of blood in order for this creature to live a life.” He wants to celebrate the power of life and death, even though it is very common that the view of blood causes feelings of fear, revulsion, and aversion.


Red Series, Hyun-Gi Kim, @ Sumin Shin

The use of parts of the human body as raw materials for design, in many cases is considered extreme or repulsive, but it seems a valid alternative for our present time lacking resources and fighting against environmental issues: to exploit body wastes to create new things! Emblematic the example of the Urine Ware, by Sinae Kim, who demonstrates the potential to recycle the urine in a collection of decorative vessels inspired by the shape of the human bladder. The designer coated the ceramics with a glaze made from 280 litres of human urine, which was collected from five people over a period of five months.


Urine Ware, Sinae Kim, 2018. @ Sinae Kim

The speculation around the body will always remain one of the most sacred topics for the human being; after all, there is no life, nor future without it. For sure this subject will endure in the creative disciplines which attempt to balance fears with imagination, resignation with provocation, passivity with design and indifference with extreme and disruptive stimuli.