I’ve been reading steampunk and paranormal romances recently and in one (unnamed here to avoid spoilers! but I’ll write a review later on my Goodreads page) the plot revolves around an alpha hero who in pursuit of immortality gets cursed by an ancient magic spell and discovers he's gradually freezing over into a statue. (One of those classic “so you got your wish...” plot twists that Greek mythology specializes in!) It reminded me of the greyscale disease on Game of Thrones, where we see Ser Jorah’s skin slowly hardening and becoming an inanimate…thing.
The idea is creepy as hell, which is why it was a great twist in the paranormal romance I read, and it has obvious references to other ancient myths of transformation when something living turns into something not-living: Medusa can turn viewers into statues, the devastated mother Niobe becomes a weeping rock, among other tales of metamorphosis. Sometimes it works in reverse: like the statues that come to life in stories like Galatea or Hermione in Winter’s Tale or dolls like Pinocchio or the ballet Coppelia. Popular culture examples are easy to find: Lars and the Real Girl or the ubiquitous living statues of major tourist plazas everywhere. Although shape-shifting into animals is more common in paranormal romances (werewolves, bears, hybrids, and now honey badgers…), the tradition of questioning the borders of the human comes in many forms. For steampunk, the model is more cyborgian: the human becomes machine or robot. Think Blade Runner most obviously, but current versions use AI to blur those boundaries, like in the films Ex Machina or She.
All of this was provocatively on display in the exhibit “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body” at the Met Breuer in New York City until July 22nd. The show is particularly interested in how sculpture attempts to imitate real flesh, which brings it into conversation with Eurocentric discourses around whiteness. In this gallery shot you can see where the show begins: with a western civ narrative of classical statuary, though they are quick to point out that those familiar nudes were actually originally painted but the paint either wore off over the centuries or was scrubbed off by Renaissance collectors who were more interested in generalizing about the “universal” human form. From there, though, the exhibit becomes a fascinating cornucopia of objects, presented in the round throughout the room instead of flattened in lines along the walls. You can walk around the figures, seeing them from any angle and appreciating their three-dimensionality. The works are organized by theme (like “Proxy Figures”) instead of chronology and often in particularly clever pairs. For example, Yinka Shonibare MBE created a headless contemporary reworking of Degas’s famous bronze “Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” (1881). By walking around the statue you can see that Shonibare’s “Girl Ballerina” (2007) hides a pistol behind her back.
So what do these various objects tell us about the body and its representations (so far)? And what does this have to do with romance? First, it’s a welcome reminder of variety and difference in the very broadest sense: not only do human beings come in every possible shape and size and color but the same diversity extends beyond “the human” to gradations along a spectrum of animate and inanimate. And if any creature can be objectified, as is disconcertingly obvious in the many fetishized representations of women and “others,” it’s also obvious that any appearance can be aestheticized, in both the sense of made beautiful and made into art.
That, perhaps, is the connection to paranormal romance then: the insistence on making difference not only imaginable and acceptable but also beautiful and desirable. In the paranormal romance I mentioned above the hero manages to have it both ways: he keeps his immortality (as far as we know at the end of Book 1.... It’s a series!) but halts the disease that threatens to turn him into an iconic form of masculinity. The usual analogy, the heroic body that mimics the perfect musculature of the Greek nude, has been interestingly overturned: the metaphor becomes all too real and thus dangerous. It’s a wonderful twist, though the constraints of the romance mean that he isn’t punished for his hubris in seeking immortality as he would have been in a Greek myth. Instead he’s even rewarded: still young and beautiful though over one hundred years old and now “cured.”
There’s so much more to say about all of this: about the role assumptions about gender plays in imagining “other” bodies, about how popular culture (including museum exhibits as well as romances) constructs and reflects these specific forms, and so on. Both the exhibit and the novel made me think hard about these questions—and yeah, becoming a statue is a clever play on getting hard. The show knows that. The author of the paranormal romance knows that. The show dances around what it calls “the erotic charge” of these objects, insisting, for example, that John De Andrea’s Self-Portrait with Sculpture (1980) doesn’t have one (I agree in that case, but not everyone would). Eroticism can as easily emerge from the soft fleshiness of works like Sarah Lucas’s Nud Cycladic 9 (2010), which is just as creepy as anything else in the show but more stereotypically “feminine” (which of course is the artist’s intention in overstuffing nylon stockings and naming it after fertility figures). The show makes only a few nods to trans or non-binary representations of gender, though its banner features a wonderful face-off between a 16th-century Hercules and Greer Lankton’s 1986 portrait of a trans performer (shown in the header of this blog post). The romance world is only now starting to recognize non-binary characters too (see Cat Sebastian’s new release this week) and one can imagine that there will be many more soon. All of these questions are particularly timely right now: as the mayor of New York City just announced the relocation of another gendered pair of statues, Fearless Girl and Charging Bull, and as Westworld returns this weekend (yippee ki-yay!) and we wait and wait on Game of Thrones…. But the Met’s show makes it clear that these concerns are very far from new.