Stephen Ralph, 'My Sister's Doll' , 2016. Photo credit: Amanda Williams, courtesy 55 Sydenham Rd
1. A deep-sea diver is tasked with securing an oil rig to the North Sea floor. He inserts himself into one of the eight flooded legs of the platform and descends 120 feet. The man just fits into the metal column, he’s only able to flinch a centimetre or so either way before striking a wall. There is a plug at the end of the leg. The diver’s job is to locate the iron chain attached to the plug and shackle it to the crane poised above. As the man feels for the chain in the darkness it topples from its perch. It rapidly unfurls onto his leg, pinning him tight. He is unable to move. His breathing escalates dangerously. He has no way to communicate with his crew. A leg trapped inside a leg, this is the first of our eight limbs.
2. A phantom leg is a missing leg, gone, but not erased. It haunts the body it formerly co-existed with. The body in turn hallucinates its presence. There is no scientific test to verify the existence of a phantom. The evidence takes the form of a case study narrative: a first-person account delivered by the sole witness. An equally subjective phenomenon is the strange leg or negative phantom: a leg that is present yet absent. Abandoned and disowned by its body, left off the neural map, the estranged leg has no owner, no general to issue it orders. A body is able to proceed without a leg, and a leg it seems is also able to continue on, however uneasily, minus a body.
3. It’s a fallacy that the Victorians covered up their piano legs for fear of exercising the sexual potency of objects, but it’s a revealing myth nevertheless. Legs are associated with exposure and shame, with con men and fake legs used to milk hearts and wallets, with clandestine compartments for disguising truths. Consider Rolf Harris and his smash hit Jake the peg: kitsch turned creepy: an exhibitionist’s toe-tapper, a pedophile’s ditty. And Oedipus who slew his father and slept with his mother having correctly answered the Sphinx’s riddle: What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three in the evening? (A: man)
4. Historically misfortune has befallen the genders in different ways. Male legs have been more prone to disarticulation. WW1 and WW2 were periods of mass fragmentation of male limbs while women’s legs, in a telling echo, were photographed, pinned up and painted onto weapons of mass destruction. Men, if so inclined, can be ‘leg men’, foot fetishists, stocking afficionados or amputee enthusiasts. Castration and fetishism: the fear of dismemberment, and the devotion to objects, or parts, that represent a substitute for any such loss. Fevered and primarily masculine narratives should you believe in that sort of thing.
5. A living leg is the stuff of narrative. It regulates movement from one situation to another. It supports, propels, conveys; it hops, rests, kicks or shakes itself free. Even a motionless leg is aligned with a verb as it rests or waits. Single legs are often put to work in a synedoche, as in pulling a leg, legging it, getting a leg up, or a leg in, or a leg over: a leg standing in for an intention, an agent standing in for a drama.
6. A leg can morph into a thing: an object, a relic, a specimen. Once separated from its body, a part becomes abject: repudiated, uncanny, a source of horror. A replicated body part, such as a leg, retains some of this frisson but evades the full force of the horror, avoiding its clutches, suggests Julia Kristeva’s Powers of horror, by cloaking itself in the same garb. A leg in the process of becoming a thing is perhaps then engaged in a disrobing: a stripping away of all coverings including those of office.
7. Prostheses and phantoms form a symbiotic pair. Successful use of a prosthetic leg can be determined by the intensity of its corresponding phantom. The pain and the discomfort of the missing limb are nerve signals that can be harnessed to control its replacement. The prosthesis is then able to lessen the ache of the phantom by rewiring its loss. In a sympathetic doubling each takes a turn in the other’s place: the phantom becomes the prosthesis, and the prosthesis becomes the phantom.
8. Legs are sociable structures, dependent on their fellows as well as the community bonds between feet, ankles and knees. Multiple legs are also able to operate in unison: witness an eight-legged spider, or an octopus, or a phalanx of scuba divers’ legs artfully kicking down to the ocean’s depths to extract its fuel, playing out the precarious balance between subject and thing, between part and whole, between life and its imminent severing.
Lynne Barwick, September 2016 (with thanks to Nick Strike)
Hany Armanious, Tully Arnot, Mitch Cairns, Lucas Ihlein, Stephen Ralph, Nick Strike & what. 55 Sydenham Rd, Sydenham, 9-25 September, 2016. Curated by Nick Strike.