Within and Without: Body Image and the Self, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Dan Vo explores how social, historical and cultural factors affect identity
Dan Vo
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I love the opening gambit of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s (BMag) exhibition Within and Without: Body Image and the Self (until 1 February 2019). 
 
It presents a selection of totems that includes a crystal ball, an S&M collar and a naked Ken doll – I am asked to choose an object I am drawn to. I pick Ken, as he reminds me of my childhood habit of stripping my sister’s Barbie, Ken’s female counterpart, so I could marvel at the wildly proportioned body.
 
Repeating motifs in the exhibition are mannequins, masks and mirrors, and by selecting the doll and his associated clipboard, I am now on an Empathy Body Trail mapped out by a community curator called Rik – the premise being that we can share an experience through an object.
 
This is my second visit to BMag, my previous being the first prototype exhibition in the Story Lab gallery, the much-lauded The Past Is Now. For the second in the experimental series, Story Lab (a space designed to test storylines and engagement methodologies) leaders Hannah Graham and Rachael Minott have collaboratively curated the exhibition alongside volunteers and community groups, which include schools, an over-50s group and a Birmingham LGBTQ+ refugee group.
 
These organisations played a role in shaping the show, from developing the concept to object selection and display, and shared stories of self-identity with the objects. It is invigorating to see collections made relevant by members of the local community invited to use their lived experience to provide the frame of reference.
 
The exhibition allows multiple layers of interpretation. The different voices are signalled with colour-coded labels, so you know if it is a local resident, an academic or the in-house team. A specially written short story also threads five objects together through a fictional narrative.
 
Serious themes
 
Displayed in a modest-sized gallery, the network of orange, yellow, white and burgundy labels is in keeping with the overall yellow and pink scheme of the exhibition and encourages exploration. Thankfully, whether visitors follow one route or another, or enter with no knowledge of the coding system, the small space means they should not be overwhelmed.
 
The show tackles hefty themes including stereotyping, gender roles, feminism, disability and ageing. An overarching theme about intersectionality also emerges. 
 
It’s a considerable achievement given that the project was completed in 10 weeks, and commendable for the way nuanced and individual personalities shine through: a thoughtful treatise on the social model of disability was signed off by “Reuben Mackay, aged 9 (reading age 25)”. The humorous note indicating someone so young could write with such insight took me by surprise, but I also appreciated it for reminding me that it is an exhibition that values accessibility on many levels.
 
Works by the British artists Gillian Wearing, Helen Chadwick, Francis Bacon and Barbara Walker are on display, and it is always great to see works by the artist Matt Smith queering the museum, too. The showstopper is by local artist Donald Rodney: Pygmalion (1997) is on display for the first time since his death in 1998. As the viewer steps through a black curtain into a darkened booth, it’s possible to see the faintest reflection in a rectangle of glass in the gloom. 
 
As the curtain falls back into place with the viewer in the dark, a sudden light reveals an automaton of Michael Jackson behind the glass, jerking in a stilted dance with his sequined glove glinting.
 
Rodney’s work causes gasps of surprise and nervous laughter. Occasionally, a visitor rushes out to grab a friend and bundle them into the booth. It is a challenging piece – after all, it presents Michael Jackson as a minstrel – and the way it shocks and titillates belies the weight of the discussion it is supposed to raise on colourism and discrimination. A careful note accompanies it, but I wonder how many visitors read this and consider the message.
 
I also can’t help but think about what the Birmingham LGBTQ+ refugee group might have to say about the British passport and identity card on display.
 
It seems that community groups took charge of specific objects. While the refugee group expertly spoke on objects linked to non-binary identity, gender fluidity and sexuality, I wanted to know what the group thought of everything else, too. 
 
But that isn’t to say the show doesn’t do a good job of representation on the whole, because it does. Within and Without has anticipated potential gaps in under-represented communities through a new commission of a video and a photographic series that focuses on Birmingham residents. 
 
It also admirably handles the topic of how our body image is shaped by external forces, through representation and the lack of it, and how we can individually embrace or subvert this by choosing to hide or reveal ourselves in subtle or overt ways. The historical context for how this plays out is also provided.
 
Playful interaction
 
The method of interpretation used suits the topic. It is hard to imagine how a plurality of voices could otherwise be adequately incorporated.
 
Still, what you see in the exhibition depends on the people invited to the table and those who came. The team seems aware of this and there are a couple of powerful questions posed: who is missing? Do you see yourself?
 
Perhaps to ensure a positive answer, there are a good number of mirrors dotted around that reflect visitors, hinting at our role as the final piece in the jigsaw. The mirrors also provide good selfie spots. Like me, several visitors gravitated towards the hot-pink dressing table with a mirror that had the American drag queen RuPaul’s quote scrawled across it reminding us that “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag”.
 
On the way out I noticed that somebody had repositioned Ken’s arms. There is a sense of playfulness in this exhibition that encourages interaction as well as a strong feeling that visitors have the opportunity to stand equal to the curator. They can experience and synthesise, then contribute, shape and mould. Despite this being a small exhibition, there are big ideas in it that visitors walk away with.
 
Dan Vo leads the volunteer team of guides who run LGBTQ tours at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. He launches LGBTQ tours at University of Cambridge Museums this month
 
Project data
 
  • Cost £12,000
  • Main funder Birmingham City Council
  • Exhibition and graphic design Heavy Object 
  • Interpretation Birmingham Museums 
  • Audiovisual Lea Nakache  
  • Lighting Birmingham Museums  
  • Display cases Birmingham Museums 
  • Project evaluation Art of Regeneration 
  • Exhibition ends 1 February 2019  
  • Admission Free

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