Flash Points

Teaching with Contemporary Art

Teaching with Controversial Material: “Bodies”


Illustration by Natasha Russel, Senior, Nyack High School

Just a few weeks ago, a colleague and I had the opportunity to take three Advanced Placement Studio Art classes to see Bodies: The Exhibition at South Street Seaport. This was a trip that, quite frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to since I was undecided about where I stood with the “material” being presented for display—unidentified human remains encased in plastic coating. Prior to the visit, we discussed and read excerpts from the ABC 20/20 News special, “Human Bodies on Display.” More than usual, we spent a lot of time talking and writing about this exhibit before ever seeing it. I wanted to get a sense of where my students stood on the legitimacy of this exhibit. Were the exhibit organizers right in displaying human remains even though they did not have consent from these individuals? Did the reports about many of these people being possible prisoners of war have any bearing on their opinion? Did the fact that so may of the figures displayed were of Chinese descent have any affect on how they saw the exhibit? Surprisingly, there were a wide variety of opinions, but the work we did on the “front end” of this unit and visit allowed for more focused study and reflection while we were there. Students were asked to create 2-3 drawings while viewing the exhibit and then create a finished work for their portfolio that was influenced by what they saw.

Working with controversial material such as the Bodies exhibition, Kara Walker, or even works by artists such as Barry McGee can certainly cause the wrong kind of attention if simply “dumped” into the curriculum and left for students to decipher (not to mention discuss with families) on their own. Teachers need to make sure that all aspects of the work are talked about and shared before a trip or long-term assignment that deals with the subject matter. Students need to understand the connections to the curriculum, and their own lives, before making art influenced by controversial works or exhibits.

I found it interesting that many students were fine with reports that exhibition organizers may have used bodies of Chinese prisoners who died and had no immediate family to take care of the remains. I then asked if it would be ok if any of the homeless men and women we regularly came in contact with were one day used for this exhibit. Almost every student then had a much different opinion. The suggestion struck a nerve. Suddenly, with the suggestion that this exhibit import bodies from someplace “closer to home”, students formed different opinions about whether the organizers should have written consent from the humans whose bodies are used, or at least the families of these people.

One thing becomes clear when you visit this exhibition…. You have to keep reminding yourself, these are people, not simply sculptures of people.


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