Anne-Karin Furunes
Talking Body
I have a memory of a trip to the Greek archipelago many years ago. I was visiting a small museum in one of the islands in the Aegean and I approached a glass case with small female figures with their arms raised straight up from the elbows to form a kind of square. My immediate reaction was that I also raised my arms to an identical position. When I realized what I had done, I was amused and sat down on a nearby bench. Without planning to follow the scene, it soon became clear that other people did the same when seeing the figures. Wondering how this happened has been a bit of mystery to me, but it has remained as a kind of strange and funny memory in my mind.

It is now clear that this was a moment of “bodily mimesis,” which today is considered one of the possible initial stages of speech. The memory came vividly to my mind when seeing Anne-Karin Furunes’s choice of pictures from the archive of the San Servolo hospital for this exhibition. She also said that she had chosen these pictures because she was fascinated by the hands and arms of the women patients documented by the hospital a long time ago. The hands, the way the arms are folded, reveal or, at least, tell about their feelings during this moment of being photographed. They also give us a glimpse of their temperaments and characters. We feel this when looking at these images. We feel it somewhere in our bodies and in recognizing it we know how and what they are feeling. We don’t know the exact reason why they were hospitalized, but we are keenly aware that these women needed care and protection.

Understanding their mental state is a surprising experience. However, when considered further it seems that this kind of bodily identification is often experienced in our encounters with art representing people. The story is there, but we read the pictures also on the basis of the postures, gestures and movements as they are represented and presented in art. Connected to this are certainly the moments when we, either consciously or unconsciously, start mimicking someone’s gestures or bodily movements. It is also used consciously as an artistic means in theatre.

Knowledge of the origin of speech and language is based on two theories. The first is the mimetic form of communication which consequently changed into a predominantly symbolic language. The symbolic language using the vocal channel is the main form, but we still use gestures and bodily mimesis to communicate. The mimesis in language “manifests itself in pantomime, imitation, gesturing, shared attention, ritualized behaviours, and in many games.”1) Another human characteristic that was needed for the further development of language is intersubjective empathy, which, as far as we now know, is a uniquely human talent. 2)

Another interesting development that took place in the 1990s was the discovery of so-called mirror neurons. Briefly put, the same mirror neurons are activated both when we act and when seeing someone else acting. It was discovered that the mirror neuron system was activated in tasks involving “action recognition, imitation, pantomime and iconic gestures.” 3) When looking at Furunes’s images our hands and arms are responding to the gestures seen in the portraits.

In all this it is fascinating to see these portraits of women at the San Servolo mental hospital and to be aware that most likely these women could not have vocally expressed precisely how they felt. Instead, we can actually feel it in these pictures and understand why they hold their arms and hands and their bodily postures in the ways that we see them in the pictures.

Mimesis is a complex concept that has been discussed as long as philosophy has existed. In art and literature, it refers to the representation of the real world. Bodily mimesis is really a way of communication between our physical bodies, which in turn are in close contact with our psychological, internal states both from the point of the sender and the receiver.

Maaretta Jaukkuri

1) Jordan Zlatev, Bodily mimesis and the transition of speech, article published on the internet as a review of the book The Evolution of Social Communication in Primates: A Multidiscplinary Approach, Lund University, p. 2
2) Ibid., p. 1
3) Ibid.,p. 4