体 is a character and concept commonly used in East Asian languages (traditional Chinese: 體; Japanese Hiragana: からだ or たい; Korean Hangul: 체). It refers to the material existence of a person, as seen in compound words such as 身体 (human body) and 体格 (physique). In an abstract sense, it also connotes substance, form, and organizing principles, as seen in compound words such as 体系 (system) and 国体 (national polity).
Using this character as a point of departure, this exhibition looks at the multifaceted representations of the body in East Asia from the nineteenth century to the present. In this period, the region became more enmeshed in the worldwide circulation of things and ideas, and paradoxically, the personal and the collective both found very strong expressions in society. The exhibition explores modern and contemporary portrayals of physical appearances in East Asia, and particularly how these bodily images have come to symbolize identities, reflect socio-political changes, serve as vehicles for artistic expression, and challenge preconceived notions of humankind.
The art works, ranging widely in media and culture, are mostly drawn from the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection. The exhibition thereby has evolved around but also brings visibility to a significant section of the museum’s holdings, which corresponds to the college’s global and multidisciplinary curriculum. It opens up inquiries into issues including colonial history and Orientalism, global exchange of material and knowledge, rise of nation-states, myths and spectacles, body politics, and biological and technological evolutions.
In this exhibition, East Asian names are given in the order conforming to the native language convention—the family name followed by the given name. The reverse order is used if the artist has immigrated to the U.S., or is known as such in the English language. All family names are identified with capital letters.