), first shown at the Stable Gallery, New York, in 1964.The series comprised plaster and wax casts of Thek’s face, arms and legs as well as slabs of tissue moulded in wax, enclosed in vitrines that spliced the geometry of minimalist sculpture with the carnality of a Catholic shrine.This project reached a climatic point in 1967, which consisted of a full-size effigy of the artist painted pale pink and displayed on the floor of a wooden ziggurat of the same feminine colour.
), first shown at the Stable Gallery, New York, in 1964.
Unlike the hyperrealist sculptors, Segal left his plaster casts unpainted but arranged them in near-perfect polychrome simulations of a gas station or a diner, forcing a contrast between figure and ground that counterintuitively rendered the monochrome figures more real.
Calling to mind the ill-fated Pompeiians whose forms were captured by molten ash when Vesuvius erupted, Segal’s figures register more as victims of natural phenomena than as man-made artworks.21 Similarly, Thek’s mostly monochrome figure might be said to represent silent interiority.
Both stage the effigy at a point of putrefaction – the blue tongue of Thek’s figure, the duration of (1957) German historian Ernst Kantorowicz explained how the royal corpse threatened the symbolic continuity of power, thus prompting the production of a more durable substitute for public display upon death.7 What Kantorowicz identified in his book on the prehistory of modern ‘political theology’ was elaborated on by the philosopher Michel Foucault in a 1975–6 series of lectures at the Collège de France, in which he defined the concept of biopower.8 Foucault modified earlier theories, which understood sovereignty as the divinely ordained right to ‘take life or let live’, to argue that the state now had the authority ‘to make live and to let die’.9 Where individual bodies were subject to disciplinary techniques under medieval regimes, modern political regimes inaugurated in the later eighteenth century applied these techniques to entire populations.10 Individuals only mattered in terms of what data they could yield about the masses; in extreme cases this data could be used to strip citizens of their rights and place them under a ‘state of exception’, a term coined by juridical theorist Carl Schmitt to refer to a sovereign’s ability to transcend the rule of law.11 The political philosopher Giorgio Agamben has followed Schmitt by reviving the obscure Roman legal term at the bottom are thus oddly aligned.13The productive intermingling of death and vitality in these two bodies of work made them an ideal vehicle to challenge the constellation of technologies, institutions and discourses that Foucault named ‘biopower’.
Thek’s entombed hippie, which bore his likeness, and Hershman Leeson’s equally entombed yet perversely vital effigies of marginal women can both be understood as confronting biopower through the perspective of the counterculture and other movements that flowered (and declined) in 1960s and 1970s America.
While visiting the Capuchin ossuary near Palermo he was deeply moved by the sight of countless corpses stuffed into niches and arranged on shelves.
In a 1966 interview he described how it felt to open a glass box and touch ‘what [he] thought was a piece of paper’ but turned out to be ‘a piece of dried thigh’.17 This uncanny experience, coupled with the artist’s interest in bodily thingness, directly informed works such as 1966–7 Thek placed a facial cast coloured a psychedelic pattern, with realistic porcelain teeth and a red pierced tongue, on a ziggurat base at the bottom of a clear vitrine.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s American artists Paul Thek and Lynn Hershman Leeson independently created wax effigies and situated them within immersive or performative contexts that transformed the visual language of sovereignty and dignified the socially marginal body.
This paper explores lost installations by both artists, where the effigy’s connotations of volatility challenged biopolitical systems of control as well as the reduction of individuals to stereotypes.
Thek and Hershman Leeson infused the incorruptible effigy with signs of rot and thus ruptured and subverted the image of sovereign power.
Paul Thek began making his after a 1963 trip to Sicily sponsored by Princess Topazia Alliata, who had earlier shown his work at Rome’s Galleria Trastevere.