Teeth are the bars of a prison window. The soul escapes through the mouth in words.
These are the opening sentences from the eleventh index in French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s manifesto, Fifty-eight Indices on the Body. In it, Nancy examines the nature of the human body: its limits, its function, its relationship to the intangible features of humanity—spirit, essence, soul, mind.
Wardell Milan has engaged Nancy’s text as a provocation to reconsider the body—our collective bodies—as it and as we have navigated these last years of isolation, polarization, and perseverance. Choosing five bodies to explore and uphold, Milan revisits the eternal theme of the human figure through the urgent context of contemporary American experience. Making visible and even monumental those figures in society so often rendered invisible through marginalization or discrimination, Milan celebrates the beauty of difference and complexity. As can be observed elsewhere in his paintings, drawings, and photographic collages, Milan deploys in these billboards the visual strategies of fragmentation, distortion, and abbreviation. The resulting compositions are nevertheless beautiful.
As viewers, we are left to wrestle with the tension between the attraction of visual harmony and the challenge inherent in Milan’s chosen subject matter. Are we not all beautiful?
In the United States of today, we typically experience billboards as invitations to consume. In other times and places, billboards functioned as sites of propaganda. By using the space of a billboard for the representation of our bodies, Milan subverts the commercial function of signage and marshals it instead as a call to action—to pause, to appreciate, to change, and to see.