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McCARTHY_Video still_Position 1, Sleeping_life mol
Video still Position 1, Sleeping life molPaul McCarthy

Body sculpture: the weird, the wacky and the nude

From gyrating go-go dancers to Kate Moss, the star pieces at the Hayward's new exhibition reveal humanity's obsession with itself

Many of our earliest sculptures depicted not simply human bodies, but specifically, the bodies of naked women. This, in a way, is scarcely surprising – we have long been a species of sex-obsessed solipsists, and therefore it makes perfect sense that our idols would be masturbatory objects. Self-love; self-worship; self-indulgence: the desire to see our physical selves reflected back at us via our art and our iconography has burned within us since time immemorial.

Not all human anatomies, of course, are made equal. Marc Quinn's inscrutable Kate Moss "Sphinx", for instance, is as perfect a specimen of the Grazia-era body beautiful as is ever likely to be committed to bronze; the magazine may be recycled after its two-week tenure, but this Kate will stand forever, untarnished by time or by cocaine. Technically speaking, however, her value is less than that of the supermodel – at auction, "Sphinx" fetched just under £600,000, while the real Kate's net worth is rumoured to be in the region of £50 million. Part of what makes the flesh-and-blood Moss such a valuable commodity (and continues to ensure that, to her, £600,000 is chump change) is her own innate ability to understand what makes a successful depiction of the body. The critic Jonathan Jones has argued that any artist's depiction of her will always fall flat because there is no way to capture her that-ness: art may imitate life, but it hasn't yet figured out quite how to better it on its own terms. 

Even Paul McCarthy's "T.G. (That Girl, Awake)" – a sylphlike subject who appears so real as to offer both sexual stimulation and massive discomfiture in equal measure – has not quite achieved it in the long term. A few minutes' observation is enough to confirm the sculpture's inanimacy for the viewer; less conclusive was Jordan Wolfson's animatronic go-go dancer in situ at David Zwirner in New York this spring, whose beakish muzzle and delicate hands had such a fluidity of movement that I had nightmares about them. Has any more terrifying artwork ever been made? In a way, the idea that the gallery would drop undoubted millions of dollars on building a full-scale replica of an erotic dancer with a witch's face is almost heartening – the work is a crowd-pleaser ("pleaser", perhaps, is a slight misnomer), but it's also aggressively weird; half human sex-slave, and half beast.

“We take almost as much delight in perversions of the human body in art as we do in its celebration, and those perversions can be fetishes or concepts in their own right”

We take almost as much delight in perversions of the human body in art as we do in its celebration, and those perversions can be fetishes or concepts in their own right. I am thinking, especially, of a sculpture by Jeff Koons called "Woman in Tub", in which a naked pin-up is pleasured underwater by a man with a snorkel, and the top half of her head is missing. This horizontal slice from the filtrum to the occipital bone does not quite suggest surgery, but still feels like an unnatural absence: the fact that her brain is the part which is missing feels like rather a pointed gesture. 

Koons is an intriguing sculptor of human figures – a nervous Bobby; a gilded Michael Jackson; a starlet in a clinch with the Pink Panther – but the body he approaches with most excitement appears, at times, to be his own. A brand new photograph of the artist in Vanity Fair has been published to trumpet his retrospective. To paraphrase Orwell: if you want a picture of the art world's future, imagine a well-lit Steven Meisel shot of Jeff Koons pumping iron in front of a mirror, naked, forever and ever, amen. Perhaps most amusingly, the headline itself (“Jeff Koons Is Back!”) is used to cover not only, well, Jeff Koons' Back, but also his modesty. “By the end of (the Made In Heaven series, in which Koons appeared engaging in sexual congress with his porn-star wife), he had grown so obsessed with body sculpting he was even enlarging his dick for his sculptures,” says ArtFagCity's Paddy Johnson. 

Here is another interesting factor within art's endless meditations on the body – the coded meanings of big-ness and small-ness. 

Mauritzio Cattelan's "Him" – a sculpture of a miniaturised Adolf Hitler, kneeling to pray in a chapel – requires nothing more complex than tweaks of scale and posture in order to satirise. We may also choose to reflect ourselves, via the funhouse-mirror of sculpture, as something larger than we are: the pendulous breasts and finger-long nipples of works by Rebecca Warren, or Ron Mueck's supersized realism. Art enables us to do the things which we are not yet capable of doing with genetics, and at this, it supersedes the sciences. 

"What a piece of work," says Hamlet, "is a man" – what pieces of artwork, too, are both man and woman in the hands of the proper sculptor. That such a bizarre-looking, frail and mole-rat hairless species should take so much delight in looking at itself from every angle is, frankly, absurd, but it has its own kind of logic. If you believe in the Christian or Jewish God, you believe that we are made in His image, which makes every human depiction – both true and abstract – a stab at recording divinity. How terrifying, then, to imagine God as Jeff Koons, pumpin' iron.

The Human Factor is at Hayward Gallery, London, until September 7