Darren Campion for FOAM Talent Issue 48
The word ‘grotesque’ shares its origin with grotto, meaning a hidden, underground space, the use of which was often implicitly occult, other-worldly. There’s something ironic, then, about the shift grotesque undergoes in being applied, as it most often is, to the appearance of things – that is, to their surface. Particularly, we think of the grotesque in terms of some putative deviation from a standard, from a norm, which is pushed in these instances toward what is regarded as ugliness or deformity, especially when applied to the human body. But what constitutes a grotesque or ‘normal’ body depends almost entirely on the expectations we bring to it and, in that respect, the perception of an ‘ideal’ body – or indeed of any body – is as much cultural as it is material. Alix Marie’s work is precisely about these interfaces between the cultural and material spaces that the body occupies, somewhere between the gaze and the skin itself.
Of course, this notion of ‘the gaze’ has been a commonplace of critical theory for many years, but it is an appropriate term here in several respects. If it is true that the strangeness of Marie’s subject matter, its grotesquery, is a product of how it is seen, often so different from ‘normal’ seeing, this is at the same time a reminder that seeing as such is always conditional. It essentially creates the conditions by which ‘the subject’ becomes visible – and so, understood. This is the real significance of the gaze. For all that though, the strangeness of the body, of embodiment, as Marie sees it, is not strictly in the image; only our reading of the body resides there, the ways in which we apportion attraction or revulsion (or some characteristically human mix of the two). This strangeness can be parsed in other ways as well. The skin forms a boundary between ourselves and the outside world, marking the limits of the interior, but the line it draws is never quite definitive, being subject to the continual crossing of those boundaries between inner and outer by the traffic of sensation, of touch, pleasure, and pain. So, we have perhaps returned to the idea of the grotesque as something hidden, something that moves below the surface, sometimes breaking through.
At the same time, given the way that these surfaces and these bodies become visible here, the gaze that constitutes them appears to be a markedly post-digital one. They exist in a visual space that is characterised by its instability, where single elements fragment into multiple perspectives, doubling and multiplying with an almost biological profusion. This should alert us, of course, to the fact that that bodies are not stable, that they are more like zones or sites where a range of forces are concentrated, than they are singular, discrete objects. Marie has also made a suggestive connection between the skin of her subjects and the ‘skin’ of the photographic print, describing both surfaces as ‘ungraspable’ in their respective ways, meaning perhaps that the visual space of the image is subject to many of the same crossings, the same instabilities as bodily surfaces, permeable to the gaze. So, to the extent that Marie’s work is grounded in a dialogue between sculpture and photography, it might also be understood as pushing back against the dematerialisation of photographic practices in a wider (digital) context. But these disordered bodies shouldn’t just be seen as the product of new imaging technologies; instead, the different ways of thinking about representation the that technology makes possible are used to visualise the experience of bodies themselves, which don’t occupy a classically ordered space, whatever we might like to think. They are fluid entities, prone to eruption, oozing, excrescence. Marie frames the bodily as something that flows from one point to the next, constantly having to reconstitute itself.
Representing the body as an experience, then, as embodiment, only becomes possible with these ‘extended’ visual techniques, but that bodily experience remains a visceral one; it isn’t defined by its mediation, only evoked by it, made recognisable. With this in mind, Marie repeatedly stresses that the body is a site of exchange, often employing forms suggestive of openings, orifices, but also where the skin itself, as we have seen, doesn’t just serve as a frontier, but is also in fact where we enter the world and it ‘enters’ us. In that respect, ‘the body’ is a moving bundle of sensation merely bound by the skin as a limit that it continually oversteps. And these digital grotesques also suggest the freedom there might be in not thinking about particular kinds of bodies – the gendered body, the labouring body – in terms of specific (culturally encoded) forms, but instead try to imagine the body in other ways, as an entity that can be hacked. Of course, the possibilities that this presents are not unequivocally utopian, insofar as our conception of what it is to be human might be deeply challenged by them, but it could also be productively enlarged as well.
Isabella Smith on La Femme Fontaine
In the decade from its birth in 1839, photography was, to a public accustomed to public science displays, simply a branch of the sciences. (1)
This becomes relevant when considering the two exhibitions running concurrently at Matèria Gallery by French artist Alix Marie and Finnish artist Maija Tammi.
Both artists present a combination of photographic and sculptural work which to varying degrees draws on scientific (or quasi-scientific) knowledge, aesthetics and techniques to explore divergent yet not un-connected topics, ranging from the visceral experience of heartbreak to mortality, sickness and physical breakdown.
Alix Marie has created a sculptural installation combining running water, plastic tubes and concrete casts of the artist’s body alongside large X-rays of classical sculptures. A preoccupation with graeco-roman culture is evident not only in this recent work, which responds directly to the context of Rome’s Matèria Gallery (not least in the use of concrete, a material closely associated with the technical advances of the Roman Republic), but throughout Marie’s practise. Artist Tai Shani has compared the fleshy boulders of Marie’s earlier photo-sculptural installation, Orlando (2014), to both elements of the Sisyphus myth and to the emotional dynamics of Eros and Psyche. (2)
For Matèria, Marie’s aesthetic mood is entirely darker.
No tender pink, softly creased surfaces, redolent of both lover’s skin and crumpled bed; no feverish erotic obsession made monumental. The body examined here is not that of a lover, but of Marie herself. This body is heavy, fragmented, sombre. It is cast somewhat misshapenly in grey concrete, threaded through with clear tubing, and placed in clinical metal bowls. Water flows out from its exposed pipes. In conversation, the artist meshes myth and reality: the recent heartbreak of a lost lover, an identification with the mythical Greek figure of Niobe, a childhood fascination with the story of Pygmalion and Galatea.
Niobe, so the story goes, was punished by the gods for a perceived misdeed by the slaughter of all fourteen of her children. Niobe fled the slaughter, but as punishment was transformed into rock. So deep was her grief that tears continued to flow from her stone eyes. The ancient multi-part sculptural tableaux fountain depicting the Niobides in Rome’s Villa Medici is a clear influence on this work in its confluence of myth, rock and water. In this contemporary iteration, water pours from pipes inserted into concrete mouths and flesh-folds.
Concrete is an altogether less allusive material than the illustrious marble of the Niobides fountain, a material more brutal than romantic in its associations— or is it? Limestone, which is concrete’s main ingredient, comes from the dried-out corals, shells and algae of prehistoric seas; when water is added to baked limestone to form concrete, this powdered ocean bed revivifies. (3) Here additionally the rehydrated matter spurts water, and fluids have long been associated with the feminine symbolic. (4) The title La Femme Fontaine puns on the French slang for female ejaculation, that still-disputed phenomena of sexual expression which continues to be the victim of legal and cultural censorship. (5) The use of running water is thus particularly poignant both as a reference to historically either female or feminised emotional outpourings, and to the freedom of sexual expression.
Concrete, in Marie’s native tongue, is béton, from the Old French betum: a mass of rubbish in the ground. The slang phrase ‘laisse béton’ (an inversion of ‘laisse tomber’) means to leave behind something or someone, and these sculptures are, coincidentally, not dissimilar to the historical death-cast. (6) There is something of the abject body and the self as trash in this Bellmerian assembly of discarded parts, remembering that the term abjection literally means the state of being cast off.
Casts have historically been connected to classical portraiture (Pliny the Elder mentions a portrait- casting); casting flourished again with the rebirth of graeco-roman culture in the 15th century. In the 19th century, casting was well-known to both art and science, but was also a more private craft linked to the cult of the personal memento. (7) By the end of the century, life casts even rivalled photography for popularity in the sphere of portraiture. (8) Life casts for private use were usually left plain and unpainted, like La Femme Fontaine. (9) Referring to artistic and scientific material histories, Marie also invokes the laboratory culture of photography through the quasi-scientific aesthetic of tubing and metal bowls.
Like the photograph, the cast is indexical: a temporal and causal imprint. Science’s aspiration to objective truth is referenced through Marie’s investigatory objects, but documentary authority is firmly undercut by the artist’s distortions. Alginate can precisely render detail, but here, in conjunction with concrete, slips, errors and calculated interventions leave areas subtly distorted. The disjunct between indexical casts and sculptural deformations speaks to the slippage between fact and fantasy, rational and emotional truths. The apparent objectivity of the casting technique is both instrumentalised and subverted as the artist forms and reforms herself. As a child, Marie encountered the myth of the sculptor Pygmalion, who fell in love with his sculpture, Galatea; the object of desire became a living, breathing subject. Through taking herself rather than a lover as her starting point (previously a recurring element of her practise), Marie makes manifest her desire to become both sculpture and sculptor, object and subject.
In 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen announced his discovery of the X-ray with an image of his wife Anna’s hand. Produced by passing radiation through her flesh, it reveals her elongated bones veiled in ghostly flesh; in this X-ray only Anna’s large wedding ring appears solid. Röntgen photographed this symbol-adorned hand many times. The first X-ray produced in public also featured a wedding ring. (10) Through this emergent technique, inner substance was brought to the surface and physical inwardness radically penetrated. The iconographic trope of the X-ray with wedding ring can be read as an attempt to temper this clinical perception with a romantic anatomisation; an irrational, unconscious rendering of emotional reality as bone-deep. This history is not unconnected to Marie’s emotional desire to investigate and understand both herself (through her sculptures) and the masculine other (through her work). However, Marie’s X-ray prints are something of an impossible reversal. To try and anatomise the object’s subjectivity by seeing through the body is a hopeless fantasy. In making these images the artist parallels Roland Barthes:
‘To scrutinise means to search: I am searching the other’s body, as if I wanted to see what was inside it, as if the mechanical cause of my desire were in the adverse body (I am like the children who take a clock apart in order to find out what time is). [...] It is obvious I am in the process of fetishising a corpse.’ (11)
The X-rays depict Renaissance sculptures in the classical mode. Marie appropriated these images from the scientific archives of London’s V&A Museum, then digitally inverted their colouration to turn white into black. The radiation penetrated the heavy bronze sculptures to reveal hitherto unseen areas of damage, empty spaces left from the casting process and irregular seams joining limbs. Their monumentality is made fragile and ghost-like. That they are figures of male gods and demigods (Jupiter, Hercules, Anteus) is no irrelevance; in ‘seeing through’ the flesh there is analogous effort to ‘see through’ the impenetrability of hegemonic masculinity. In previous work, Marie has attempted to, in her words, ‘get through the photograph’. Here, we see an attempt to get through the substance itself depicted in the photograph. Emotions are unstable, unreliable; bodies and physical matter reveal themselves to be likewise.
1- Ben Burbridge, ‘Introduction’, in Revelations: Experiments in Photography, ed. Ben Burbridge (London: MACK in association with Media Space and the National Media Museum, 2015), p. 81
2- Royal College of Art, ‘Alix Marie’ [n.d.] https://www.rca.ac.uk/students/alix-marie/ [accessed 22 November 2016]
3 -Sadie Plant, ‘Between Shit and Architecture’, Keen On Mag, October 2016, http://concrete.keenonmag.com/sadieplant/ [accessed 22 November 2016]
4- This has been widely explored; see, for instance, Klaus Thewelweit, Male Fantasies,Volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987)
5- In 2014, an amendment to the 2003 Communications Act made the depiction of female ejaculation illegal in any pornography produced in the UK.
6 - Adrian Forty, Concrete and Culture: A Material History (London: Reaction Books, 2012), p. 10
7 - This found other manifestations, for example through jewellery made from the hair of deceased loved ones.
8- Edouard Papet, ‘Historical Life Casting’ in Penelope Curtis, ed., Second Skin: Historical Life Casting and Contemporary Sculpture (Leeds: Henry Moore Institute, 2002), p. 6
9 - E. Papet, ‘Historical Life Casting’, Second Skin, p. 6-7
10 - Ian Jeffrey, ‘Research aesthetics: science and photography’, in Revelations: Experiments in Photography, ed. Ben Burbridge (London: MACK in association with Media Space and the National Media Museum, 2015), p.68
11- Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang), p.71
Tai Shani on Orlando
In the proximity and detail of skin, it’s grain, palette and pores an intimate and privileged vision of the other, a vision of bottomless desire to know his flesh, consume its incomsumability, its excess, consume the real it promises and become real too through this ungoverned act.
The artist and her lover, archetypal like a visceral, abject Eros and Psyche as imagined by the angel of history.
But in the colossal boulders, both vulnerable and flesh-like and veined stone, another myth is invoked, that of Sisyphus and his infinite task, but here
hero is conflated, flesh and object becoming one, but here also hero is heroine, and here her task is one of forever constructing and realising her lover.
An undying monument to the transcendent toil of creating this lover, a faceless, anagrammatic mound of flesh, a surface upon which to project all dreams, trauma, feverish and inchoate desire.
Timothy Secret on Bleu
Taut and beaten like a drum, I find myself worrying about this wall of flesh stretched in its printing to a borderless excess.
I worry that in its regular repetition on these pages some careless machine, who knows nothing of flesh, will run out of its maternal colour and all that will remain is a white expanse marked by the denuded face of a blue-black stain.
At some point it is surely inevitable that all of the pink ink will have been consumed, as all flesh is, and nothing will be left anywhere of all that consumed flesh but the faint smudge of an unlocatable bruise flown from its surface. No, not only a bruise, but a bruise itself marked by the undulations of a regular field of dents that dot an asteroid’s vast landscape. A lone little birthmark asserting itself like the X of a treasure map, holding out a false hope that its lost skin could still be found, that the consumption was not absolute.
Yet that field that bruises the bruise, still personal, perhaps the only personal that remains for us now, would be a mere cover for the ultimate geometry of a finer meshwork: all those triangles, squares and pentagons crammed unbearably together.
As if it were true that everything that is was once built from regular Platonic solids, now pulverised and flattened to uselessness by the push, ever present from behind the page, of the absent yet suffocating too much of the flesh.