Charlotte Jansen, From: Photography Now: Fifty Pioneers Defining Photography for the Twenty-First Century, TATE and ILEX Publishing (2021)
Born in Paris in 1989, Alix Marie was raised on cinema. The first film she watched, at two years old, wasn’t a Disney classic but F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), the classic silent horror film about a vampire interested in buying a new property – and in his estate agent’s beautiful wife. Marie has said in an interview that this early encounter with the grotesque has informed her highly unusual works, in which she sculpts photography into something fleshy, visceral and downright strange.
As a student at Central Saint Martins and then the Royal College of Art in London, Marie developed a practice that fulfilled her desire to be able to both see things and touch them. Frustrated with the flatness of photographs but nonetheless enthralled with image making, she concentrates today on photo-based sculptures and installations that envelop the viewer, capturing something of the absorption of the cinema goer sitting in the glow of the silver screen. The physical aspect of Marie’s work is just as important as the visual, not only in the way she fills space but also in the treatment of her recurrent subject matter: bodies. ‘The practice of photography can be so clinical; it did not fit me as a messy sculptor. But that was kind of my obsession – to work out how to give the medium a body,’ she has explained. Marie’s sculpted photographs create an unsettling form that takes you inside the image, making you a little more aware of your own skin.
Throughout its history, photography has established a hierarchy of bodies, representing aspirational forms and perfect physiques for men and women, whether in advertising campaigns, publications or pornography. To eschew this heteronormative gaze on binary bodies, Marie prefers to create layers that merge different parts of differently gendered bodies, surfaces that often conceal the source material or trick us into seeing something that isn’t there. She has X-rayed classical sculptures from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection, cast her own body, and printed biceps and torsos onto Perspex boxes filled with water and heated by lamps, making the pictures look as if they are perspiring. For Marie, ‘This methodology is to pause and reflect, to dig out other ways of thinking which escape the extremely narrow script we have been given to inhabit our skins. The way I photograph is claiming a place for genuine depiction of our bodies, in opposition to the impossible ideal we are fed everyday through advertising and mass media.’
Metamorphosis and hybridity are core components in Marie’s work. A starting point is often classical mythology, together with archetypes of femininity and masculinity and assumptions about ideal bodies, all of which are ways to speak about the construction and performance of gender and identity in the contemporary context. In her sculptural work La Femme Fontaine (2017), for example, Marie references the Greek mythological figure Niobe, who made the mistake of boasting about how fertile she was; as a consequence, the gods killed her children and the weeping mother was turned to stone. With their hybrid bodies, the Greek sirens, who lured sailors to their death with their song, have also been an inspiration, as has the Pythia, the high priestess at Apollo’s oracle in Delphi, who evoked both fear and wonder because of her deep knowledge. These ancient figures serve as prototypes for continuing stereotypes of femininity as hysterical, seductive and dangerous.
In tandem with these explorations of exaggerated feminine qualities, Marie has investigated displays of masculinity that date back to ancient Greek athletes. In her trio of works Flex (2017), Shredded (2018) and Olympians (2019), she examines this specifically through bodybuilding, using found images from bodybuilding magazines like FLEX, Swedish porn and the profiles of bodybuilders she has met on Instagram. With its posturing and posing, often in skimpy outfits and in front of an audience – not unlike a striptease – bodybuilding for Marie represents a clash of camp and heteronormative hyper-masculinity. It is also a subject that has an established history with the camera, both as a way to record athletes’ accomplishments and physiques, and as an area of fascination for artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Camille Vivier and Bill Dobbins. Marie articulates the analogy thus: ‘Bodybuilding is about image and aesthetic, the performance of strength rather than physical strength itself, and it sits in between science and art, in which it relates to photography.’
Née à Bobigny en 1989, Alix Marie est élevée dans l’univers du cinéma. Le premier film qu’on lui montre, à l’âge de deux ans, n’est pas un Disney mais Nosferatu de F.W.Murnau (1922), le classique film d’horreur muet inspiré par le roman Dracula de Bram Stocker. Marie a révélé dans une interview antérieure que son travail s’est trouvé imprégné de cette rencontre originelle, dans lequel on trouve de la photographie traitée en sculpture charnelle, viscérale voire carrément étrange.
En tant qu’étudiante à la Central Saint Martins puis au Royal College of Art de Londres, Marie à développé une pratique qui a comblé son désir d’à la fois voir et toucher. Frustrée par l’aspect plat de la photographie, mais néanmoins fascinée par les images, elle se concentre aujourd’hui sur des sculptures photographiques et des installations qui enveloppent le spectateur, capturant quelque chose de l’absorption dont le cinéphile fait l’expérience à la lueur d’un écran. La physicalité du travail de Marie est aussi importante que le visuel, non seulement dans sa manière de remplir l’espace mais aussi par le traitement qu’elle impose à son sujet récurrent: le corps. « La pratique de la photo peut-être si clinique ; cela ne collait pas avec mon approche empirique de sculptrice. Mais c’était mon obsession, de trouver comment donner un corps à ce médium. », explique-t-elle. Les photo-sculptures de Marie créent une forme troublante qui vous emmène dans l’image et vous rend un peu plus conscient de votre propre peau.
À travers son histoire, la photographie a établi une hiérarchie des corps, représentant des formes ambitieuses et des physiques parfaits pour les hommes et les femmes, que ce soit dans les campagnes de publicités, l’édition ou la pornographie. Pour éviter de reproduire ce regard hétéronormé sur des corps binaires, Marie préfère créer des couches qui associent différentes parties de corps de différents genres, des surfaces qui souvent cachent la source réelle du sujet ou nous font voir ce qui en fait n’y est pas. Elle a passé au rayon X des sculptures classiques de la collection du Victoria and Albert Museum de Londres, moulé son propre corps et imprimé des biceps et des torses sur des boîtes en plexiglas remplies d’eau et chauffées par des lampes, faisant ‘transpirer’ l’image. Pour Marie, « cette méthodologie est là pour prendre un temps et réfléchir, pour laisser surgir d’autres manières de penser qui échappent au scénario très restreint qu’on nous impose pour habiter nos peaux. « La manière dont je photographie réclame une place pour un portrait authentique des corps, en opposition à l’idéal impossible dont on nous nourrit tous les jours à travers la publicité et les médias de masse. »
Métamorphose et hybridité sont les composants du travail de Marie. Un de ces points de départ est souvent la mythologie, ainsi que les archétypes de la féminité et de la masculinité, associés à ce qu’on attend de corps idéaux, une manière d’aborder la construction et la performance du genre et de l’identité dans un contexte contemporain. Dans sa pièce sculpturale La Femme Fontaine (2017), par exemple, Marie référence la figure mythologique grecque de Niobe, qui fit l’erreur de se vanter de sa fertilité: les dieux tuèrent ses enfants et la mère éplorée fut changée en pierre. Avec leur corps hybrides, les sirènes grecques, qui trompèrent les marins et les emmenèrent à la mort avec leurs chants ensorcelants, sont aussi une inspiration, autant que la Pythie, grande prêtresse de l’oracle d’Apollon à Delphes, qui inspire autant la peur que l’émerveillement par son savoir. Ces figures anciennes ont servi à l’artiste de prototype pour questionner les stéréotypes de la féminité hystérique, séductrice et dangereuse.
En tandem avec ces explorations de qualités féminines exagérées, Marie a enquêté sur une forme d’exposition de la virilité qui remonte aux anciens athlètes grecs. Dans son trio d’oeuvres Flex (2017), Shredded (2018) et Olympians (2019), elle l’examine au travers du prisme du culturisme, utilisant une banque d’images trouvées dans des magazines de culturisme comme FLEX, de pornographie suédoise et de profils de bodybuilders rencontrés sur Instagram. Avec ses postures et ses poses, souvent dans des tenues très dénudées et devant un public- au fond assez proche de celui du strip-tease – le bodybuilding pour Marie représente un clash entre féminité et hyper-masculinité hétéronormée. C’est aussi un sujet qui a une histoire établie avec la photographie, à la fois comme méthode scientifique d’enregistrement des performances physiques d’athlètes, et comme fascination pour des artistes tels que Robert Mapplethorpe, Camille Vivier et Bill Dobbins. Marie articule cette analogie ainsi: ‘le bodybuilding est une histoire d’image et d’esthétique, la performance de la force plutôt que la force physique en elle-même, et parce qu’il se trouve à cheval entre la science et l’art, il se rapporte de facto à la photographie.’
FZ#3: The Body As Territory by Mariasanta Tedesco on Hundred Heroines 3/2/2021 - Read here
Heroine Alix Marie is currently exhibiting in Milan alongside two artists; Ruth Beraha and Silvia Hell. The NFZ#3 exhibition, curated by Roberta Pagani as part of the No Fly Zone project, has given birth to an inspiring collective dialogue that strives to understand the fate of our bodies in all their different implications be it political, alien, mortal or spiritual.
The body, perceived as territory, has been going through different conceptualisations, profaned by the idolatry based on the cult of the image, conceived as “more human than human”, not perishable flesh but a perfect artificial machine. From the cyborg and the post-human era, to the body as a space of political and cultural battle and to what lately has been described as transhumanism and technological singularity. A dystopic vision has been produced by new communication technologies, a vision in which the private space becomes meaningless and consequently the public one is reduced to a “digital swarm”- cit. Byung-Chul Han -.
The exhibition scrutinises the connection between fiction and reality. It unveils a relationship more and more faded, specifically when we think at how our data is conveyed in the different contemporary political, economic and media systems. In an attempt to uncover the interaction between the body and “the other” the skin delineates, at the same time the arena and the barrier declares the failure of any form of identification between the self and the environment.
The French photographer and artist, Alix Marie, has always explored the relationship between the body and the problem of its representation, the skin has been at the centre of her attention as in her previous book titled Bleu. Using many techniques that involve experimenting with the matter, she is investigating the possibility of conceiving photography as a tridimensional object, she is refusing its flatness, she is affirming her inadequacy on its own to reproduce the body per se and in relation to.
Her work introduces a new “extra gender” (cit. Roberta Pagani), mutated identity and discloses the contamination between flesh and technology. In the series on display at the Ncontemporary Gallery, the hand shaped sculptures hold various flowers dipped and preserved in glass wax as offerings to “the other”.
Alix Marie’s work is fascinating and full of metaphors, the sculptures are made from green glass wax and they are capturing the action of “giving flowers”. The colour green relates to a natural and a supernatural world, it has been identified with the colour of the stranger, the other, the colour of hope and finally it has been associated with the colour of the alien, the evil and the witches’ skin.
She carefully chooses the wax as a material to shape because of its connections with anatomical models, beauty treatments, erotic practises and magical rituals, the wax has a corporeal component she needs. Finally, the ritual of giving flowers to your dear ones brings more and more hidden meanings, we are offering in fact the reproductive organs of the flower and at same time a dying gift, life and death eventually leading to the concept of change.
Change is perfectly depicted by the use of Protea flowers which belong to the Proteaceae, among the oldest families of flowers on earth, and according to different mythologies, such as Greek and South African, these species celebrate the mortality of the human being. The name Protea comes from the Greek god Proteus, son of Poseidon, a sea-divinity and an oracle who was able to alter his shape. It is said that the flower was named after him and because of its immense variety which makes impossible any aim of scientific classification, it means transformation, audacity, heterogeneity.
This work has seduced me in so many ways, it is such a delicate and powerful response to such a complex question, a captivating mixture of ancient and contemporary, human and alien, flesh and technology in which the only constant element appears to be the metamorphosis of the bodies, the changeability of their representation, the evolution of the way they enter and communicate with the public space and above all the unchangeable need of giving.
Where machismo meets tiny gold pants: the bodybuilding art of Alix Marie, Interview in The Guardian by Sean O'Hagan 28/05/2019
With her show Shredded, full of bulging bodies sweating under bright lights, the artist lays bare the fascinating, surreal world of inflatable musclemen.
As you enter Roman Road in London’s East End, the noise from a pair of speakers in the foyer is almost overwhelming: grunts, exhalations and the thud of heavy metal weights landing on the floor. Recorded in a bodybuilder’s gym, this is an introductory soundscape for Alix Marie’s show, Shredded.
“I want the viewer to enter an environment that is immediately uncomfortable, almost scary,” says the Paris-born artist, whose work merges photography and sculpture and tends towards the grotesque. “I have amplified what the novelist Kathy Acker, herself a bodybuilder, called ‘the language of the body’ as it undergoes this extreme transformation and essentially breaks down.”
In the main gallery, the noise is different but no less relentless. Fans pump air into three inflatable polyester torsos – all bulging biceps, veiny skin and straining muscle – that stand erect and quivering on a raised shelf. As a metaphor for extreme bodybuilding, the pumped-up photo-sculptures are both disturbing and surreal. Likewise the images in the light boxes below, more close-ups of bulging bodies that seem to be sweating under bright spotlights. On closer inspection, they are mounted on shallow vitrines half-filled with liquid. On the opposite wall, cut-out silhouettes of pumped-up bodies are arranged in a row – arms, chests and necks, thighs as big as tree trunks. The combined effect of the noise and image overload in such a confined space is claustrophobic, ultra-masculine, almost intimidating. But also oddly camp.
“Good,” says Alix Marie, laughing. “Bodybuilding is a performance of extreme virility but, in competition, it also comprises huge men almost naked except for tight gold pants. For me, the contrast of the machismo and the campness is fascinating. When they perform they become moving sculptures, as much Auguste Rodin as Arnie Schwarzenegger.”
It was the young Arnie who, in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, famously likened the ritual of professional bodybuilding to having sex with a woman: “I am coming day and night. It’s terrific, right … I’m in heaven.” For Alix Marie the fascination was more about the ways in which masculinity is exhibited and performed in extremis in an enclosed, all male world. The bodies that feature in her exhibition belong to three men she photographed in gyms in Bethnal Green, Ealing and Tottenham. “I used to live opposite the one in Tottenham,” she says, “After some persuasion, they let me in to their boxing room for a total of five minutes to shoot the model. I guess they didn’t want to freak out the clientele with a female presence.”
Shredded – the term describes someone with extremely low body fat and very well defined muscles – continues Marie’s interest in “body, gender and sculpture.” In the past, she has cast her own body parts in grey concrete and printed the images on glass, fabric, paper-mache and PVC. For one show, she draped images of nude torsos on metal scaffolding and, for another, plastic pipes of fluids snaked along the gallery floor, erupting out of sculptures that looked like mutant sexual organs straight out of a David Cronenberg movie. She cites the aberrant film-maker as a prime influence alongside the surrealists. Her most powerfully unsettling work seems to come from a similar source – the realm of the unconscious and irrational, but it is tempered with a consistent formal discipline and a desire to somehow meld two creative practices that do not tend to sit together easily.
“It is challenging to work with photography as sculpture, but it is what has always fascinated me,” she says, “I never wanted to chose between the eye and the hand. In a way, I want to go inside the photograph, which is, of course, impossible. Also, I need physical contact in the making of the work, but as a big part of the viewer’s experience of it.”
A small survey of Marie’s work was on show earlier this month at Photo London. It included a ceramic sculpture in which an image of a human eye was continuously drenched in absinthe from a perspex fountain. (The tableau refers to a French wedding night tradition in which the groom places an icon of an eye in a bidet used by the bride.) Visitors could kneel and drink from the absinthe fountain if they so wished. In the context of her recent work, it was a user-friendly piece. Across town, in a group show called Apparatus, at Peckham 24, things were more brutally physical with outsize inflated polystyrene sculptures of muscular arms rotating on a contraption that called to mind a kebab skewer. “I like the idea of the viewer being simultaneously fascinated and repulsed,” she says. “The environments I create are often uncomfortable. They demand a reaction.”
Alix Marie is part of a generation of young mostly female photographers, including Juno Calypso and Maisie Cousins, whose work explores notions of femininity, eroticism, gender and body image. In contrast to the uninhibited physicality of Cousins’s more sensual close-ups of brightly-lit, glistening bodies, lips and tongues, Marie’s work is often defined by her interest in the grotesque. Fluids, flesh-coloured tubing and rubber sculptures that resemble mutant sex aids have all featured in her work. She cites the transgressive writings of Georges Bataille as another abiding influence alongside the still-shocking fetishistic doll sculptures of Hans Bellmer. “As a feminist,” she muses, “I have to ask myself why is he one of my favourite artists?”
French film, too, is a touchstone. At Photo London, an image printed on fabric of male hands buried in female hair rippled just above ground level in the artificial breeze created by a hidden fan. It could have been taken from a French nouvelle vague movie.
“I was raised watching a film a day,” she says of her childhood in Paris. Born in 1989, her mother was a screenwriter and her father a film theorist, historian and lecturer. “They really don’t get what I do, but they are hugely supportive,” she says.
Alix Marie has lived in London for 11 years, studying fine art at Central Saint Martins before completing an MA in photography at the Royal College of Art. She says: “One of the things that most interests me is the clinical aspect of analogue photography that somehow links it to medicine – the technicians, the laboratory, the baths, the gloves, the scalpel. For me, it is essentially a laboratory process and I approach it as such, as a place of experimentation and exploration.”
What has she learned from her immersion in the world of extreme bodybuilding? “I don’t think I have ever been in a more self-conscious environment,” she says. “It’s about looking strong, about poise and pose. Being ripped, as they call it, is increasingly popular, but the bodybuilders still feel they are treated like freaks. It is a very enclosed world.” She pauses for a moment, “I would describe it as being very formal, very repetitive, an activity that lies between science and art.” She breaks into laughter. “Then again, I could just as easily be talking about photography.”
Alix Marie's Shredded article by Hannah Abel-Hirsch for the British Journal Of Photography 9/05/2019
What do bodybuilding and photography have in common? Marie draws parallels between the two to explore gender constructs and how they play out across the body.
In 1900, Eugen Sandow, the father of bodybuilding, was photographed by Étienne-Jules Marey. Marey, a French scientist, physiologist and pioneer of the photography, invented chronophotography: a method of analysing movement through rapidly photographed images (think of Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse suspended in mid-air). With his sculpted, muscular physique, Sandow was the perfect model for Marey to study human motion. “Through my research, I discovered this link between bodybuilding and photography,” says artist Alix Marie, speaking ahead of the opening of her London solo exhibition. Shredded, which comprises photography and multidimensional works, draws on the aesthetics of bodybuilding to investigate conceptions of body and gender.
This connection is just one of the many parallels between bodybuilding and Marie’s own practice, which cemented her interest in the subject. The artist specialises in blending photography, sculpture and installation to create work that interrogates notions of gender and the body. Originally studying Fine Art at Central St Martins College in London, with a particular focus on sculpture, she went on to complete an MA in Fine Art Photography at the Royal College of Art, London. “I kept photography and sculpture separate until I found a way to combine them,” she explains. “The practice of photography can be so clinical; it did not fit me as a messy sculptor. But that was kind of my obsession – to work out how to give the medium a body.”
Marie began to conceptualise photography as skin, enveloping the sculptural body beneath; an analogy that extends to bodybuilding. “Bodybuilders think of themselves as sculptures and sculptors,” explains Marie, “… and the skin is the costume they wear.” With bodybuilding, the onus is on aesthetics. The activity is distinct from strong-man contests, or weight-lifting, where strength is paramount. “What interested me in male bodybuilding, in particular, was the collapse of gender,” says Marie. “At first glance, it appears to be this performance of extreme virility, but actually these men are half naked on stage wearing golden underwear. So, visually, it is linked to the stereotype of the pin-up or the striptease, which are feminine cliches.”
One of the exhibited works It’s like somebody blowing air into your muscle, 2019, which comprises wind blower fans that inflate printed fabrics depicting male bodybuilders, was inspired by a quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger from the 1977 film Pumping Iron. For Marie, it encapsulates bodybuilders’ performance of virility. “Schwarzenegger says: ‘The greatest feeling you can get in a gym or the most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym, is the pump … I’m like, getting the feeling of coming in the gym. I’m getting the feeling of coming at home. I’m getting the feeling of coming backstage when I pump up, when I pose in front of 5000 people. I get the same feeling. So I’m coming day and night. I mean it’s terrific, right?'” she recounts. “It was just perfect as this performance of male virility”.
The idea for Olympians, 2019 – the second series, which will also be published as a book by Morel Books – evolved from Marie leafing through a Swedish porn magazine given to her by a friend. The publication was sold in Japan in the 1970s: “There was this huge censorship so they would black out all the genitals with a marker pen.” Marie applied the technique to editing bodybuilding magazines. “I wanted to see how it would look,” she says, “but, I ended up doing the opposite. Instead of erasing the body, I got rid of the rest.” Over the course of a year, she obsessively carved out the bulging, veiny exteriors of bodybuilders’ physiques in a manner akin to sculpting. “I am now at 150,” she says. “They take ages because it is not just one layer of a marker pen, it is about six.” The repetition also echoes the cyclical nature of bodybuilders’ regimes: “There are periods of time when they diet and get really skinny; there are periods of time when they eat so much. There are periods of time when, before a show, they stop drinking water to enhance their muscle definition.”
The vigorous regimes to which bodybuilders adhere are also alluded to in the third piece in the show – The more he starts to bring that water out the better he has a tendency to appear, 2019. The work comprises printed images of muscular torsos affixed to the lids of Perspex boxes filled with water. These are displayed atop metal stands and each is illuminated by a spotlight. “I call them the sweat boxes,” says Marie. The heat of the lights makes the water evaporate, coating the surface of each print in a layer resembling sweat. The work also references the practice of analogue photography; the process of developing images in chemical baths.
The distinctive sounds of a gym environment permeate the gallery space, which is bathed in dimmed light; the result is immersive. Through a multi-dimensional experience, Marie undoes the cliches associated with bodybuilding and encourages us to consider the stereotypes that shape our understanding of the body more broadly. “My work is successful when it provokes a bodily or visceral experience in someone,” she says. “I am used to a bit of a heated reaction. If people are made a little more aware of their own body, then I have done my job.”
Harriet Riches' review of Bleu for SOURCE Photographic Review (Issue 92)
For a photographer used to exploring the point at which photography becomes sculpture, the format of the photo-book presents a challenge. Unlike the immersive installations that break down the boundaries between the two forms, for her first book Alix Marie relegates the materiality of the body to paper. In places highly-glossed and in others matt and vynil-smooth, each skin-like page traces the idiosyncrasies of the body’s own surface: the sunset tones of a bruise, goose-bump flesh and coral-like folds, birthmarks and broken veins. Gauzy fabrics create pixelated screens within the frame, while montage-effects juxtapose flesh and meat to recreate the body as a landscape of undecipherable matter.
Often lingering on the edges of desire, in Marie’s photography the lens probes a scopophilic wound in which our relationship to amorphous lumps of anonymous flesh is always poised on the precipice of disgust. BLEU’s invitation to touch and consume the flesh on offer is no different. At once seductive and repellent, its mirror-shiny pages both attract and deflect our gaze - one that is made material as eyes and mouths, vision and touch, become confused. Scratchy edges cut a peep-hole from which instead a pink nipple protrudes; elsewhere a slick tongue pokes through a statue’s stone flesh, creating rupture in the photographic skin. Excessive to the point of revulsion, flesh is rendered abject: all mucous membrane and ambiguous orifices, any recognisable form starts to break down, subjects and objects merge into one.
Photography has long borrowed from a language of skin and flesh - think of Roland Barthes’ umbilical cord of light that, he fantasised in Camera Lucida, promised to reconnect him to the maternal body lost forever to the photograph’s elegiac light. In Marie’s BLEU, that light-filled connection is made flesh once more. But, constrained by the page, the photograph remains suspended - just - on the border between self and other. Its own flawed but ultimately perfect skin allows it to be contained in the realm of pure image - threatened by the body’s material ‘thingness’ that cannot.
Chantal Faust for NATUR BLICK
“I think I scan, I think I scan, I think I scan. And I touch, in order to see. Scanning is a visual movement, a sweeping glance, a skim, an analysis, and a conversion. To scan is to look quickly, and also to look carefully. In the digital realm, scanning demands proximity, it is intimate in this way. The seeing eye of the machine is a reader of surfaces, recording traces of a perceptual and tactile encounter. In the land of the flatbed, touch, vision, and memory become inseparable. In this sense, the seeing organ is more akin to a tongue than an eye, a close-up form of perception and ingestion, licking blindly in the dark.”
NATUR BLICK, group show including Augustine Carr,Otto Ford, Clair Le Couteur, Alix Marie, WARD, Chantal Faust, Gili Lavy, Samantha Lee, Anna Skladmann and Andrea Zucchini at the Koppel Project Hive, curated by Augustine Carr and Paula Zambrano
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.
MDAM, Alix Marie, Mia Dudek & The Plantation Journal
John Phelan's special jury mention for the Anamorphosis Prize
A curious eros, this.
Book as sculpture. Only this time for real. A de-con-struct-ion. Heavy on the hyphens. Parts.
A welcome receptacle of grand grotesque gestures.
The first page a torn sheet of latex that flops about its silver spiral binding like some impotent flounder fish skin, a prophylactic. But against what? Itself? Things turn inward; the crab discards his shell only in search of a bigger one. Inside there is a hum. Hold this book to your ear. Hear the ocean whoosh of an artificial heart.
Consider the images:
Stretch marks, fingerprints, tongues.
Wet washcloth a blue rat, its spiky fibers fur.
A balloon knot that rises not; a concrete hand cast from a rubber glove.
Here a pipe is a pipe. That is a steel pipe, connected to a tubular sex toy, sinister. Together they make a right angle. Cardinal direction. Orifices likely and unlikely. The not so sweet imitation of life.
Nipples, sacs, sacred folds. Things that deliver. Things that take. Systems, vivisections, parts. Parts familiar but disguised, recognizable but distorted.
Cavities, sacred caves. The velvet places imagined but not meant to be seen.
VENUS. Made from man parts and woman parts, both. Holy grotto.
Sublingual, we dose. Speak in bumpy tongues.
Flesh tones both real and manufactured sing, but off key. And the tune is pleasantly unsettling, an industrial grind atonal that hints with fey notes, but whose score, purposefully disheveled, leaves one unsure whether or not to grab a chair when the music stops. It does not. An auto loop organic of timeless skin slapping skin punctured by occasional crisp blank pages—paper squares and rectangles that fill in the mind’s eye like a palimpsest with an invisible ink, skin tattooed from the inside. Out. Sticky notes unstuck, their glue rubbed off, reused and repurposed into the artificial mucus that fill the molds that will pop out a type of mold designed to be filled. Cyclic, chemical, pining for the biological only to ultimately fall short, fail. This smear. A wet glass slide freshly prepared to be placed under the lens of the microscope, its god-like all seeing eye. These parts. These glorious messy parts.
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.