Feeling Faint, Rather than Faint-Hearted

Sometimes you get more than you have bargained for. And I really shouldn’t complain, considering that I am continually blasting bland photography exhibitions on the ubiquitous topics of the isolation of the highrise-dweller, urban monotony and human misery. Yes, I cannot stand insipid photography projects on the blandness of suburban supermarket car parks. And I think there is nothing more tedious than another solo-show on the ghost estat-ism of current-day Ireland. But whoa – I certainly didn’t see what was hitting me when I recently went to see an exhibition called “Skin” in the Royal Hibernian Academy.

To be fair, I had been warned. My friend D___ had mentioned that “it was not for the faint-hearted”. But since he had also told me that there were two prints by a big-name photographer in the show, I chose to ignore his warning and see the exhibition, anyway. “Skin – an artistic atlas” sounds harmless enough: Skin makes an appearance in all graphic art. Well, whenever there is a person in it, there will be skin. And this largest of all human organs is obviously a wonder in itself, can be quite beauiful and is certainly something we encounter ourselves on a daily basis. On the basis of “every single moment of our lives”, more like.

Maybe I should’ve taken heed of the fact that the exhibition in the RHA was organised in conjunction with the launch of the Irish Skin Foundation, a newly-formed charity to support people with skin conditions. Can you see where this is leading? Yes, it led to some art that was quite hard to stomach. Even a stoic like myself had to acknowledge that. It was mostly the painted and drawn art that had me clutch my stomach to stop it from reeling (or worse) in the face of growths, discoulourings and gaping abysses. Particularly the video piece Barbed Hula by Sigalit Landau had me shudder – a video sequence of the artist doing the hula hoop with a hoop of barbed wire that left scratches, lacerations, and bloodied marks every time it swirled around her body.

Thank goodness the photography was nowhere near that level of self-harm. Even looking at the project “The Morgue” by Andres Serrano was not as harrowing – and did not feel like an act of self-harm when looking at it. Granted, one of the images was violently evocative – a detailed look at the bloodied corpse of a stabbing victim. And yet there was a strange calm and peace in the images, despite the violent deaths of the victims. (Ok, probably evident in the fact that these were dead bodies in a morgue…) Cara Phillips used infrared photography to show the vulnerability of the individual sitter in their portrait. This made for interesting effects when the sitters sported freckles on their skin – mottled with black spots, the usual interpretation of freckles as a sign of a happy, quirky appearance took on a slightly sinister feel. I just wished Phillips had shot her models with their eyes open – I think the “human vulnerability” that she was aiming to visualise would have been more obvious in their “window to the soul”. I did enjoy John Coplans exploration and documentary of his own ageing. With close-up images of his own body – from hairy toes to (also hairy) torso – he is challenging the depiction of beauty and youth in modern media. Maybe this is something that speaks to me as I am inhabiting a decaying body myself – people, I feel it every day that I am not a spring-chicken anymore. But despite sagging skin and sallow tones, this was not off-putting at all, but a fascinating, close-up look at the reality of age as represented in skin.

An exhibition about Skin can hardly omit Spencer Tunick – especially in Dublin, where Tunick organised one of his mass-nudity scenarios in 2008. The photograph entitled Ireland 3 was new to me. I found myself looking at this for several minutes. How consistently pink they all looked, those faceless body, lying face-away from the camera on South Wall. Hardly any dark skin in sight, interestingly. The massive scale image made the back-to-back human bodies look like loads of Dublin Bay-prawns, picked straight from the boiling pan and neatly arranged on a massive serving platter. (Slight rap on the knuckles for the RHA: The image was presented as a massive wall-paper directly on the wall which was a great idea. However, it slightly distracted from the overall impression that it hadn’t been smoothed down properly and sported air pockets here and there.)

The reason I wanted to see the exhibition, however, was the presence of two Robert Mapplethorpe prints. Noone to aestheticise the human body as Mapplethorpe. (Let’s draw the veil of silence over some of his more *ahem expressive *ahem works which I saw in London a couple of years ago.) His stylised depictions of the human body transform flesh into stone. Like marble sculptures they seem ageless and perpetually perfectly beautiful. Well, it obviously helped that Mapplethorpe only photographed highly aesthetic bodies, all sinew, muscle and abs. No flabs and rolls there. But however unrealistic that may be – at least this is easy on the eye and perfectly executed photography. In the context of this exhibition Mapplethorpe certainly provided an aesthetic and easy-to-look at highlight. Whether his marble statues really represent “skin” is another matter – they seem stone-cold to me.

Talking of stone-cold – the exhibition everything but left me stone-cold. You may think, based on my disparaging citicism at the beginning of this post, that I did not enjoy this exhibition. I did. Because it certainly matched one of my own personal criteria for exhibitions: It certainly made me react emotionally to what I was being shown. Some of the reactions may not be pleasant – seriously, who likes to shudder, retch and feel nauseous for fun? – but I will certainly say that “Skin” was one of the most evocative exhibitions I have ever seen. And that is a compliment in its own right.

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