Nothing has changed since Aristotle noted a couple of thousand years ago that “it is not possible without considerable disgust to look upon the blood, flesh and similar parts of which the human body is constructed.” Much here in “Skin of/in Contemporary Art,” at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, until Dec. 2, is not pretty. One’s own physical reactions to the artworks, by an international cast of 11 creators, are often of discomfort, both informing and heightening the viewing experience.
Following from the “body,” emergent as a central focus in post-World War II art, “skin,” in all its literal and metaphoric suggestiveness, has become a particular concern for the 1990s and beyond. It is an elastic theme, malleable enough to cover many a thing, and it is sometimes stretched too far.
A case in point is the work titled “This is My Body . . . This is My Software” (1993/2007). French artist Orlan had plastic surgeons perform cosmetic surgery on her, dividing up her face with a marker pen before the knife went in. Using local anesthetic to stay conscious throughout the procedure, the operations were documented in large glossy photographs. She presents a gory aesthetic salon — in contrast to the sanitized impression we have of surface treatments for hair, nails and makeup — and one particularly unnerving shot shows an incision beneath her chin, pulled agape like a second mouth. In one sense, this type of performance caters to gender politics and the horrors of beautification, and a postoperation photo of the artist makes it seem that she has been grievously assaulted through her own complicity. In another sense, Orlan is one among many artists engaged in doing the body violence, catering to the more gruesome ickiness that splatter films make their trade in.
Macabre expressions continue in Lee Dong Wook’s miniature sculptures. In “Adidas Boy” (2004), the slimy skin of a naked figure has been branded with the company’s trademark “three-stripe.” This is no triumphant athlete, however, for “Remembrance” (2007) shows another such figure placed atop a golden trophy. Again, the body looks to have been physically beaten — the trophy an award to dejected humanity.
Black humor gives way to the infantile kind in Phillip Brophy’s “The Body Malleable” (2002-2004). Spectators are required to finger a little hole equipped with sensors such that the movements cause animated imagery on a screen in front to morph into genital shapes.
Tomoko Hayashi’s “Mutsugoto” (2007) attends to a more intimate approach, facilitated by technology, for couples separated by distance. Lying on a bed veiled by a curtain and donning a sensor ring, the movements of the participant’s hand across their own body emerge in strokes of light on a reciprocating partner in an adjacent bed. Comically, however, on the day I saw the exhibition, few of those brave enough to try out the installation in front of all those looking on seemed to be getting much satisfaction. The museum guide kept being called in under the curtains to explain how the ring device might more efficiently be used. Such fumbling evokes first encounters rather than long-running ones.
Other things to be done with skin include Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Kate Moss, “Road to Enlightenment” (2006), the bronze sculptural surface of which the artist says is a site for the projection of spectator desire.
A less skin-focused work of Quinn’s is “Beauty and the Beast” (2005). The “beauty” is the girl in skimpy camisole and briefs, and the “beast” component is given by the sculptural materials of wax and animal blood. The extinguishment of desire is the gist of another work, “You Take My Breath Away” (1992), a limp latex cast of the artist’s body. The shed skin is a “look” discarded, and a work in inverse relation to this piece is Tim Hawkinson’s “Balloon Self-Portrait #4” (1996). Here, too, the artist has cast himself in latex, then blown up the casing so that it hovers in the gallery.
Other directions include Jan Fabre recruiting brilliantly colored insect exoskeletons to make armor for human protection in medieval and spiritual narratives, and Kiki Smith reveals the vulnerability of bodies that are broken or stripped of skin to show sinews, or bodies roughly kneaded to emphasize the tactility of flesh. Lesley Dill sees skin as a site for the inscription of messages.
The skin metaphor connects tenuously to Yasuyuki Nishio, who carries on a contemporary form of painting images of Japanese ghosts, in addition to making giant sculptural heads with lights flashing within the interior. The sculptures are shaped from molds made by Nishio’s hands, and so the indentations record traces of the artists touch. Here, however, skin is mostly circumstantial, rather than the central crux. The same for Motohiko Odani, whose work is all bones, creating a fantastical cast of beast skeletons. Even in more surface-oriented works, the titles indicate the artist’s direction, such as “Beginning — bear’s bone 05” (2007). Skin, after all, is only so deep. Perhaps a more full-bodied metaphor would have given a better umbrella term to embrace the diverse work on show.
“Skin of/in Contemporary Art” runs until Dec. 2 at the National Museum of Art, Osaka (06) 4860-8600 (Hello Dial), 4-2-55 Nakanoshima, Kita-ku, Osaka-shi, a 10-min. walk west of Higobashi Station, Yotsubashi Line; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m.) ¥830. Closed Mon. For more information, visit www.nmao.go.jp/english/home.html