Joel-Peter Witkin

May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Joel-Peter Witkin and Andres Serrano were two of my rite of passage artists at art school. I met Witkin when I was working at RIP at Arles in 1996. He was an incredibly entertaining character with a sharp sense of humour (with a preference for dirty jokes). I think this initial personal encounter may have softened my initial reaction to his work as looking back on it now I find it very shocking. At the time I met him, Witkin had become famous for using unclaimed bodies from a Mexcian morgue in his photographs. He would include bodies or body parts in his complex studio set ups and place them at the centre of a complex and fantastical narrative, much like Classical paintings. The photographs themselves were exquisite – incredibly seductive in texture and colour. As a print and photomedia student they seem to me to have everything I coveted – the velvety texture of a mezzotint, the anger of an etching (Witkin scratches the photographic plates) and the bruised hues of tinted fibre based photographic prints.

In the context of this blog, Witkin’s photographs also have scars and wounds  – the bodies are unidentified, unclaimed and their most distinguishing feature is a great big fat autopsy scar across their body.

 I am not at all sure about the ethics of this work and as a blog which aims to work towards an notion of ethical secondary witness this images strikes me as problematic but for me as an artist who wants to use scars and wounds as a part of a visual language I need to think about it / look at it.

When I look at this image, and at the wound/scar what strikes me is how closed up an impenetrable the scar is – whereas the mouth and eyes are open. The scar is the location of the truth – the explanation, the evidence. The breathless mouth and sightless eyes can tell us nothing.

I have to look away now


Sophie Ristelhueber

May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Thames and Hudson describe the work of Sophie Ristelhueber thus:

‘In Sophie Ristelhueber’s artworks and installations, the photographed landscape appears in fragments: damaged, rent, pockmarked. These traces of history and conflict, which the artist calls ‘details of the world’, are like scars on a body, and they convey a similar tale of wounds scarcely healed.

Ristelhueber has been photographing these metaphorical scars in war-torn places like Beirut, Kuwait, Bosnia and Iraq since 1982, recording the violence inflicted on the surface of the earth by the machinery of war. Rather than focusing on the geopolitical meaning of a particular conflict, she is engaged with the ambiguities of what she calls the ‘terrain of the real and of collective emotions’.

Ristelhueber’s approach implies that the current world situation is part of an unceasing historical cycle of destruction and construction – in her photographs, the surface of the land becomes a kind of palimpsest on which the disfiguring marks of decades of conflict continue to be recorded.’

I was privileged to meet Sophie Ristelhueber last year when I attended a small workshop at the Wellcome Trust where she gave a presentations and explanation of her art practice. Sophie started by showing  an early series (called ‘Every One’) of photographs of scars on human bodies that she took at a hospital in Paris. She explained that she would go to the hospital everyday and take photographs of post surgical scars. When she exhibited them she did so very large so that they were transformed into landscapes.

Later she started to areas of war and conflict and photograph scars of war left on the landscape. Sophie made an incredible series of photographs of trenches left after the war in Kuwait.

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Here is a link to a really good interview with Sophie Ristelhueber.

Marie Claire and Red

May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yesterday I was passed on a couple of UK magazines from a friend. A couple of children’s swimming and gynastics lessons later I found I have more or less read everything I wanted to read in them. Putting them down it struck me that the two articles/images that had grabbed me most were

‘Let’s Give A Voice to Women Who Cannot Speak Up For Themselves’ –  a piece in Marie Claire about International Women’s Day which includes some shocking images of women in Pakistan who have been victims of Domestic Abuse involving acid attacks to the face


‘Can you buy a better body?’ In Red, an article which apraises the various beauty treatments/operations under local anesthetic aimed at fat reductions such as ‘Smart Lipo TriPlex’ and BodyTite

Looking at them again now I am not too sure how to compare them – Clearly the Marie Claire article is much more serious and news worthy – these poor woman have been left horrifically disfigured. Their scarred faces really are shocking and hard to look at. When I first saw the images not having read the text I couldn’t work out what kind of scars they were. They are a mess, there are no straight lines, no cuts, no gashes, the facial structure has in many places been dissolved away and the healed wounds seem panicked and nervous. The wounds are angry, raw, brutal – yet paper thin, stretched, delicate, translucent.

Reading the second article about these procedures which are meant to be alternatives to cosmetic surgery I couldn’t help thinking again of brutality and pain – in a number of places it talks of pain and bruising. Fat is melted and sucked, vacuumed and subjected to high frequency waves, frozen to death. A cannula is inserted under the skin, loosening it away to allow for more fat attacks.

Living in Rio de Janeiro, it is impossible not to feel the presence of cosmetic surgery as a part of daily life. Cosmetic surgeons have the most elegant houses as their surgeries/consultancies and walking down the street it doesn’t take long to spot a face lift/nose job. Talking about it with friends everyone know someone who has had something or other done, or is going to have it done soon. Apparently amongst the rich Brazilians it is completely normal. Having had my second son here I soon learnt that I was abnormal having a ‘natural birth’ and thus foregoing the tummy tuck that comes as standard with a cesarian section.

Is there perhaps then a whole other kind of Talking Wound?  A cosmetic surgery wound that is invited, that leaves us better then before (?), that testifies to success and wealth?

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Doubting Thomas

May 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Posted by Marilene

An image and story that often returns to me is that of Doubting Thomas, or the Incredulity of Thomas. In the Gospel of St John we are told that for Thomas to believe that Jesus has Risen again he demands to insert his finger into Jesus’ wound. The many images made of this story I find repulsive, they make me feel ill, for me it is truly abject. Unlike a medical cut, clean and soon to be closed again, it gapes open and Thomas putting in his finger into an open wound is surely bad – he is putting germs into it, making it worse, increasingly his pain. Why put your hand into a wound to believe it is true? He needs to touch, feel the wetness, the warmth, the stickiness of the wound. Why is it not enough to just see the wound, why enter it?

I don’t want to discuss the religious significance of Doubting Thomas, but the symbolic power of it and its possible relevance to this project. Jesus is dead, he is risen, he is a ghost – just before the lines about Thomas, he breathes the Holy Ghost into his disciples. I find it very hard not to think of the body scan data like this state and this story – it is a fully detailed immaterial version of the body and it offers itself to be fingered open, virtually leafed through. It offers insides as proof, it offers its wounds as proof. In the face of unbelieving, of not knowing, in a search for knowledge it opens itself.

When I made Protest the second time (it is an edition of 3) I had to go back at the end and restring the gapes between sheets. I wish I had taken a photograph of it now as it was quite a powerful image – a body full of gaping wounds. A body rendered enlongate through its wounds.

Could this be an interesting model of an ethical witness? Maybe – Thomas doubts but rather than just stating his doubt he dares poke his finger inside the pain, inside the abject hole. He is willing to risk contamination, to dirty himself. In Carravagio’s painting he looks like he is blind – his eyes stare blindly away from the wound and he looks like he is being guided into the wound by fellow disciples.

I remember reading a book which had a chapter about Doubting Thomas – for some reason I think it was Amelia Jones but it wasn’t – it had a pink cover. The Invisible Body? I really want to read it again! I think I borrowed it from the RCA Library… was back in 2004….

John, Chapter 20

1 The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.

2 Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the LORD out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.

3 Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre.

4 So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre.

5 And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in.

6 Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie,

7 And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.

8 Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.

9 For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.

10 Then the disciples went away again unto their own home.

11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,

12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my LORD, and I know not where they have laid him.

14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.

15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the LORD, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

20 And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD.

21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:

23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.

27 Then saith He to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.

29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book:

31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.

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N.B Incredulity: in·cre·du·li·ty

noun /ˌinkrəˈd(y)o͞olitē/

  • The state of being unwilling or unable to believe something

Sketches 17th April 2011

April 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

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The Wound and the Voice, Cathy Caruth

April 15, 2011 § 3 Comments

Last week Sophie sent me a text to read by Cathy Caruth. It was the introduction to ‘Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History’ published by John Hopkins in 1996. She said that when she read it that she had thought of my work and a project I had told her about. Sophie spoke particularly about a quote in the text;

Wood as a sculptural material for me has a strong allure – it was alive and now is dead and it bears the story if its life in its grain. This coupled with the possibilities of laser cutting have made me think of a number of possible sculptures. For the Carne Vale show I waned to make a wooden post like those used in a Xingu Quarup. The Quarup or Kuarup is a Xingu (an indian tribe in the Amazon) funerary festival/rite. I first saw a Quarup post in the Museo National da Hisotria in Rio de Janeiro. A Quarup is a tree trunk that has had its bark stripped and the exposed wood painted. The trunk is then decorated with feathers, coloured string and beads. It is a very curious object and somehow it reads as an object which stands in for a human. It feels like a place holder. The Quarup ceremony is a festival for the dead – the post standing in, or possessing the spirit of the deceased.

My idea was to play on this notion using a CT dataset. Trees, especially in Brasil are so evocative of human form that it was very easy for  me to imagine a trunk which ‘possessed’ a human form. I worked on repeating and rotating the scans to create a form that was made up of a human body but that in its repetition its derivation lost/confused. The idea was then that the stripped bark of this ‘trunk’ would reveal the inside of the body (muscles/bones).

I didn’t make the work for the usual reasons – lack of time and funds (I wanted to make it out of laser cut 3mm pear) but it is an idea that keeps coming back to me. Maybe I should make a maquette using some cheaper material – cardboard……

Anyway – this text and the concept of a spirit being held inside a trunk is relevant here.

The idea of blood coming from a cut in a tree is also very strong and again something I have been thinking about. Here in Brasil there is the Pau de Brasil (hence why Brasil is called Brasil). It was a very important export for its red dye in the 18th Century which has now led to it becoming an endangered tree. There is one in the botanical garden which seems to ‘bleed’ from a knot. I need to photograph it but in the meantime;

I also really like the idea of a cut into a trunk revealing a scan, a cross section. A bit like Orixa but with wood, a trunk.

To return to the text. I highlighted some other passages, made some other notes;

  • Since Freud, Trauma is understood as being inflicted not only on the body but also on the mind
  • persists in bearing witness to some forgotten wound
  • Is the trauma the encounter with death, or the ongoing experience of having survived it?
  • Listening to the voice and to the speech delivered by the others’s wound
Pg 7.
Pg. 9

Dave Eggers

April 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

Some while back I heard Dave Eggers talk to Mariella Frostrup about his novel ‘Zeitoun’ on BBC Radio 4. ‘Zeitoun’ is the story of a Syrian-American survivor of Hurricane Katrina who found himself arrested as a suspected Al-Qaeda member while helping other victims of the disaster. Not only did the interview make me want to read the book, but it also made me want to learn more about Eggers and his work. In the interview he spoke about ‘Voice of Witness’ and I thought of Sophie straight away. Just the name of the website and the discussion of Zeitoun made me think that this might be a model of ‘ethical witnessing’ Sophie would be interested in.

This is their ‘MISSION’

‘Voice of Witness is a nonprofit book series that empowers those most closely affected by contemporary social injustice. Using oral history as a foundation, the series depicts human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them.’ I have since read ‘Zeitoun’ and ‘What is the What’ and am eager to read anything else. I really think this is an incredible project and wish I could be part of it in some way. I see they are calling for Columbian Spanish speakers to help translate but sadly I am can’t do that… So I will for now continue to make my way through the Voice of Witness/Dave Eggers catalogue.

LINKS Link to Eggers interview with Mariella Frostrup

Video of Valentino Achak Deng talking about ‘What is the What?’