..."her clothes should be firmly fastened, her shoes tightly laced…Toys are not like me, they break to pieces and don't get well. They don't have a skin. We have a skin!"
SKINSRedrawing the Fence
I use drapery as something in which I can lose myself.
I am standing in my studio, in front of my drawing; beside me on the wall is a draped open coat, pinned and arranged carefully, its sleeves turned inside out, its hang distorted by the ribbons and string I use to fix the shape. I approach the object, lost in the changing light patterns, the oyster-coloured satin quivering under the lamp. The gaze transports me into a realm of almost microscopic detail, where I can move into both the drawing and the object and have each of them encompass the field of my vision. For those moments they become the entire world. Losing my place is part of the process.
I remember I used a drawing of a rabbit skin balanced by the image of my father, his head in a television set. It hung like an alternate self, held and tipped by nails. Pulled and pinned, opened out; so many skins, vulnerable to the cut.
In the Judgement of Cambyses, Gerhard David paints the act of flensing, a punishment enacted on a judge for his partiality. In the history of images there is a body of works which depict the act of flaying - works of anatomical or mythological bases. In these works, the skin, once removed, is cast as a garment hanging from the torturers arm or draped across their shoulders. Losing our skin, we are open to everything and to falling apart. It is the skin which holds us together and touches the world.
We project the body onto the image. In looking at it, we can participate in the violence of the gaze as it offers up and reveals the object to us. What was inside is brought outside, dissected, pinned and pulled apart. The open coats are flayed and peeled remnants, the inside/outside skin glinting with oily membranes, floating in our consciousness. The hanging edges are full and sculptural; heavy with the body.
Is the skin covering our true selves, wrapping and deceiving, or is it the true expression of our self, the concrete imprint of our being in the world?
In our everyday lives, drapery, like our skin, is a container for the body, an extra boundary, a second skin which we choose to add to our surface. In psychoanalysis the skin and the idea of the skin is particularly significant. 'The need for a containing object would seem, in the infantile unintegrated state, to produce a frantic search for an object: a light, a voice, a smell, or other sensual object which can hold the attention and thereby be experienced as holding the parts of the personality together… this containing object is experienced concretely as a skin.' Didier Anzieu posits the existence of an "ego-skin (le moi-peau) which designates a fantasized reality that a child uses during its early development to represent itself as "me", based on its experience of the body surface. The child, enveloped in its mother's care, fantasizes of a skin shared with its mother: on the one side, the mother (the outer layer of the moi-peau) and on the other side the child (the inner layer of the moi-peau). These two layers must separate gradually if the child is to acquire its own me-skin."
The empty garment is a potential container, something in which we might rest. Its imagery is drenched in ambivalence - it is wanted and not wanted, desired and dreaded. The drapery/skin hanging before us has the potential to cover and recreate us, to provide us with a new perimeter or to hide and envelop us. In Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert declares her existence to herself by cutting her skin, scarifying and wounding, testing the boundaries, marking her repression, implicating her limits. I am losing my place.
Immersed in the embracing landscape, I am swamped and enveloped. I recall the fear of being engulfed.
In her discussion of Edward Casey's essays 'Getting Back into Place' and 'The Fate of Place', Barbara Hooper talks about the amorphous threat of the feminine against which the thinking subject must be defined. 'The I is threatened when there is dangerous freeplay and leeway, its borders feel porous or fluid, or an other is threatening its place.' Undelineated space is seen as hostile and dangerous for the subject. The coat is the second skin, suddenly become dangerous, the second boundary between the body and the outside world. I have captured and flung it, I can walk into it, I can recreate it.
'She quite consciously refused to paint more than one human figure on the canvas…"tormented by the entangled interrelationship and flux of the outer world,' we 'endeavour to redeem the individual object …from its combination with, and dependence upon, other things, to tear it away from the course of happening, to render it absolute"...'
We are playing out the definition of the self through boundary formation - again and again. If there are no boundaries then the self cannot exist. The emblem has boundaries, it is whole, it is deliberate, it exists in and of and for itself.
On the radio they are talking about early experience, about how we are different, about temperament. They are describing a study where infants are presented with a mobile. Some of the babies accept the impingement with gratitude or equanimity, but some kick and scream, cry and will not be comforted. They are the ones who become bench scientists, they say, or artists.
Is it true that some of us cannot bear the vagaries of existence, the multitude of sensations that bombard us and approach us through the skin (and elsewhere)? What if we could control the influx of the world? Do we feel as if we might fly apart from the sheer volume of sensation, the way we are open to the world? It is a dangerous edge, this maquette periphery, closing and containing, opened, stifled, slit, displayed.
The fold can extend forever, its surface ever changing, its weight and depth leading us into space.
Gilles Deleuze describes the Baroque fold, citing Zurbaran as a prime example:
Yet the Baroque ... radiates everywhere, at all times, in the thousand folds of garments that tend to become one with their respective wearers, to exceed their attitudes, to overcome their bodily contradictions, and to make their heads look like those of swimmers bobbing in the waves. We find it in painting, where the autonomy conquered through the folds of clothing that invade the entire surface becomes a simple, but sure sign of a rupture with Renaissance space.
Through the rupture with Renaissance space the artist and the viewer become immersed in the absorbing materiality of the folds. Instead of looking (with our God-like x-ray eyes) into infinite space through the 'window' of the picture plane created by perspective, we are caught up and held within the discrete landscape of the fold. Drapery contains the anxious gaze.
I examine the object as if it was a lover, a book, a document. It is willing to offer everything to me, passively. I am moving closer to the object, as close as I can, and it covers me benignly. Warming me to the world of things.
In the film "The Man with the X-Ray Eyes" Ray Milland stumbles and hides, trying to escape from the gift of being able to see through things, right to the bottom of the world. What he sees, his peculiar vision, is really a form of blindness. He ceases to be able to function in the world, because of his ability to see through things. The painting is a window, allowing us to see through, beyond, infinitely, but the object ends the journey of my gaze by containing it, by holding my attention. The opaque reality of the object becomes the lead wall.
Picking up the pencil: the blue dress
I layer the pencil marks over one another in light strokes, building up the tones carefully. Light glints softly off the graphite surface. The paper colours and imprints like asphalt, a well-worn pavement with pockmarks and incisions. The paper stump forces the graphite into the craters and valleys of the paper - sliding over the surface - burnishing, embossing. I am entranced by this silvery surface - the powder creates a film, grey and silver clouds forming, the lines of pencil changing and perfecting them.
Away from the amorphous, I push the drawn image into my favoured safety net - the severe triangle I have inscribed on the blank sheet. This is the boundary, the structure which allows me to feel held and absorbed, contained and subsumed.
Anzieu, Didier (1989) The Skin Ego Tr. Chris Turner, New Haven