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SKIN

There's an old saying that clothes make the man. If this is true, it is only after skin makes the man. Remove the clothes and there's a good chance that you still have a man worth looking at. Remove the skin and, ehhhh...

Skin is, perhaps, nature's version of PR. It seems to take all of the "mess" underneath and wraps it up into the right package. With skin on we are human beings. With skin off we somehow become human bodies. All of the moving parts, bloody and boney, are exposed. We are, through and through, surprisingly and for some, shamefully, animal.

This seems to be the conundrum that our ancestors were confronted with. Actually, their mystery was threefold. There was the human being, the human body and the human soul. Something inside seemed to keep our wheels spinning, and it was suspected that this "thing" was the soul. Ancient empiricists such as Aristotle and Galen attempted to locate the soul by dissecting the Body. With the incision and removal of the skin man, either literally or metaphorically, broke the chrysalis of his illusion of sacredness.

The artist
and physician
were virtually
synonymous

The Renaissance seems to be the most conspicuous juncture in this breaking of the chrysalis. It is through this period that we see both a deification and reification of the human body. The artist and physician were virtually synonymous, or, at the very least, symbiotic. 13th century Italian physician Mondino de Luzzi would dissect cadavers publicly and draft an unillustrated textbook t hat became the companion guide for artists who took Mondino's observations and brought them to life visually. Consequently, intense study was made of what lay beneath the skin so that supreme accuracy could be captured in all representations of the body. With such accuracy Gods and angels are rendered with anthropomorphic fidelity never before encountered. Likewise, images of skeletons and living humans who put their innards on display are interpreted with medical accuracy. So much so that many of them became supplemental illustrations to medical textbooks. Conversely, as was the case with the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, the Body began to shift from a subject of inquiry but an object of scrutiny. The parts of the body were deconstructed and decomposed so as to be studied as parts whose sum was equal to the whole.

Leonardo's work receded from view following his death, but inspired a resolute push towards pure scientific illustration after they were rediscovered in the 19th century. The hallmark of this appearing in the year 1858 when Henry Gray, working with illustrator H.V. Carter, produced Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical - or, as it is commonly called today, Gray's Anatomy.

The timeline from the dawn of the Renaissance to the publishing of Gray's Anatomy - a text still used to this day in medical schools - seems to embody what human beings discovered about the human body after breaking the dermic seal. In the beginning the body was both art and science. As philosopher-writer William Hazlitt described, they were "different names for the same thing - truth, nature and beauty." Towards the end of this period, the body became more a matter of function than form; more an article of fact than "truth".

Astonishingly, it is our model culture and celebrity worship that preserves our last vestige of reverence for the human body. Albeit, while supermodels are far from "man as machine" it can be argued that they are, instead, "man as mannequin", which may not necessarily be an improvement.

From the Posthuman Body
to the Posthumous Body

However, some pockets of serious thinkers seem to be cycling back to a Noetic perspective about the human body. The Body Worlds Exhibition is a contemporary echo of Mondino's public dissections and the life-like and living-like anatomical illustrations of the Renaissance. Picture a dead man standing up erect, striking a godly pose while bathed in light; his lifeless arms are positioned in such a way that defy gravity. You might even think that this man were alive were it not for the skin that is removed from his body and on display in his hand. This image exists on paper by 16th century artist Juan Valverde de Amusco and the 21st century Body Worlds Exhibit. Both are questioned as representative of science. How can Body Worlds be "science" when it is so overtly sacred and theatrical in its perception of the Human Body? Science, to maintain its credibility, keeps a cool poker face, while speaking logically about the bromidic body. Even the general public will pick up on this style of speaking, exercising amateur anatomy certitudes that were learned from The Discovery Channel. Body Worlds, on the other hand, chucks all lifeless language in favor of noetic commentary about the Human body.

many artists
are challenging
our ambivalence
about the body

For this reason it's possible that Body Worlds is closer to art than science. Or perhaps, like the Renaissance, it is a revival of the fusion of art and science. This revival can be found in contemporary artists, many of whom are challenging society's ambivalence about the body. Artist Marc Quinn's, 2006 Painted Bronze sculpture, Angel echoes William Cheselden's 17th century illustration of a skeleton in prayer. Quinn has gone as far as integrating actual body material into his sculptural works. Frozen blood, the placenta and umbilical cord were among the "mixed media" used by Quinn to construct sculptures of himself and his son. If this sounds creepy it is only because we have allowed both art and science to be sanitized by neutral materials. Mannequins and computer generated images remain the preferred interpreters of the body instead of allowing the human body to speak for its own wonders.

The X-Ray photography of Wim Delvoyes, particularly his series called Sex-Rays, are especially reminiscent of those Renaissance skeletons rendered as the living dead. While illustrations from the Renaissance progressively (or regressively) represented man as machine, Delvoyes Sex-Rays seem to do the very opposite, analyzing the machine as man. Intimate X-Rays revealing the skeletal machine performing fellatio, seem to capture the proverbial Ghost in the Machine. Delvoye told Elephant magazine in their Spring 2010 issue, "The Sex-Rays...were ways of thinking about the human as a cyborg, about looking at bodies and love-making in a mechanical way... I think it's a fascinating relationship, that of the human and the machine."

The resurrection of the Body with a Soul is, perhaps, a form of reincarnation. The Body as both machine and soul, has existed before. Dolls, by virtue of Shinto ideology, are pervaded with spirit just as everything else in the universe. Wim Delvoyes Sex-Rays as well as other depictions of man as animate machine can be seen, from a Shinto perspective, as a complementarity of both the animate and inanimate - like soulful dolls. 17th Century Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon alluded to this when he wrote that the "dramatic quality of puppets... depends on their being both dead and alive." This seems to be equally true of the human form. It is binary. Alive and dead; organic and mechanical; simultaneously devoid of soul and yet paradoxically vivified with spirit. How else do we explain something as seemingly dead as a skeleton having the wherewithal to hold up its own flesh, kneel thoughtfully in prayer or giving a great blow job?

We are indeed the living-dead.

TheEnd?

Giulio Cesare Casseri and Adriaan van den Spieghel

Jacques Gamelin

"Angel" by Marc Quinn
Skeleton of a "Very Robust Man" kneeling in prayer by William Cheselden

Wim Delvoye

Juan Valverde de Amusco