I am not happy with my flesh.
One of my earliest stand up routines revolved around my breasts and the hatred of having to go topless in PE lessons. (it had a punchline involving “my sister’s cock” and was quite popular with some soldiers in Bosnia).
When there’s not too much of it, it’s too flaky. I know Autumn is coming, the light flecks of psoriasis are here. My skin is an effective detector of seasonal change, though that’s not much of a superpower as a calendar or just looking at the fucking trees works pretty well too.
Our flesh is our appearance, so we worry if there is too much or it is too mottled or it showing the signs of our built in obsolescence.
The first room of York Art Gallery’s Flesh exhibition had Steve McQueen’s film of naked wrestling between him and a friend. The other spectators were some teenage boys on a school trip, their lewd or embarrassed comments about the projected artist genitals before them were surprisingly few. They were more bothered about “Isaac!”. I presume Isaac is a favourite amongst them as they seemed to be calling after him through most of the rest of the gallery rooms. I was one of those publicly quiet teenagers, these were those teenagers that must constantly make noise for fear that if they weren’t they might stop existing. Silence spells vaporisation.
On one wall were photographs of tattoos cut away from dead prisoners and suspended in formaldehyde. It is a macabre hobby. If all the tattoos now were flayed away upon death, we’d have a world formaldehyde shortage by 2050. Is it better to have a few square inches of your life and imagination in a preservation jar than to be an utterly forgotten criminal?
Opposite these photographs was a big lump of pig hide, shaped into an oversize human torso and covered in highly elaborate thin lined, black ink tattoos. This is Edward Lipski’s Tattoo.
Worryingly, this lifeless dried flesh slab reminded me of the great anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun. I didn’t stare long enough to trick my brain into believing it had moved.
As a comfort, James Deville’s cast of William Blake’s head, made when Blake was still alive, is cased in a corner. This was from the times of phrenology and was intended to illustrate the shape of head that represented the imaginative facility. It doesn’t take much to project onto that head the sense that you need such a stocky, rounded, kind-looking lump of bone and skin to create The Tyger or Nebuchadnezzar.
Across from William Blake’s closed eyes are the challenging, open eyes of Jo Spence. Standing topless, she has written on her breast “property of Jo Spence”. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982, she communicated her experience with her photography. This was a reaction to the way a doctor marked her breast during examination. It was questioning the boundaries and how they should or could be crossed between doctor and patient. Next to it, Jo Spence stands topless and in profile, a motorcycle helmet on her head, a puckered scar by her nipple. With such limited variety in the photographic images of topless and naked women in the mainstream media, this provokes us into thinking about the limited variety of exposed flesh we are exposed to. If we are not to be disgusted by our own less digitised and computer manipulated flesh and other people’s, then we should experience more shapes of flesh than the shapes a group of advertisers and executives insist are the only correct ones to arouse and sell.
In the previous room, the notes by Harold Gilman’s painting of a middle-aged nude comment on his wish to show the change in form as we age and our elasticity declines. And next to it, is a Jenny Saville self-portrait, similarly rejecting enforced notions of acceptable shapes for naked display.
The horror nut in me was very taken Adriana Varejâo’s Green Tile Work in Live Flesh, where smashed and splintered tiles reveal an outpouring of heart, colon and other offal.
My sister would not have taken to Leon Kossoff’s seated nude. Similar to the work of Frank Auerbach, whose smeared feature faces threw her off-kilter, Kossoff creates the form of the nude via smears and scars of thick paint. At first, it is a shape, as you look for longer, the shape, the light and the colours form the sitter.
This is an exhibition dense with information and ideas. I was fascinated by the 12 Japanese prints that told the story of “The death of the noble lady and the decay of her body” and Gina Pane’s Azione Sentimentale, a photographic record of a performance piece that involved her piercing her flesh with a succession of thorns that ran up her arm, cutting her hand with a razor, and then offering herself, Christ-like, to the audience. I would show you more, but the Birmingham Symphony Hall wifi tells me it does not comply with acceptable usage policy.
I also enjoyed listening the old couple in anoraks as they watched Sam Taylor Johnson’s film of hare rotting and being consumed by mites while the genetically modified peach at the foot of the carnage remained untainted. They were delightfully fascinated.
Upstairs and out of the exhibition, I looked at Jacob Epstein’s bust of Paul Robeson. The plinth said, “hands on”, but I thought that must have been a trap. It took some while and some steeling of nerves before I managed it. I am conditioned.
A new volume of Dead Funny, Dead Funny Encore is now out, stories by Alan Moore, Josie Long, Stewart Lee, James Acaster, Alice Lowe, Rufus Hound, Isy Suttie, Natalie Haynes and me and more. It’s HERE.