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_The transdermic zone [txt]
ESSAI PUBLISHED IN DERMATOGRAPHIES exhibition catalogue november 2007

The “transdermic” zone; a state of disruption.
by Anne-Laure Oberson

Nous ne respirons qu'à l'extrême limite d'un monde où les corps s'ouvrent - où la nudité désirable est obscène. Autrement dit nous n'avons de possibilité que l'impossible.1  Georges Bataille, L’Alleluiah, 1947

Translated literally the title given to this exhibition means writings of the skin.

The skin is our largest organ by size and, less evidently also, by weight; as much as we might be familiar with the expanse of our own skin, to think of it in terms of a mass is rather strange. The particularity of skin is to be multi-layered and hence waterproof – both holding liquids in and out – when integral but if damaged the inner “weeps” out. Its main roles are to protect us from pathogenic agents – it keeps us safe, to insulate us and regulate our temperature – it keeps us comfortable. It is also the locus of our tactile sensations and it is the sole part of our body that we are in almost constant contact with. In comparison the heart, another essential organ, is quite an abstract part of us, whereas the skin is very "real", perhaps even banal but not less essential. We couldn’t quite live long skinless.

Writing is a system of graphic representation – marks – of speech into signs, it is the organisation of thoughts into a structure according to established conventions, codes and rules. Its purpose is the more permanent recording of language and a mean of achieving communication. A writing system is both functional and symbolic.

A disease – as illustrated in the moulages of the Sygros collection – is indicative of a dysfunction of the human operational system.
It is the rupture of an established structure, of an order. It is chaotic but yet it is still communicative as it is also a sign – a mark –
in its manifestation through symptoms. Is writing a symptom?

As a medical condition, dermatographia occurs when a light scratching causes raised red lines on the surface of the skin, hence making the tracing apparent. A mildly inconvenient condition, a rather bizarre and sometime amusing one, it has already previously been turn into body-art from the mostly uninteresting and anecdotic “my skin is my canvas” attempts to the most poignant scaring performance of Marina Abramovich marking the five-point star on her belly.
By extension any kind of markings on the skin, whether permanent or temporary, can fall under this denomination. The “hives” is also a figurative symptom and one will suffer from it on entering the Sygros museum collection of wax moulages. Three rooms are stacked with floor to ceiling impressive wooden glassed cabinets filled with casts of all parts of the diseased body. The general view
is grim, a closer look is repulsive, an immediate epidermic reaction follows.

But beyond the gruesome outlook of the works in display, the pieces are indeed fine art. Realised entirely by hand on the premises
in the early to mid XXth century by a skilled craftman, most are signed K.X. Mitropoulos, they were at the time the most realistic way to record the evolution of incurable diseases for further studies. It is painful to look at hardly any of the pieces, even the most benign ones; time has brought discoloration and dust adding sadness and misery to the monstrous, yet one keeps looking, searching desperately in the beautiful abyss of exposed flesh for a truth on the fleeting quality of our existence, or for something else to be revealed. There is a strange fascination. It is looking hyper real, yet so deceptively human.
Why is it so appealing to be confronted to our own vulnerability and boundaries? It is only there, at the edge, that we breathe, that
we are alive. Consciously. With acuteness. It is an exacerbation of our sensory faculties, our emotional capabilities into the possibility of the impossible (Bataille).

The skin conceals and protects all the other organs. It is the great barrier. It contains the smell of our entrails and their bloody sight. The skin is an envelope. So perfect, so resistant, so resilient. So intimate. Our skin defines our personality: before the colour of our eyes, and beyond fingerprints, would you recognize your skinless peer? It is our identity; it is our index card, our own map. The skin is a written terrain that we could each map like a starry night. A mouche here, a wrinkle there, the childhood scar, a sun stain, that vindictive pimple, always the same and always different, evolving, alive. It records in its grain the marks of time and as such it is the receptacle of our history. It is our memory. It is undisrupted, a landscape.

When the envelope cracks, fails, it is the unseen, the unconceivable that comes forth. It is the barrier that is crossed. It is a foreign territory undiscovered. We enter the “transdermic” zone, the inside out. This is a terrain most fertile for artists to work and reflect upon as their own practice should always reside at the border of things, on the limits.

Like a photograph of a rotten fruit, what is most unbearable in these moulages is their ineffable stillness – they are already dead
while the person they portray is still alive. They fix the transient. They allow us to stare at what propriety would require us to briefly pass our gaze upon; at what would normally be covered up, kept concealed. At the onset of the XXIth century, when life is ever so remote, sanitized and digitised, what is truly fascinating with the presentation of this collection to the public at large, outside the realm of the historical and the scientific interest, and purely considered in a genuinely profane manner, is ultimately that it offers a freak show. The obscene becomes desirable.

Those moulages represent the fall of the ideal of the human figure, which should not be abolished but transgressed through disfiguration (Didi-Huberman). There are no identities, no human figure anymore, behind these masses of diseased skins, only stages of pathologies. The focus is entirely on the informe as defined by Bataille as what is produced by alteration. Artists’ research for this level of the informe must deal with the deformed and the monstruous. The task ahead for these artists grasping with such issues is to produce new forms that re-order the chaos in the embodiment of a work, while sustaining the will to question art’s own formal categories, to resist them. To create a new symptom, their own personal writing system.

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