What distinguishes the human from other animal species? This question has long tested the ingenuity of speculative minds in the Western tradition. The obvious answers – speech, tool use, the ability to control fire, bipedalism – have been contested and challenged with a range of more quirky suggestions, such as blushing, or the ability to run backwards. Another response is to turn the question in on itself: what makes humans distinct is the very idea that they are so, that they are somehow set apart from all other species.
Charles Darwin is supposed to have provided the definitive challenge to such an assumption, but Darwin himself was prone to making trenchant statements about how special humans were. They might be only a species amongst others, but they were, incontrovertibly, the top species:
Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of being aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future.
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871
The lure of the still-higher destiny and, conversely, the fear of slipping back down the organic scale, creates double-edged anxieties. The human has become a species haunted by fear of deterioration and obsession with self-improvement. These fears and obsessions may be cultural rather than natural, but they run very deep in modern consciousness and now drive a vast commerce in images.
Artists have worked in various ways against the imperative of the improved body, notably in promoting the cult of the abject body during the 1980s and early 1990s, but the lure of perfection is not necessarily most effectively countered through direct confrontation with its antitheses. Robert Mapplethorpe’s fascination with perfection of form in young, black, male bodies is tied in with erotic studies of flower forms. The images are, as Fintan O’Toole remarked in a review of Mapplethorpe’s 1996 Dublin retrospective, “extraordinarily cold, abstract and distant.”
Rather than attributing perfection to the human body, they reveal perfection as a strangely non-human phenomenon, in that it has little to do with personhood. People may work to perfect their bodies, but sooner or later those bodies defeat their efforts. Perfection of form can also be fleeting or accidental and may be surrounded by all too human deterioration. Peggy Phelan, writing about Mapplethorpe’s 1988 self-portrait which shows the planes of his face ravaged by illness, notices the perfect circle of the skull’s cranium on the cane he holds, and compares it with the perfect ellipse framed by the parted lips of a dying face in his portrait of Alice Neel.
The experience of hanging a Mapplethorpe exhibition in 1986 was a formative influence on Ella Dreyfus. In her 1992 Pregnancy Series (exhibited at Stills Gallery, Sydney) the contours of the body are captured with a purity that evokes Mapplethorpe in reverse. These are white female forms against a black background; the curves of breast and swelling abdomen replace those made by heavily improved muscles. Some of the shots are cropped, Mapplethorpe style, at the neck so that the body is a presence in and of itself, but in others Dreyfus gives us a full portrait and her subject becomes a “sitter” in the most traditional sense, posing semi-reclined on a couch with an ornate twisted scarf around her head and an arrangement of beads draped over her naked chest. It is a statement of personhood: I am this body.
Dreyfus stresses that her relationship with the people in her photographs is collaborative: those she works with are models rather than subjects, and the images produced are co-creations. The work, she says, is not just about how bodies may look, but “about who we are and how people feel in their bodies.” Her models make powerful statements about this, through their images and, occasionally, in verbal form. The model for her recent Transman series comments: “I think many people occupy their body as an unwilling tenant, treat it as casually as if it were someone else’s clothing. I own my body in every sense – I’ve bought, traded, built and worked for it – it’s mine.”
What does it take to become a willing tenant? The model for Transman is perhaps an exception, in that most of Dreyfus’ models are people who have not attempted to design or control the changes in their bodies. Her work dissents from prevailing fashion in that it does not thematise the relationship between bodies and technologies; her concern is with the present and actual state of the body, with all its complex and detailed evidence of the life cycle. When the body undergoes rapid changes, as in pregnancy, surgery, or in certain stages of the ageing process, the person may take time to catch up with these new states. Becoming old, seen in this way, is a succession of new experiences.
For Age and Consent, 1996 – 1999, Dreyfus worked against the taboos surrounding the aged and ageing body, encouraging the men and women who took part to put aside the internalised cultural imperative “that demands the maintenance of physical health and youthful vitality.” She reports that some of her subjects viewed the signs of aging in their own bodies with disgust, but the project seems to have had considerable success in overriding this reaction. A second and third phase, conducted in her own studio, concentrated on nude studies of the aged body. The result is a series of photographs that challenge the reflexes of visual judgement. The eye trained to look for what is more and less beautiful, to be repelled by those signs of age that most obviously violate the standards of beauty, is offended yet drawn in by curious aesthetic contradictions.
The changes of age are told on the skin, which drapes across the thighs and stomach, falls into fine gathers in the crevice of the navel or under the arm, stretches into translucent smoothness over knees and shoulders. It is the most delicate textures of the skin that are least tolerable to the improver’s eye. They are beyond improvement, pure deterioration, as an expression of the ultimate defeat of culture by nature. Mapplethorpe stylises the skin. As an artist whose first medium of choice was sculpture, he is fascinated by skin that mimics the surface of polished stone: impervious, unyielding, a permanent finish. We don’t shy away from contemplating the twisted formations of bark on an old tree, the knots and lumps that gather on its limbs, or the mottled colours of its trunk, so why this squeamishness about aged human skin?
Dreyfus made photographic studies of trees early in her career. She also studied textiles. In her mature work, this technical interest in forms and surfaces moves towards a deeper enquiry into the living being that inhabits them. Here the influence of Jo Spence’s work has been strong. Spence’s record of the body recovering from surgery is most directly evoked in Dreyfus’s Transman series (2001), which charts the experience of surgical change that converts a female body into a male one. This is no before and after account, but rather a meditation on how the experience is told on the body, and on how the person who both is and has this body witnesses the changes.
In the context of a culture fixated on progress and improvement, the changes present themselves as a major conceptual challenge precisely because, like other forms of plastic surgery, they are not improvements. They testify to a profound sense of necessity in the person who has decided to undergo them, but this is not the culturally generated sense of necessity that drives people to seek means towards the achievement of a “better” body. The photographs record how the person and the body appear as they pass through states of injury and trauma, until a new serenity emerges for both in the last shots of the series.
As a collaborative exercise, Transman involves searching for points of view that cannot be drawn from any already available source. Many artists spend their working lives struggling to free themselves from the readymade points of view mass-produced in a culture that continually turns perspectives into commodities. This is not the problem here, where ways of seeing and being seen are a matter for complex and subtle consideration at every stage.
Darwinian thinking is essentially hierarchical thinking. Many of those who call themselves Darwinist would like to deny this, or at least gloss over it, but almost every page of Darwin’s writing reveals a scattering of terms that reflect his unceasing quest to sort living beings into “gradations of all kinds.” There are the lower and the higher, the stronger and the weaker, the superior and the inferior, the more and less brutish, the more and most civilised.
Darwin links the aesthetic sense to the instincts of sexual selection which work in and through life forms to sort the superior from the inferior choices to keep the species moving onwards and upwards in the organic scale. Since humans are marked out from other species by their higher-levels of brain development, the logic goes that they should take a conscious role in deciding which of their traits to cultivate and which to breed out to ensure the continuing improvement and survival of the species.
There is nothing especially modern about the eye that seeks beauty, but the eye that sorts bodies and their components for improvability is a phenomenon of modernity, born of the first concerted attempts to think of ourselves as a species amongst others. One response to this may be to turn the word “improve” back on the exercises of seeing and sorting, bearing in mind that the word “prove” means to test, and that improve was used to mean “correct” or “contest” in the European Renaissance. In this sense, Dreyfus’ work challenges us to improve the ways in which we look at bodies so that we can begin to focus on the mysterious relationships between bodies and persons.
- ^ Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 597.
- ^ Ella Dreyfus, telephone interview with the author, Sydney 2001.
- ^ Fintan O’Toole, review of the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, The Irish Times, 10 December 1996, p. 12.
- ^ Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London: Routledge, 1993, p. 40.
- ^ Model for Transman, quoted in the catalogue for the exhibition at Stills Gallery, Sydney, 2001.
- ^ Ella Dreyfus, introduction to catalogue for Age and Consent, Stills Gallery, 1999.
Jane Goodall is Research Director, College of Arts, Education and Social Sciences, at the University of Western Sydney.