Body adorn­ment goes skin deep

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Go Out - By Fredric Koep­pel Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

The his­tory of body adorn­ment takes us into strange and painful are­nas. Oh, sure, strictly speak­ing, clothes and jew­els are forms of body adorn­ment, but the nitty-gritty be­longs to such prac­tices as (de­lib­er­ate) scar­ring, pierc­ing, tat­too­ing and al­ter­ing the size and shape of such parts of the anatomy as heads, necks, ears and feet.

Tat­too­ing, so pop­u­lar nowa­days, would per­haps not be so wide­spread if it were done with a pointed stick in­stead of an elec­tric nee­dle. And while it’s fairly com­mon to see women and men with pierc­ings in their ears, eye­brows, noses, lips, tongues and other places more pri­vate, how many would elect to have por­cu­pine quills thrust through their sep­tum?

The fact that many kinds of body adorn­ment in­volve pain speaks to the hu­man ten­dency to­ward suf­fer­ing and sac­ri­fice for a par­tic­u­lar end, whether it be re­li­gious, so­cial or con­ven­tional; the mantra in my first wife’s house, as she and her three sis­ters were grow­ing up, was “Beauty hurts.” On the other hand, the pain as­so­ci­ated with sick­ness and dis­ease and the abil­ity of ail­ments to al­ter our flesh and ap­pear­ance re­flect the dark side of body adorn­ment. Or is it all the dark side?

This ru­mi­na­tive pre­lude ad­dresses sev­eral is­sues of at­trac­tion and re­pul­sion in one of the most provoca­tive and thought­ful ex­hi­bi­tions seen in this city; bless the Na­tional Or­na­men­tal Me­tal Mu­seum for push­ing boundaries again. The work of Lau­ren Kalman, dis­played through June 24 in the mu­seum’s “Trib­u­taries” se­ries, is un­can­nily beau­ti­ful and star­tling, heraldic, weirdly erotic yet deeply dis­turb­ing.

Kalman takes us to the lim­its of phys­i­cal al­lure and dis­ease, and she en­tices us upon this path with the tini­est pieces of jew­elry imag­in­able.

It may take a few mo­ments for vis­i­tors to the ex­hi­bi­tion to un­der­stand that these specks of semi-pre­cious stones are meant to be stuck into the body in var­i­ous pat­terns, and that the pat­terns fol­low the tem­plates of dif­fer­ent dis­eases and af­flic­tions. The jew­els are for­mally pre­sented in im­pec­ca­bly crafted black boxes with pure white bottoms, along with, in some cases, acupunc­ture equip­ment, or, in oth­ers, with tweezers. How they might look on a body is il­lus­trated by color pho­to­graphs, sev­eral semi-nude, of the artist, sac­ri­fic­ing her­self as a piece of liv­ing sculp­ture.

In dis­solv­ing the bar­ri­ers of pain and plea­sure and in ex­plor­ing cul­tural at­ti­tudes where sick­ness blurs with mar­tyr­dom and el­e­gance, Kalman calls some of these works “Cys­tic Acne” and “Gon­or­rhea” and “Syphilis,” “Her­pes Zoster” and “Ka­posi Sar­coma,” the lat­ter two par­tic­u­larly dis­tress­ing be­cause the win­some pearls that con­sti­tute them are meant to be sewn into the flesh; each comes with su­ture pli­ers and su­ture nee­dle.

Do we ever un­der­stand the re­la­tion­ship be­tween beauty and fear? Kalman cer­tainly helps us on the way in a tan­ta­liz­ing ex­hi­bi­tion that must not be missed.

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