Body adornment goes skin deep
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.