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Sacred And Profane Bodies


The body is a zone of self expression. The way you use and adorn or decorate your body can express who you are and what you believe in. It is symbolic, communicative, aesthetic. It may be sacred or profane, cultural or individualistic, conformist or creative. For German philosopher Nietzsche the body is ‘aesthetic material’; through the body we ‘create ourselves as a work of art’.

Sacred denial

Sacred denial
An Hindu ascetic or Sadhu is physically and ritually separated from the rest of Indian society by bodily symbols. He wears no stitched clothing – only a saffron cloth wrapped around his waist, because nakedness symbolizes the rejection of physical comforts and the transcendence of attachments to the body. In addition, the absence of clothing suggests simplicity, innocence and a state of oneness with nature and all creation. His jata or long matted hair and beard symbolize a disregard for the body and sensual pursuits, and convey a sense of rejection of all socially sanctioned conventions and rules of conformity. His forehead is marked in ash with the symbol of his sect – the Vaishnavas or worshipper of the god Vishnu – the Great Preserver.

Source: Robert Gross, The Sadhus of India, Rawat Publications, Delhi. 1992.


Carnal Art
French artist Orlan is the originator and sole practitioner of Carnal Art. She began in 1990, using computer-generated composites of female Renaissance icons and her face as a template for surgical transformation of her own features.

New medical techniques allow surgeons to perform operations whilst the patient is awake, without the expected penalty of pain. During surgery Orlan considers the operating theatre as her studio, a place where she is consciously directing the production of artwork such as video, photography, reading from psychoanalytic and literary texts and makes live telecommunications.

Orlan likes her body and all the changes she has made to it. She does not change it because she believes it to be inadequate. She has drawn attention to the paradox of modern women who have politically recovered control over their own bodies and have more social freedom as individuals but who appear reluctant to assert this franchise when it comes to personal appearance. They remain conservative in their desires for owning their bodies, fearing rejection and accusations of madness. Orlan, meanwhile, happily contradicts the culturally accepted standards of idealized beauty, replacing these with her own designs, one of which involves constructing a nose of caricature proportions. Her Carnal Art has inspired resistance against stereotypes of aesthetic tyranny. In her own words: ‘Are we still persuaded to comply with the decisions of nature? This lottery of genes distributed by chance? My work is against the innate, the inexorable, the program, Nature, DNA and God! My work is blasphemous!’

Source: Papers by Dr Rachel Armstrong, London.


Fashion's tentacles.

Fashion’s tentacles
The growth of the European city in the early stages of mercantile capitalism at the end of the Middle Ages saw the birth of fashion. Fashion is dress in which the key feature is rapid and continually changing style. Fashion in a sense is change, and in modern Westernized societies no clothes are outside fashion; even nuns have shortened their skirts; even the poorest wear cheap versions of the fashions that went out a few years ago... There is no escape from fashion. The determinedly unfashionable wear clothes that manifestly represent a reaction against what is in fashion. And the most dowdy clothes may at any moment get taken up and become, perversely, all the rage.

Constantly changing, fashion produces only conformity, as the outrage of the never-before-seen modulates into the good manners of the faultlessly and self-effacingly correct. To dress fashionably is both to stand out and to merge into the crowd, to lay claim to the exclusive and to follow the herd. Fashion links beauty, success and the city. It was always urban, became metropolitan and is now cosmopolitan, boiling all national and regional differences down to the distilled moment of glassy sophistication, masking all emotions save that of triumph. The demeanour of the fashionable person must always be blasé – cool. Yet fashion does not negate emotion, it simply displaces it into the realm of aesthetics. It can be a way of intellectualizing visually about individual desires and social aspirations. Enmeshed as it is in mass-consumption, Western fashion has now overrun large parts of the so-called Third World, although national dress might be better adapted to climate and conditions.

Source : Elizabeth Wilson from Adorned in Dreams, Virago, London 1985.


Cultural cauldron

A cultural cauldron
Body decoration, self adornment or bilas, as we say in Papua New Guinea, is a universal form of expression. People all over the world wear a wide range of clothes, put on make-up, wear scarves, sunglasses, masks and hats, tattoo the body or parts of it, attach rings... Bilas is not a thing, not an object. Any meaning associated with it is given to it by its participants. Bilas is defined and practised in accordance with the underlying culture. There are specific colours, designs and patterns, and understood rules and regulations to the actual practice of putting on bilas. In the past 200 years or so, following contact with Europeans, there have been changes in the way people see themselves and their community. Needless to say, bilas and the way it is understood and practised has changed dramatically as a result. Have the various cultures of Papua New Guinea lost their rich and varied traditions of bilas? Are there new forms of bilas? If there are, are they good? Do these new bilas have the same meaning as those before? What do the changes to bilas mean in terms of a group’s sense of place and identity? As a Papua New Guinean, these questions are a continual preoccupation, because I am continually engaged in locating myself in a cultural cauldron that is competitive.

Source: Michael A Mel, writing in Contemporary Art in Papua New Guinea by Susan Cochrane, Craftsman’s House, Sydney 1997.

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New Internationalist issue 300 magazine cover This article is from the April 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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