Notions of beauty are amongst the most abstract imaginable. In the Western world notions of female beauty are subscribed by measurements, tonality and symmetry. Curvaceous breasts, narrow waist, long legs, protruding lips and nipples. Ample buttocks, but not overly. But these are comparatively recent rulings. A short time ago, in the 1960s, Playboy magazine’s exactitudes were far more plump and curvaceous and in the time of Ruben the flesh was overflowing.
Different cultures stare at different beauties. The notion of foot-binding – creating a gnarly stub of calloused, truncated foot – has been considered erotic. For some, plastic surgery, the obviously distended and plasticised lips and breasts of women is ‘sexy.’ There are even those who find amputation erotic, or even a sub-set of a sub-genre who feel a desire for disease.
Which brings us decidedly to the beautiful work of Doble & Strong. And what it is that makes these works beautiful is problematic indeed.
Each and every one of D&S’s models featured here is indisputably beautiful, indeed, sumptuous and desirable. Again, however, it is all in the eye of the beholder. And the beholder’s eye is rich and varied, from heterosexual to homosexual to bi-sexual, from gay to lesbian to transgender to asexual.
I myself tend towards the hetero, and I see here beautiful and desirable woman transformed, but by no means demeaned or, strangely, even disfigured (the Venus di Milo is ‘broken’ but remains Aphrodite). They may be ‘diseased’ but strangely that enhances their perfection. Their poses are arranged by the artists in a classical sense of perfection, but then overlaid by aesthetic burdens that create a strange sense of strength.
D&S’s amputees are fictions, the stuff of dark, late night editing and recreation. But reality and fantasy are close, if somewhat schizophrenic, twins. Aimee Mullins, the svelte model, artist and actress who Matthew Barney stars in various projects, most especially the Cremaster Cycle, was born without fibular bones, and had both of her legs amputated below the knee when she was an infant (thus in Barney’s world once again crossing between reality and the artists’ fantasies). Patricia Arquette in David Cronenberg’s Crash is all but amputated. Boxing Helena, the 1993 debut feature film by Jennifer Chambers Lynch, starring Sherilyn Fenn sees a lonely Atlanta surgeon obsessed with a woman named Helena (Fenn) who is injured in a hit-and-run accident in front of his home. Cavanaugh kidnaps and treats her in his house amputating both of her legs and, as the film proceeds, amputating her (undamaged) arms as well. The final image of the film sees Helena entirely intact in a hospital bed, either re-limbed by Cavanaugh in an act of forgiveness or the entire episode is a fantasy of Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID, also referred to as amputee identity disorder), a psychological disorder where the subject feels they would be happier living as an amputee. It is related to xenomelia; “the oppressive feeling that one or more limbs of one’s body do not belong to one’s self”.
Amputation also has a strange literary history that encompasses the Marquis de Sade, Bataille’s Histoire de l’oeil, Beckett’s Endgame, Bernhard’s Die Billigesser, Dunn’s Geek Love, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Brian Evenson’s Baby Leg and various other works.
That particular aspect aside, there are the colours, the vibrant, visceral and virulent ‘diseases’ that these beautiful young ladies carry like parasols or fashion accouterments, the Comme des Garçons of viruses, the Yves Saint Laurent of fleshly deformity. Blight as accessory and disease as desire. A bone juts through the flesh of the cheek, body modification via amensalism, no less strange than piercings the world over, apart from the fact that it is grown from the inside. Or then there is dikaryon, a strange feature of certain fungi which envelops a stunning pale-skinned Anglo-Saxon whose nipples exude rabid health. Then there is Transgenesis, so close hermeneutically to transgender, but introducing an alien gene for erotic consequence and enhancement.
This notion of the viral that D&S ‘transmit’ comes close on the heels of similar cinematic concerns seen in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), but more graphically in Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral (2013) in which in a dystopian, celebrity-obsessed near-future the Lucas Clinic purchases viruses and pathogens from celebrities who fall ill, in order to inject them into clients who desire a connection with celebrities.
Slightly more subtly, D&S’s viruses are transmitted via vision as opposed to air, touch or food. The contagion spreads via a thing called beauty. We become transfixed via transmogrification. We recognise perfection through blight. We ignore the bubo for the breast, the protuberance of bone for the perfect lips.
D&S have attempted to do this in the past with the male nude. For reasons unknown it simply doesn’t work. Perhaps men are ugly enough to begin with. But the perfect female form, for time immemorial, has been the stuff of art, admiration and fear. And these women, despite their burn-marks, their pustule festering disease, their dismemberment, remain strangely empowered. We want them, despite what havoc and mayhem comes riding alongside.
Ashley Crawford, August 2013