Beauty, Violence, Sex & Death. by Jeremy Kibel

Being woken by sound of a rooster and remembering the advice of a fellow artist, l began to understand the task that Robert Doble and Simon Strong had given me. These two artists wanted me to write on their collaborative works. I always face this process with severe trepidation, but l found some form of inner confidence from the simple basis that these images had burnt their way into my retina.

For centuries, the human race has utilised the power of science and religion to improve and prolong their lives. Through human efforts we have been able to clone, engineer plants to resist disease, target cancer cells by destroying them with chemotherapy and radiation, add vitamins to our daily bread and milk and transplant human organs to other bodies. We have a sense of security knowing that such scientific development is regulated by the medical boards, government and church. But what happens when Nature takes over this process?

“First Born,” the collaboration by Robert Doble and Simon Strong, deals directly with the pitfalls of scientific advancement, the human condition and the untold faith in the belief that science holds all the answers. They question our sense of morality, sexuality, our definition of beauty in Western society and our clinical acceptance of how we alter our bodies and environment in the pursuit of the ‘perfect’ state. The power in this collaboration not only lies in the graphic representation of a world that has attacked itself – but more importantly it is making a direct appeal for our sense of humility and compassion.

Through history artists and writers have explored the social impact and the role religion and science has played in society. Mary Shelly’s book Frankenstein, written in 1818, is notably one of the most famous novels written as a response to the danger of science medaling with natures’ order. These thoughts have plagued humanity for as long as we have existed. David Lynch, with The Elephant Man (1980) and Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) showed us how society treated people who they thought were diseased, ugly and or outcast. Doble and Strong’s collaboration unflinchingly confronts these issues.

These images of morphological change, bodies cocooned in strange growths and mutations, violent smears spattered and explosions of oil paint and varnish that disfigure the flesh are strangely compelling and visually appealing to the eye. The object of desire is no longer the body. The focus now is on our newfound ability to manipulate ourselves and our environment. Self-preservation is no longer the key to survival. Modern scientific advancement has now allows us to engage with the concept of self-modification.

Evolution by conscious design has given us the ability to select and de-select parts of our bodies, but what about our soul? Most scientists would like us to believe that the soul is the construct of fiction and religion – but, if this is true, what is the social impact on mankind? Are the changes irreversible? Has this way of life altered our historical path and affected our equilibrium in nature? Artist such as Doble and Strong have put forward a different point of view, a different way of looking and investing in the idea surrounding science, nature and beauty. Their ideas are as relevant and important to society, if not more so, than what science has achieved because they hold a mirror up to us and push the boundaries of our beliefs. They bravely tell us that souls are bound to the earth. The DNA from all organisms is made up of the same chemical and physical components.

Sarcoplasm (2009) is a traditional front-on portrait of a naked female torso. This beautiful and lithe body, with her plump lips and pert seductive nipples, has been invaded by the bacterial growth of oil paint and varnish. The intriguing aspect is – it is not the girl herself that is being invaded, but the picture plain itself being overcome with the strange bacteria-like Petri dish in a science laboratory. This is where this wonderful cross over occurs with Doble and Strong’s work. The disfiguring of the human form as well as the disfiguring of the material – the psychological twist of smearing the paint across the beautiful photographs.

In Cisterma (2009) we find a beautiful young girl-sitting upright with her arms bound behind her with alabaster-like skin akin to classical sculptures we would find atop marble plinths from Ancient Rome. Paint again is applied, disfiguring all recognisable facial features. This is a great Francis Bacon-like hostile moment of beauty, death, violence, sex all meeting on an equal playing field. It’s the horrifying idea that it takes a glimpse of death to obtain our attention… however fleeting.

In Duad (2009) the dark beauty of pure narcissism is standing in front of us basking in the silvery moonlight. This alien like figure stares longingly into itself to the end of time but this lithe figure of male beauty is being invaded by the black spots of a cancerous lung. But there is a powerful contradiction in the sense that this image is also a wonderful play on abstraction. Bouncing black balls dance over the surface hinging on the reflective angles of the emaciated torsos. Are we drawn to beauty of nature or are we fascinated with the morbid?

Not knowing what the outcome of their collaboration would be, Doble and Strong have indirectly achieved an amazing body of works that reflects the current anxieties that exist in our material world. They challenge the way we digest visual media and the monetary value associated with beauty. What these works suggest is that even though we have come to the apex of scientific endeavours and wealth accumulation – ANXIETY PERSISTS.

Amongst the tensions within this series remains an uplifting sentiment that we as human beings are able to rejoice in the beauty of our flaws. Despite the constant reminders of our mortality and the ever-expanding names of cancers and diseases, these works celebrate the agony and the ecstasy of the flesh and blood that is destined to decay.

Jeremy Kibel 2010