Peta Clancy: Skin Doesn't Have Roots, it Peels Away Easy as Paper - Art Collector

Issue 42, October - December 2007

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Peta Clancy is preoccupied with skin, mortality and ageing. Her most recent photographic series traces a dermatological destiny, writes Ingrid Periz.

Melbourne-based photographer Peta Clancy uses a quote from Sylvia Plath when talking about her work: “Skin doesn’t have roots, it peels away easy as paper.” For Clancy, who often works with photographs of facial details, Plath’s skin-and-paper comparison mirrors her own practice where “the surfaces of the skin and the photograph are central.” Detailing wrinkles and folds, photographing dust, or using bacteria to imagine complete bodies, Clancy nods to new art forms like BioArt but in a way that touches upon longstanding philosophical and aesthetic concerns. Her focus on the body, particularly on skin, is indebted to an earlier generation of women artists, but at some remove from the politics of feminist body art or a grungier abjection.

Clancy has been exhibiting regularly since 1995, largely outside the commercial gallery system. Internationally, her work has been seen in Los Angeles, Salzburg, Vienna, and Brighton; locally she has shown at the Australian Centre for Photography, Melbourne’s Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, and RMIT’s Project Space, in addition to non-art venues like St. Vincent’s Hospital and the 2003 International Congress of Genetics in Melbourne. Elixir, her forthcoming solo show at Sydney’s thirtyseven degrees Gallery includes excerpts from two earlier series, Visible Human Bodies, part of which is also concurrently on view at the Australian Centre for Photography, and She carries it all like a map on her skin, along with a new series called paper thin (2007).

paper thin, with its echoes of Plath, is also a pun on the condition of the photograph itself. Both photography and human skin serve as a kind of index, imprinted variously with light, time and gravity. Photography freezes that imprint in a perfect trace, a defence, as it were, against the further ravages of time. Mortality is never too far from Clancy’s concerns. She explains her interest in making images of human skin. “I think we are drawn to particular subject matter because of different experiences. In my case, it was just realising the vulnerability and fragility of the body, and an interest in how the body can change rapidly.” She recalls her father’s sudden and premature death: “It made me aware of the denial of death and mortality, mutability and ageing. You don’t know what’s going on and you search for a visual language to understand.” Clancy imagines herself always making work connected in some way with the body. “I guess subjects kind of choose me. We view the world in relation to our own bodies, and these are constantly undergoing transformation. These changes happen beyond our control and seem to cause us anxiety.”

Two sources important for Clancy extend her work beyond the psychoanalytically informed theories of the body in vogue in Australian art schools in the 90s. These are the work of British artist Helen Chadwick (1953-1996) and German literary scholar Claudia Benthien’s 2002 study of the cultural meanings attached to human epidermis, Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and the World. Chadwick’s use of unusual materials and her alternately lyrical and disgusting take on mortality underwrote a distinctive latter day practice of body art, while Benthien’s historical anthropology acknowledges skin as a “rich and highly symbolic boundary in the collective imagination.” Skin is additionally the site where personal identity is both formed and assigned. Clancy explains, “We can think of skin as a boundary or a container. We think of the self as being contained by the skin, but at the same time, the skin is ourselves.” And, drawing on recent work in psychology, she notes a further complication in the relationship between skin and self: “Our concept of our body – our body image – changes according to how we are touched.”

This coil of identity, self-image and tactility informs her series This Skin I’m In (2002), shown at the Australian Centre for Photography. Pink-toned ink-jet images of parts of Clancy’s face were paired with small white pillows hand stitched by the artist. Each pillow had been printed with lipstick-hued images of skin flakes taken from Clancy’s own body, but enlarged so that they read as abstracted blobs of feminine colour on the amorphously-shaped pillows, many of which were adorned with an Eva Hesse-like fringe of thread. Clancy sought to reference 70s women’s art in her sewing and fabric use – even the done-at-home ink-transfers strike a domestic note – but formally and conceptually the series marks its distance from the 70s. She wrote at the time that “the images of the skin and the ‘skin pillows’ are intended to play aesthetic against abject responses” to our internal bodies. Biographically they are linked to her experience of adolescence. Clancy remembers her first eye shadow kit, a present from an aunt who was a makeup artist, and how its presentation felt like an initiation.

While working on this series using her own discarded skin, Clancy wondered “at what point the skin particles stopped being a part of me.” She notes domestic dust is largely composed of dander – discarded human skin particles – and recalls an early morning reverie: “I was trying to wake up. Gazing at the window while the sunlight came through, I saw the most beautiful particles of dust visible in the sun’s rays. Dust, made visible by rays of sun through a window, consists of a large quantity of human skin, thus putting ourselves within the beauty we see.” Waiting For The Dust To Settle, a series of photographic studies of accumulated dust particles shows the “minute residue of our everyday lives” in images of traces and shadows left behind when objects are moved from their place. Clancy sees these images “rooted in the soil of everyday life.” Enlarged, these beautiful fragments of dust and dead skin suggest mortality, “the dust,” as Clancy puts it, “from which the body comes and to which it will return.”

These quietly mordant images are in marked contrast to the vibrant human forms of Clancy’s 2005 series, Visible Human Bodies, developed during an artist’s residency in the Cell and Gene Therapy Laboratory at Melbourne’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute at the Royal Children’s Hospital. Here, large round lightboxes display glowing evocations of human bodies. Keen to see how “the human body was viewed in the context of gene therapy,” Clancy produced her images by first drawing blind with pathogenic bacteria onto Petri dishes in order to create living likenesses. The dishes were incubated at 37C for several days, after which the images materialised, to be subsequently photographed, enlarged and transferred to lightboxes. Clancy wanted to duplicate the lab’s aesthetics: “I watched the scientists view bacteria colonies on lightboxes in the lab. Plus, I want to suggest the conditions of viewing cells through a microscope. The individual lightbox works are like large Petri dishes.” And the bacteria, luminescent blobs which make up the final form, are themselves metaphors for what she describes as the “fragile, transient, mutable and constantly changing nature of the human body” itself.

Along with portions of Visible Human Bodies, Elixir includes elements of her She carries it all like a map on her skin (2005). Here Clancy physically reworked a series of images – in this case close-ups of a female relative’s mouth and eyelids – by pricking the back of the prints with a fine needle, then, with a tungsten light raking across the surface to accentuate her markings, re-photographing them. Instead of defilement, what results is more like an embroidery of time’s passage, as the lines and furrows of the skin most susceptible to signs of aging are lovingly highlighted. The series paper thin continues this technique in a group of images showing several generations of women in Clancy’s family. Re-working the print surface, Clancy hopes to pre-empt the impress of time upon the skin, giving the works, as she puts it, “a Dorian Gray-like life of their own.” At the same time, by using familial members, likenesses become apparent in recurring lines and shapes. Reading these similarities across the images, it seems is if we see one face in fast forward as it grows into its dermatological destiny. The fullness of time, it would seem, is that of our withering.

Not all of the images in paper thin strike this note. Clancy also includes close-ups of people she knows, showing simply portions of their face in order “to explore youth, beauty, aging, skin colour, mortality and time.” Despite the close cropping these are not abstracted parts but individuated portraits detailing the curl of lip and nostril, or the arch of an eyebrow. Time’s work here is stilled by the photograph, but not in any glamorous image of perfection. Clancy lets us imagine the texture she shoots – pores and stubble and all – and in this heightened, imaginary tactility, we recognise a common kinship of the skin, fragile, mutable, and momentarily beautiful.

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