Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Dermatographism: intersections of language and visage.

The act of writing on the face makes explicit the connections between thought and expression. What I think is often revealed on my features: I would make a terrible poker player, or liar. (Which does not, of course, stop me from lying, though it's fair to say that I'm not that keen on poker.)
In these works, I was trying – in a very obvious manner, perhaps – to express something about how we are shaped – down to our very features – by language. The laying or layering of language onto image tries to hint at ways of expressing our search for meaning and identity through words.

The text comes from a number of sources: Latin copy from a book by John Ray, that great collector of words as well as insects, his love of etymology and entomology going hand in hand. Also transcripts of a conversation with an art historian: a rambling discourse, often breaking into profanity, in which he tries to help me situate my practice. 

Most tellingly for me, on one cast – of my whole head – I used copies of letters from my father. These were not sent to me, but inherited after his death – line after line of his thoughts, opinions, invectives, humour and anger tinged with alternating self-pity and misogyny – all in a crabbed, controlled, obsessively neat copperplate hand. I feel unfairly shaped by his presence. I also, more unfairly, see much of his personality in myself. And here, on me. 

After making 'letter head', I learnt about a verse form called pantoum: a Malay verse form, it seemed apt to me as much of my striving for a sense of identity and place is born of being mixed-race, half native Malay and half colonial English, a third-culture child. I wrote a pantoum – not a good one – entitled 'I am all written in my father's hand'. I never, of course, actually applied this poem to my face.

The process of applying the text – transferring it from printed page to face – necessarily reverses it, unless I take the trouble to reverse it before application. Sometimes I do, so that it is, in part at least, legible. Sometimes I prefer it to stand mirrored, so it's meaning is obscured and the letters become shapes and patterns, like tattoos in another language whose characters are not familiar to us. And later, I took to carving text directly into the mould – writing in reverse, so that when a cast was taken it would be the right way round. These carved texts stand proud of the skin, not laid onto it but emerging directly from it, as happens with a condition called dermatographic urticaria. It seemed to me that some thoughts are so powerfully experienced, or exact so vigorous a force upon the self, that they could rise up under the skin: that the skin itself – the largest organ of the body – could be both medium and message.

My first experiment with carving words into a mould, in reverse, freehand and off the top of my head, brought forth "what if the weather-map of your emotional life were engraved upon the very skin of your face?" Nothing deep or meaningful. I was imagining that a condition like that would willy-nilly transcribe your emotions (rather than your thoughts, say) on to your skin – as the devil might use you as parchment, if you were possessed. But in this case, possessed only by the raw and chaotic nature of your self. Why weather-map? The truth is that I was going to use just 'map', but needed a longer word to fit across: and the notion of weather being untameable, out of one's control, chimed with how I felt about the process. That feelings and words swirl around, ungraspable until they push their way out of your skin. 

 Sometimes, perhaps, what I think may be literally written all over my face.    

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