Living organisms, animals and the human body in particular, have long been the inspiration for many forms of art. Using a palette of every conceivable material to draw, paint, sculpt and so on, artists have investigated human forms, producing art that has evolved our understanding of a body's potential. Artists have been continually developing and challenging these understandings: what defines us and what can art be and be made from? Since the artist Piero Manzoni canned his own faeces in 1961, artists have increasingly used their own bodily materials to make art.
Writers, performers and visual artists leading the way in contemporary debates on bio-technology, bio-art and human interfaces are represented here in this collection of essays that accompanied the exhibition of the same name, Sk-interfaces, curated by the editor, Jens Hauser.
With skin as his starting point Hauser writes in his introductory essay that "the overlap of both cultural and biological liminality is central to artistic strategies dealing with biological systems or biotechnological techniques as a means of expression and extending into areas such as cell and tissue cultures, neurophysiology, transgenesis or medical self-experimentation". He has recognised that "artists have recently developed an interest in the material properties and functionalities inherent in the notion of skin as a physiologically mediating instance".
He cites Susan Merrill Squier's position that "artists and other cultural practitioners located at this threshold may function as agenda-setters, and therefore not only share responsibility in our perception of these liminal lives but in their development and design as well".
Hauser supports the ethical and sociocultural issues that surround the subject matter of the artworks presented with sound philosophical arguments and good references. His synopsis of the Sk-interfaces artists' work presents an overview of what is happening in the bio-arts, introducing new definitions of bio-art as well as its current themes and concerns.
Stephane Dumas' essay introduces ideas around the Marsyas myth, explaining how it "offers a tremendously rich medium for reflection that is at once anachronistic and of great current relevance in respect of creative visual arts". He goes on to define what he calls "creative skin", introducing artworks that use biotechnology "to embrace the human species as a whole", and whose "motivations are often rooted in a questioning of man's dominant position over animals".
Introductory essays from other writers and artists contain many, sometimes complex, ideas but all are well written and clearly define this quickly developing field, including work by the renowned artists Stelarc and Orlan. The 17 essays on/by the artists exhibited at Sk-interfaces vary in style and often contain the artists' own words, commentary or interviews. Some strong sociopolitical themes recur in the work, emphasising the concerns of artists to challenge existing ideas: what is a living thing, can something be alive without a body, and what constitutes torture? The book also introduces some artists who are less known in the UK including Wim Delvoye with his film Sybille II and Yann Marussich's performance Blue Remix.
The book is beautifully designed and produced. The artist Zane Berzina contributes to this with the cover concept, endpapers and section dividers. In her essay "Re-thinking touch" she explains her concept and how in her sensory installation Touch Me people are invited to interact with a wall surface that is coated with a thermochromic pigment.
As in the installation, this book reacts to the body heat of the reader, changing colour on contact, fading from bright orange to reveal a white surface with a texture not that far from some kind of skin. Inside the book the endpapers also reveal recognisable printed skin patterns, and on contact with the reader the colour fades. If the complexity of these external and internal surfaces intrigues you, then so will the ideas contained within them.
Sk-interfaces: Exploring Borders-Creating Membranes in Art, Technology and Society
Edited by Jens Hauser
Liverpool University Press
Published 19 February 2008