Body modification; cool, scary, freakish or beautiful? Some people’s toes will curl at the words alone, but this ancient practise does not necessarily have dark implications.
Many of us have engaged in the practise in one form or another, be it ear piercings, tattoos, body building or cosmetic surgery.
In the simplest terms, body modification means to deliberately alter one’s physical appearance. It is a tradition that spans class, race and history, and can have huge cultural significance, as a form of initiation, symbol for coming of age, or as a rite of passage. And of course, in almost every culture there are modifications done purely for aesthetic reasons. However, are body modifications simply a form of self-expression, or if one’s body is used as a canvas, can it be considered art?
Body modification does have a certain proximity to art; both are performative and public, and can be an expression of rebellion, conformity, religious belief, sexuality and beauty.
We are going to look at four famous body modifiers and why they changed their images to such extents.
Meet Maria Jose Cristerna, also known as Vampire Woman.
She is a Mexican ex-lawyer, now business owner, activist, tattoo artist and mother. For her, body modifications are an expression of freedom after an abusive relationship, and a form of activism against domestic violence. They symbolise strength, courage and liberation, and according to Cristerna they show the world how she always was on the inside.
The Vampire Woman is recognised By Guinness World Records as the most tattooed woman in the world, with 96% of her body covered.
Her modifications also include a split tongue, subdermal implants, piercings, ear expansions, eye tattoos, scarification and dental implants.
With so much creativity required to create her image, the professionals who implanted titanium ‘horns’ into Cristerna’s head and arms appear to be sculptors more so than medics, with every cut, hole and inking coming from the imagination of Cristerna.
This is Stelios Arcadiou, known as Stelarc, a performance artist from Australia.
He is a visiting professor at Brunel University School of Arts, and without colourful tattoos or fantasy-like horns protruding from his head, he does not look like your typical partaker of body modification. However, on his forearm Stelarc has a third ear made from human cartilage.
The ear was created from cells in a lab in 2006 and took 10 years to find a surgeons who were willing to perform the operation.
He has used his own body as a medium for his art and expressing his ideas about how technology changes what it means to be a human. He focuses on the concept that our bodies are obsolete and is known for going to extremes, from aggressive voluntary surgeries, to flesh-hook suspensions and prosthetics. His modifications can decidedly be described as both mutilation and art.
Body modification has a controversial history within the circus, one of the most famous examples being Horace Ridler, also known as The Great Omi.
Born in England in 1892, he became one of the eras greatest showmen by having his whole body tattooed in zebra stripes, teeth filed down to spikes, ear lobes stretched and nose pierced to insert an ivory tusk.
He took the bold step of becoming a “freak” in order to earn a livelihood as a performer in the circus, touring the world for audiences to ogle at him and listen to his fantastical monologue about how he acquired his modifications.
In most parts of the world "freakshows" are now seen as unethical, but Ridler's modified body was something of a curiosity to paying audiences.
The Circus was undoubtedly a platform for Ridler's own style of performance art, even if his modifications were more a product of entrepreneurial spirit than artistic expression.
Finally we introduce ORLAN, born Mireille Suzanne Francette Porte.
She is a French artist known to be a pioneer of carnal art, a form of self-portraiture that utilises body modification to alter one’s appearance.
In 1990 she started a project called The Reincarnation of Sainte-ORLAN, involving a series of plastic surgeries through which the artist transformed herself into elements from famous paintings.
Her goal was to acquire the ideal of female beauty as depicted by male artists; the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the nose of Jean-Léon Gérôme's Psyche, the lips of François Boucher's Europa, the eyes of Di Maria Jose Cristerna ana (as depicted in a 16th-century French School of Fontainebleau painting), and the forehead of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.
Instead of condemning cosmetic surgery and rejecting the masculine, she incorporates them. And instead of limiting her identity, she defines it as "nomadic, mutant, shifting, differing."
Considered a walking, breathing artwork, the act of body modification was art itself in the case of ORLAN.
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