The Backstory on All The Flesh of His Body
I was recently interviewed by Brown University's College Hill Independent about the ideas and process behind work in my solo show All the Flesh of His Body. Here are some highlights:
Indy: Could you speak to the “porous” nature of body and spirit as depicted in your work. Do you think humans are conscious of this fluid physical-spiritual relationship? Or is it your intention to bring awareness to it through your artwork.
SB: Yes, this fundamental truth is not part of our conscious lived experience. We are very much out of touch with our bodies in lives significantly oriented toward technology; and we prioritize vision almost to the exclusion of touch, sound, smell, and sense of movement. I do seek to communicate about these truths in my work and to inspire reflection on them. The photographic work in the show is from an ongoing project that examines the back and forth of matter, and the cycling and slippage of the body and its transformations.
I’ve been researching the structures and systems of industrial slaughterhouses, learning a lot about exactly how living bodies are transformed in massive numbers into food products. Its brutally horrific, and it’s something that our culture has chosen to sequester from the view of the public, because it is so deeply morally repugnant. I believe that it’s vitally important that this massive killing machine, which brutalizes not only the animals it slaughters but also the workers who labor within it, becomes known to us so that we can make clearer ethical choices about our own bodies’ participation in this cycle.
[Sculptor] Rosalyn Driscoll and I have been looking for ways to bring our human bodies into another kind of contact with these animal bodies. We’ve been projecting my video of human bodies onto and into and through the cattle skin. The photographic imagery in the show is made by filming a human model who is exploring, fighting with, and engaging the cattle skin. That video footage is then projected onto and through large sculptural forms that have been made with the rawhide. This new species of animal (a sort of compound cow-human) is then photographed.
The link with Ireland is explored specifically through engagement with both Christain and pre-Christian texts (St. Patrick’s 5th century Confessio, and the 1st century pre-Christian epic Tain Bo Cuailnge). The Tain exquisitely expresses the pre-Christian sensibility of fluidity of matter the continual morphing and shape shifting of human and animal, sea and sky, plant and people that are happening around us all the time.
Indy: We’ve heard rumors that you’re planning to print the photographs in this show on hide. Is this true?
SB: This presentation of the photographs is not wholly satisfactory for me. I want to have a closer marriage. I want the skin to stay present all the way through, and having it on paper was a compromise for me. I have begun experimenting with making contact prints of the images onto animal skin. I’ve been working with a wonderful old-style tannery. I can describe to the folks there the specific type of skin I’m looking for— goat or deer, sheep or cow skin with a particular quality of transparency. They are able to choose for me skins that retain the markings of the life of the animal. Including that physical evidence of the lifestory of the animal – the branding on a cow’s flank, the scars where a deer gouged its leg in a fall –is important to me.
Indy: Speaking of layering, do you connect the process to the themes in the piece? Did you choose layering for just the visual effect, or for some conceptual elegance?
SB: The layering is really important to me conceptually. My process reenacts the transformations which I’m highlighting. It starts in the real with a live human body and a semi-live animal skin (though dead, it feels alive when wet and slippery). The next transformation is the video editing and then the next layer is projecting that back onto another type of skin and then going again into photography. The process is a mirror of the ideas I’m working with, and it insists on the fact that everything is always changing.
We don’t think about it in our daily life, but if you just stop for a second and think that when you eat a hamburger, you’re taking a cow into your body and your body is literally changing cow into person, you touch into the sacred. The cow doesn’t remain a cow in you, it turns into human cells. It becomes your eyes, it becomes your skin, it becomes your stomach, and that’s incredible to me and that’s the story of the incarnation—that matter changes and that the spirit is in all of these things. We walk around and think that our bodies end where our skin ends and that on one side is us and on the other side it’s the world, but it doesn’t work that way. You’ve had the experience of driving past a place where a skunk has released its scent and you smell the skunk, right? We think we’re just passing and smelling a skunk. We’re here and the skunk was there. But what’s actually happening is cells from the skunk’s body are literally entering your body and merging with your body and becoming you. You’re becoming part skunk.