Hair thrusting from skin, the ellipse of follicle ends, the roughed and raised surface of tattooed skin. The pink sheen of scars. The pitch black of backgrounds. Rainbowed digital lines that index digital glitches. Black gashes cut across flesh. Rough digital projections following the gaze, shifting with bodies in space, stalking the image, and the body viewing it.
— — —
Alison Bennett’s series of large-scale digital prints – oversized scans of tattooed body parts, overlayed with augmented reality projections rising on tablet screens from the flat of the paper – plunged me into an intensely intimate, visceral, tactile, dynamic, immersive space. The feel of the skins on the wall shifted to my own skin.
Bennett created the images by taking an off-the-shelf flatbed scanner and rolling it across tattooed bodies as it scanned. The technique – an intensely bodily process of creation – results in exceptionally clear images of skin framed by deep black areas where the scanner light had nothing to reflect against. It also results in digital ruptures, as the scanner motor failed or the machine was bumped. Multicoloured lines drag across the image, the lines of the tattoos warp and bend strangely, a warping that becomes three-dimensional through the augmented reality technology that can be used to view the images. This technology measures the light and dark of the image and creates a 3D topography based on this contrast. To experience this augmentation, the viewer takes a device (a tablet or a phone), holds it up to the image, and the 3D landscape emerges. Holding the device up and moving around the image, the projection shifts too, following the turn of the body viewing with mirrored turning of the body projected. It is, as Bennett describes, a kind of “choreography” of encountering the art.
On the level of the two-dimensional images, there is an almost overwhelming intimacy to the images, an intimacy that traces not just the tactile landscapes of skin but also the map of past ideas, ideas so resolved and so personally resonant as to become literally mapped onto the body.
And in the glitches of imaging, a violence is (re)introduced to both the body and to the identity that resolved to make these tattooed marks. The chasms created by the digital glitches re-enact the violence of the act of tattooing, piercing the skin, further folding the surface back on itself.
These images also echo of the way tattoos are lived – at the edges of public and private. Where strangers stare, point, grab arms to ask what the images mean. Tattoos are a public broadcast of very personal aesthetic and (often) even more personal ideology, which blurs the boundaries of the edges of individual bodies. An image-mediated inversion of the newborn’s discovery of the edges if their own fingers and toes. The augmented reality technology overlaid with these base images grab outward at you, through the screen, like tattooed fingers and toes extending into virtual space.
This remarkable work engages not only with a reconfiguration of surface and depth, but also broader questions of intimacy and the edges of selves, of what marks means to us and what marks means to others, and what space and what license we have to bridge the gap between the two. How do new technologies of digital representation allow us to rethink, reencounter, refeel old technologies of self-representation? How does an icon become an experience? And, at the bottom of this re-visioning of personal symbols, the question of why we make images – on ourselves, on walls, in virtual space? How do they mean? How do they change? What do they say and fail to say?
The answer these images suggest is everything and nothing. That meaning, like skin, shifts in-depth and dimension and feeling depending on how you look. That even with the clearest resolution, images break down. And that shifting is precisely how they touch us.
— — —
Shifting Skin is showing at the Deakin University Art Gallery, from 24 July – 31 August 2013 (building FA, Deakin University, 221 Burwood Hwy Burwood VIC 3125). The exhibition is open Tuesdays to Fridays 10-4, Saturdays 1-5.
Kate Warren’s excellent catalogue essay for the exhibition is here.
Alison’s website is here.
Image linked from the artist’s website at http://www.alisonbennett.com.au