More than
Skin Deep

flowerOF ALL SUBJECTS IN ART, the nude has long been considered as one of the mainstays and a genre unto itself. Academically speaking, skill in depicting the human form is part and parcel of earning one's chops as an artist. In many cases, the resulting combination of lines and curves is not much more than an exercise in topographical draftsmanship, similar to a landscape drawing. This is all very well and good up to a point, but it cannot be denied that the nude has always been fraught with problems, ethical and aesthetic. One of these problems, simply put, is that the nude in whatever guise (see the countless Venuses) is, first and foremost, a human body framed and subjected to objectification. It is indicative of the prevailing (im)balance of power that when one thinks of the word "nude" it is almost invariably associated with an idealized female form. In such depictions, it matters very little who or what the model is; what is central is the gaze of the artist (usually male) and what it makes of the model.

Before what Walter Benjamin called the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the possession of nudes--and the implied ownership of the bodies depicted therein--was a privilege enjoyed only by the male nobility. It was for their eyes only that the first portrait nudes, their mistresses in the buff, were commissioned. The purpose of such paintings is pretty obvious and they are the direct ancestors of the modern-day pinup photograph. Nowadays, images of the unclothed human form lead a double-life as something quite improper yet common enough to be taken for granted. In truth, the nude's popular continuance rests upon its being a commodity valued primarily for its ability to move tabloids and magazines off the shelves.

The history of the nude makes the possibility for any progressive change seem bleak, indeed, and sadly, the easy mass-production of the genre has driven some "serious" artists to throw in the towel and dismiss the nude as having been done to death, a statement akin to saying that shoulders are passť and knees outmoded. Not so, says photographer Marlon Despues. In his landmark exhibit at Instituto Cervantes entitled La piel como metàfora (showing from July 18 to August 31), over 800 photographs have taken over walls and part of the ceiling to form, as it were, the building's inner skin. That Despues prefers to call these works "skin portraits" instead of "nudes" reveals his departure from tradition. For one thing, it is made clear that the exhibit is a collaboration between the photographer and every single one of the hundreds of people--female and male--who posed. All of the models were volunteers of different nationalities (the bulk of the exhibit, however, is of Filipinos) and from various walks of life, including doctors, directors, teachers, politicians, tricycle drivers, artists, and diplomats. During the shoot, it was the model who decided how much or how little skin to show and, afterwards, it was also the model who had the final say as to which photograph to exhibit. This is a radical move on the part of Despues considering that in most professional photography, the subject is expected to place his or her image at the mercy of the photographer and any stylists in attendance. It is this element of choice on the part of the model that makes each photograph a portrait and the exhibit a collaboration.

While a single photoshoot may take only a few hours, a collaborative exhibit such as La piel requires long-term logistical planning and unflagging nerve. Despues began earnestly collecting images early last year (2005), soon after his homecoming from the United States, where he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in architecture, a program that included studies in photography. (It deserves mention here that it doesn't take a long conversation with Despues to discover that he is fiercely proud of his Ilongo and Ivatan heritage and the fact that he was born in the Philippines.) For over a year, in what must have seemed at times a quixotic endeavor, the photographer went around inviting everyone, from new acquaintances to total strangers, to pose for him: "Bring friends, bring family! Tell your grandmother!" And, in the end, some grandmothers did pose.

Admittedly, the exhibit overwhelms at first viewing and must give the most jaded exhibit-goer pause. After all, on how many occasions are we confronted with hundreds of photographs--not to mention skin portraits--placed edge-to-edge? Yet this is the intended effect. Current commercial nudes have an all-look-same tendency and it is this that the exhibit's massive attack approach ironically plays on. But to zero in on one portrait is to realize the subject's individuality and each photograph tells a story--a chapter of autobiography, perhaps--as written on the skin and body. Every curve, every body part, every pose, was chosen by the model to represent his or her entirety, as in synecdoche. The images range from the whimsical to the dramatic, and everything in between. For drama there is, of course, the huge nude occupying the end wall and it is not so much the model's nudity but her eyes that draw one's attention. For whimsy, there is a full-frontal portrait of a man wearing nothing but a pendant and red socks. Another is of a woman on whose back is painted a green dragon writhing its way down from her shoulders to her calves. There are group portraits, too, and at least one smiling family, as well as several portraits of pregnant women, some with their partners. There are also yoga positions and acrobatics captured at the crucial split-second.

In keeping with the theme of skin, many subjects took the opportunity to have their tattoos immortalized. Others chose to focus on what made their bodies different in themselves. It is quite certain that the family and friends of an extremely hirsute model would recognize him from the chest hair alone. There were some who posed with their chosen attributes: quite a few portraits are of men and women with a guitar, another has the model holding a pen just over a C-section scar and yet another shows a very long-haired subject with a huge grin. Understandably, there are many cropped images of faces, hands, and feet, yet the fact that these were the parts chosen by the models to represent themselves lends them equal symbolic value. (The exhibit's visual balance is greatly due to the curatorship of Anna Cornelia who succeeded in giving order to what might have been chaotic in less able hands.) In light of the leeway afforded by Despues, there are surprisingly few glamour shots and, in several photographs, the models, in the most anti-model of gestures, chose to focus on scars. There is one of a deep scar right in the middle of the chest, the badge of someone who has undergone open-heart surgery. There are also portraits of women, survivors of breast cancer, commemorating their acceptance and embrace of the absence. These must be among the most striking photographs in an exhibit where the images--and perforce every individual behind them--taken singly or en masse, resist the passive mode.

It cannot be helped that a photography exhibit of bodies unidealized and individualized should evoke intimations of mortality. In the past year since the earliest photographs were taken, not one of the models--and not even the photographer--can say that nothing has changed about their bodies. Yet the sheer number of people who participated in this collaboration transforms what could have been just another show of skin into a celebration of our vulnerable humanity and an affirmation of the beauty in simply being alive. It is to Instituto Cervantes' credit that it sponsored a show like La piel como metàfora and it is highly probable that anyone who sees it would wish that it were a more permanent exhibit. (August 2006, Sofia Guillermo)

[NOTE: Marlon Despues passed away in April 2007.]