ETERNITY OR WHAT? by HIRO YAMAGATA and THE SACRED HEART: AN ATLAS OF THE BODY SEEN THROUGH INVASIVE SURGERY by MAX AGUILERA-HELLWEG at SF CAMERAWORK 1/15/99
by Eleanor & Emily Burgard
Imagine my twin sister and I in the early 60s: great big cow-eyed matching nine-year-olds. grown suddenly far too big for our surround: our boyfriends thin and bony, our parents suddenly caught unawares in their mid-thirties. hair going grey and a newfound frailty and tentativeness marking their steps, while we big girls aggressively ride the schoolbus as if it were actually going somewhere, sitting as close to the back seat as the larger boys would let us, unconsciously pushing us back when we came too close for our shared age and gender. But every once in a while we manage to sit as close in as the third seat from the back, on the south side, the side with the sun: and today is one of those days, sunny and brisk, one of those cold late-spring mornings, with the days gaining length finally after a winter's deprivations, and the boys and a few older girls around us are looking at a nudist magazine.
The magazine presents these photos as being naturist or natural and the sun is shining in the pictures and maybe it isn't spring inside the frames but summer more like, because eyeryone in the photos seems like they're on vacation, and we find ourselves wondering, if they are on vacation every weekend at the nudist colony then how did the grass at home get clipped etc.? Anyway this was all sunny & quite different from the Playboy magazines we'd sink into in the wee morning hours while the parents slept.
Playboy's nude pictorials were shot in a wide variety of locales and styles, but the overall impression my twin and I were left with was one of interior opulence, with dramatic lighting, mahogany desks, humidors, thick rugs and leather sofas. And sex and the woman's body took on a slightly dark tone withall, like the curve of a man's fingers in an expensive leather driving glove or the danger that the door to our father's study would suddenly open while we were lying there on the carpet with the latest issue lying open in front of us.
But this nudist magazine was different, all sunshine and sport, volleyball being a particular favorite. Perhaps it was the iconography of the neighborly camaraderie of the (almost-still-young) men who'd fought a war together, and their grateful wives and of course the children going along for the ride, at least for awhile. A market-driven communality (but don't use that word) of consumerist. recreationist purpose, a healthy body being a productive and consuming one. (We avoid the "consumptive" pun, as we are tangential enough, we think.) So capitalism rides pornography like a bus that's going somewhere: from the thick-carpeted offices and dark smoke-filled hallways that men at one end of the spectrum love, to the square lawns. volleyball courts and sun-drenched nudist camps that the less financially-libidinous citizen might be content with (or dream of).
And at the end of the spectrum we are concerned with here, the poor dreamy pedagogical one, here's a magazine we' re looking at that's seemingly opposed to the idea of sex as un-natural, or unhealthy (it all seemed healthier & that's how it was rationalized - the mysteries of adult rationalization, coding etc. are not all that hard for bright children to decipher. that's one of the main reasons we are disappointed as we grow up into adulthood - lack of appropriate mysteries) - it was healthier in that social-realist public-health definition of the late 50s early 60s, healthier approach to sexuality for the conummity etc., although of course these magazines were parodies of that expressed definition and of course the categorization as "unhealthy" of so-called deviant sexual practices. ie. repressed and covered up as shameful, where the sun don't shine, leads to public health problems as real as any the public health ethos of 1961 was concerned with preventing.
In any case, we are looking at the pictures of naked men and women and we are very much more confused by the photos of women than of men. Of course our own family was relatively unconcerned about these kinds of issues and while our parents didn't practice any kind of experimental free love crusade, neither were they overly concerned with closing off any areas of coincidence, accidence or experience from us, so by the age of nine we'd of course seen several examples of the fabled male member, including our father's hooded hairy thing and the rather more slender tubers of our youthful uncles as well as those wiggly worms and button mushrooms sported by our peers, who were in actual fact quite willing and even eager to wiggle waggle their wormy little willies for our perusal at the slightest opportunity [a rather annoying though not entirely charmless predilection which our peers continue to "exhibit" even to this day, we might add]. So really the male member held relatively few mysteries and even less allure, well at the age of nine anyway.
But the photos of women's genitals had us confused. We probably could have figured it out if we hadn' t been somewhat nervous and flustered at the forbidden quality of what we were doing; but we were also confused by the vocabulary being used by the boys around us, these manly knowledgeable 11 and 12 year olds with shiny pink heads and angelic halos of white-blond crewcuts attempting to feign disinterest while using verbal expressions intended to impress the younger boys (my twin sister and I, being merely girls and merely 9, were not even worthy of such an attempt.) Quaint colloquialism such as "snatch" and "ate her pussy" were somewhat brazenly-whispered by boys who hadn't the slightest clue what they were talking about [see: annoying predilections, above] while we two girls stared at these thick triangular mats of black curly hair spreading out flat over much of these nudist women's lower abdomens (bikini cuts & waxes being the sole province of Brigitte Bardot at that time) and just couldn't quite fathom the photographic physiognomy and how it related to our own hands-on experiences of our own bodies.
What had happened to our vaginas, for instance? In the boys' words and the magazine's images, the little wrinkled opening had tumed a thick mat of hair covering what must have turned into a swampy, spongy kind of material that one could "snatch" and "grab" and, in our horrified, somewhat over-active, sun-dazz1ed brains, "eat." Needless to say, this strange revelation troubled us throughout the whole day of classes (including physical education, and we certainly did have some peeks that day), until we finally arrived back home and could, in the privacy of our shared bedroom, attempt to sort this out together.
I must say it helps to have a twin sister. another lobe, with whom to talk about life's quandries: we feel certain that twinnishness is progressive, in evolutionary terms.
And it helps to also have a mum to ask stupid and not-so-stupid questions of. And of course it's better if she's a nice mum who has the time & energy & education & experience & common sense to give straight answers to little girls. It would be nice if all girls had mums as good & nice as ours. She set us straight about this whole business that afternoon, and we two girls went on our merry way, growing up and thinking about this silly misconception only infrequently, and less & less until finally the image lay dormant in some combination of chemicals and neuronic triggers, unsparked, unaccessed & unremembered for decades until we walked together (it's also nice to have a twin sister to go to art galleries with) into the chemical swamps of Hiro Yamagata and the plush, obscene surgical "theaters" of Max Aguilera-Hellweg.
After a few minutes of silence during which we lamented the fact that the insides of our cells look like nothing more than Dale Chihooly glassworks, we dove into Max's stuff, walked around the gallery, looked at the pictures, read the texts, got through the whole thing and stopped & stood there, slightly perplexed, in something like the state of confusion which might be caused by excessive sunshine, excessive youth and the pitch and sway of a schoolbus. Or by excessive gallery lighting, the pitch & jaw of excessive gallery-hopping. And again it's mainly language which is at fault, or rather it's language which, in its moments of confusion, gives us clues we might have otherwise have missed.
There's a formality, a stillness and precision to Max's images of the invaded body which lends them an aura of dispassionate authority, a relatively affectless "cool," a controlled professional analog to the dispassionate, precise professionalism of the surgeon. The stage-lighting and metaphorical "curtain-raising" give the whole thing an air of mystery akin to that of a carnival, very much like the Residents' Freak Show, graphically, e.g. in the portrayed distensions of flesh and the quasi-lurid coloration. A carnival, sort of, for it's a carnival where no one laughs. We're all professionals here, we're all doctors and commercial photographers, please step aside, move along, but there's a shop round the hallway corner where you can buy some frightful-looking postcards.
But then, as we said, there's a lot of text, on the labels next to the photographs, and some artists' statements & perhaps a curatorial one as well. Like the window seat in the schoolbus in the late winter sunshine, it's stuffy (as always) in the gallery, and there are two women in the back office talking so loudly and for the longest time about upcoming projects, museums, blah blah, that it's very distracting, but we decide we simply must go round again, look at the show again from beginning to end, figure out what's made things so swampy in our brains.
And what's gone spongy is of course words. In contrast to the informed, adult, indigenous, professional stance of the photos themselves, the texts shown are sporadic and inconsistent and have a breathless "oh my gosh look at that" tone. Well, hmmm - is there a subtone as well as a subtext? In any case we are thrust out of what we are looking at by this textual commentary which seems like nothing other than the mastications of an over-enthusiastic though under-informed tour guide, umbrella up & all that, showing us how things look, and we're led to wander through a "gallery" of attractions surrounded by a gaggle of label-chatter that's no better than that dreaded species tourist chatter, ie. when you're trapped on a stuffy bus, something like a charabanc, without windows, listening to crew-cut haloed blond tourists compare how everything looks here in the foreign country to how it looks at home: look, ma, the apples here are smaller than the ones back in Cambersands, and they cost less, huzzah. This is tourism that doesn't really look at surfaces and differences, a tourism of the other, a series of superficial comparisons between reflective surfaces which does not enter into the present moment or into what drives what's being seen.
Like the hundreds of thousands of tourists who've taken the same photo from exactly the same spot at the bottom of windy Lombard Street [and what an exhibition that'd make], this is a taking of photographs but not an act of photography, not an act of understanding. Hellweg admits to his position as tourist in one of the wall texts: "... I felt what I can best describe as awe. Photographing my first surgery was so foreign to any of my previous experiences that I couldn't place it. I couldn't compare it to anytIling." The sense of awe within an artist can be a powerful force in art-making, and there are a few images in this show which seem to desperately want to communicate this awe, but the stagey, over-dramatized, even commercial lighting &c make this difficult, while the labels, with their children's-book cadences & syntax and their hushed sing -song tone treat us like children unable to understand what we are seeing without explanation & contextualization. Well, we're seeing a man with his scalp pulled down over his face - brilliant - what can contextualization possibly add to that image?
Max's halting, inadequate attempt to put into words what he felt when he saw the human spine for the first time is at least relevant and slightly resonant, but this other photo in particular needs no such ancillary chatter; it's an affecting, spine-tingling piece even though it too is too tightly controlled and denuded of awe by the theatricality of its production. The whole thing just smacks of being inside a public health textbook, being led through the mysteries of the reproductive system in a careful, socially-conscious, healthy way. And like most textbooks, the multiverse has been edited down into neat paragraphs that often leave out crucial information & connections; please tell my sister and I, for example: why the need to mention that time is of critical importance in a bunionectomy while not explaining why. And apparently time is more critical in a bunionectomy that in the arterial bypass in a neighboring photo. My sister and I don't want to seem harsh or petty here, but these are not bad photos, but which are absolutely compromised by crap writing, and to say that, well, the labels are not the issue would be as disingenuous as the labels themselves.
Normally, for example, the type of photography which Hiro is doing uses dyes to isolate and delinate different structures; we are assuming that Hiro dyed the cells he's taken photos of, but that's apparently not important enough to mention in context of a show which purports to show us what the inside of the body looks like. We're not saying that it's bad that he might dye his cells, we just think that whether he does or not is information which is far more pertinent than anything like the offensive hyperbole of the label below the caesarean-section photo, untimely-ripped as its text is from Shakespeare and with all that neo-romantic neo-christian business about the expulsion from eden. If my twin sister and I wanted to be artists but in order to do so had to hang our photographs next to writing like that, there's a very good chance that, like Max, we'd enroll in medical school too.