What has Damien Hirst’s “Verity” to do with the latest Chanel no.5 perfume advert? Well, maybe they don’t have much in common, except for the fact that I find them the most interesting news in the past couple of days, with respect to the public display of the human body. Both being equally controversial.
First things first, let’s introduce “Verity”: a 70-foot-tall statue of a nude pregnant woman, “with half her innards exposed, anatomy textbook-style” ( http://blogs.artinfo.com/artintheair/2012/10/08/damien-hirsts-giant-nude-statue-ready-for-public-installation-despite-locals-complaints). She is to be placed in Ilfracombe, Devon, and as it was expected it already stirred the local spirits. The accusations ranged from “outrageous, immoral, bizarre” to “obscene, offensive, disgusting”. In matters of art it is said that “de gustibus non est disputandum “, but is it something here that can justify the “offensive” epithet? What Damien Hirst is proposing is not new- Gunther von Hagens did it before, with his Body Worlds exhibition: dissected, preserved human bodies put on display, recreating diverse human poses (http://www.bodyworlds.com/en.html). This exhibition, similar to “Verity”, was thought of as inappropriate, as it showed the inner part of a real human being and made it available for the public gaze. Beyond any issues concerning the voyeuristic aspects of displaying dead bodies, what these 2 situations have in common is that they challenge our own boundaries: how far can we go when displaying and viewing the human body? And why? Is it possible that we are confronted here with a similar situation to cartoons, where a chicken that sees itself stripped of its feathers gets all ashamed as it is “naked”? Is it the same type of shame that the anatomical models trigger or is there something more? The topic of the “human body as an object for the public gaze” has been studied extensively, so I would just like to stress one aspect, and leave you to think about these questions.
What is interesting is that in the “Body Worlds” case, one of the exhibits that triggered the most negative reactions was a pregnant women. Probably as in the “Verity” case, when showing a pregnant woman body, what is actually portrayed (in the mind of the onlookers) is not a body, but somebody (along with the emotions associated). In contrast, an anatomical representation proposes an individual seen as a body made up of biologic parts, almost machine-like (even though a fascinating one). And possibly for the visitors of the “Body Worlds” exhibition, as for the Devon residents, portraying a pregnant woman as a mass of organs proved to be too menacing for their world view.
In the opposite corner we have the Chanel advert, directed by Joe Wright (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oF8NAyqxGfk ). Because here there is no-body to look at (for the first time, no woman’s body at least). Well, of course there is an immediate explanation, and to quote an opinion I’ve heard: “It’s simple: the perfume is meant to woo guys, and the woman transfers her fragrance onto their skin. So the women need not forget their target” 🙂 . Regardless of the marketing strategy, or “original” opinions, I find this advert quite similar to Damien Hirst’s project. What they are both proposing is a different take on how femininity can be understood and gazed upon in our society. In the first case, as an anatomical model, and in the second, as a set of attributes that can be assigned to any-body. But at least Joe Wright played it smarter and chose a good-looking actor to disguise his project, preventing any complaints 🙂
In the end, how should we understand verity, with respect to femininity?