When I was fourteen I was asked to dissect a pig’s kidney in a biology lesson. I found myself completely unable to cut into the flesh and instead left it to my lab partner; I went on to study art history and she recently qualified as a doctor, so maybe our sensibilities are determined early. I have always been firmly of the belief that there are certain things that we just don’t need to see. Graphic violence, anything on the bloody side of medical; I’m quite happy keeping it all at arm’s length. As such, any exhibition that warns of its potential to distress with the words “contains human remains” is bound to be a cause for concern.
As it turned out, Skin was both amazing and disturbing, combining medical investigations into anatomy through the ages and an exploration of the cultural, social and emotional relationship between humanity and the skin that covers us. From wax teaching models demonstrating the effects of various skin diseases to photographs of South American gang members who use tattoos to illustrate their past and allegiances, Skin highlights the significance of our largest organ in ways you might never have previously considered. What struck me the most about this exhibition was the extent to which our skin is a reflection of our lives; from freckles and moles to tattoos and surgical scars, even wrinkles and bruises tell a story. It makes you analyse your own body and what it says – in my case, my inability to wield a kitchen knife without finger damage, my penchant for impractical shoes and my tendency to walk into things have all left tell-tale signs that say more about the way I live my life than I would perhaps choose to display.
From a medical perspective, skin protects our insides from external attack. Skin suggests, however, that further to this, we use our skin as a means of both projecting our personality – tattoos, piercings, in some cases self harm – and protecting our internal scars and feelings from being visible to the outside world. As well as employing artifacts and teaching models, Skin engages with a surprising number of contemporary artists, all of whom have created innovative works on the theme. Tamsin von Essen’s “Medical Heirlooms” (2008-10), four pots whose exteriors demonstrate the effects of skin disease, from syphilitic growths to flaky psoriasis, and Margi Geerlinks’ photographic manipulations that juxtapose youth and age within the same figure are both highlights. I also loved Victoria Diehl’s “Untitled” (2004), which takes a photograph of a classic nude male in contraposto and gives areas of the model’s skin the appearance of being made of marble, so merging life and death within a single being. The most haunting, however, is Aziz and Cucher’s “Interior No.5” (2000), in which an empty room appears to have been covered in skin, highlighting the similarity between the natural skin that protects us and the buildings, or external skins, that we create to keep us safe and warm.
Skin as a storyteller is a prominent feature here, with a particular emphasis on the change in colour and texture between live skin and skin which has died. Powerful images bring this message home, to the extent that the viewer becomes so engaged in their new interaction with their own body that the human remains – a preserved corpse – have hardly any effect. There was only part of the exhibition that I couldn’t stomach; a surgical video demonstrating skin grafts and wound closing that was quickly relegated to the “not necessary” pile. That was a little too Casualty for me, but I love the idea of my skin as a reflection of myself. Maybe I’ll look on my little scars – external and internal – a little more kindly from now on.
-- Alex Field
All images courtesy the Wellcome Collection
Images: C. Landseer, An ecorche figure (lifesize), 1813, Red Chalk and pencil drawing with body colour; Aziz and Cucher, Pam&Kim, 1995, Digitally altered photo, Courtesy the artists; Wim Delvoye, 'Sybille II' 1999. Still from video.