Berlin, Apr. 2014: Ivonne Thein creates polished and apparently unbiased images that confront our messy aesthetic prejudices. In 2008, she debuted a series of coolly composed and conceptually chilling photographs titled Thirty-Two Kilos. These images show impossibly thin models dressed in stylish white attire and contorted in yogic poses. Their bodies push beyond fashion’s waif aesthetic into a realm of real illness, desperation, and morbidity. Inspired by a rash of "pro-ana" websites, where eating disorder sufferers form peer-communities exacerbating each other’s self-harm, Thirty-Two Kilos is a disturbing depiction of an anorexic ideal. Although Thein digitally manipulated the images and created the series to sound alarms against anorexia’s anesthetization of death, pro-ana sites have since appropriated her artwork. This interview presents her interpretation of her other series of videos and photos, as well as Thirty-Two Kilos, which was on view in Body Conscious at the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery at SUNY College at Old Westbury through April 10, 2014.
Ivonne Thein, Untitled, from the series THIRTY-TWO KILOS, 2006, Photography; © Ivonne Thein / VG Bildkunst
Ana Finel Honigman: How did you select the quantity Thirty-Two Kilos for your series of that name?
Ivonne Thein: That is the number at which an adult woman or teenager dies from malnourishment. I picked it because it is so precise yet sounds so abstract to most people, myself included, that it is nearly impossible to imagine anyone at this weight.
AFH: That is so disturbing. How did you calculate when to stop with your digital manipulation?
IT: It was an experimental process. It was important to me that the images didn’t look like fashion photos but appeared real.
AFH: If you didn’t want it to pass for a fashion shoot, why did you select your grey color-scheme and blond wigs for the series?
IT: The connection to fashion photography was important to me because the role models for the pro-anas came from fashion photography but I also did not want to make these into fashion photos. That was why I chose a bleak visual language. The wigs are artificial but also aesthetically attractive. The aim was to create superficially attractive photographs that were also repulsive.
AFH: Do you believe that the fashion industry is responsible for eating disorders?
IT: It would be too simple to say that. I think it is much more complex but the fashion industry has some responsibility. It creates a beauty ideal that viewers associate with success and fame. Young people don’t have the experience and the self-confidence to critically reject these images of skinny models. It is a problem in Western society that beauty ideals became so important to our lives.
AFH: What do you think of “plus-sized” models, like Kate Upton? Do they help correct the problem within the industry?
IT: I don’t think that effects change the source—the designers, for example—but it may change the way young girls think about their own bodies during adolescence.
Ivonne Thein, THE MASQUERADE OF THE REAL, 2012, C-print; © Ivonne Thein
AFH: Tell me more about how beauty ideals influence society. Are you referring to “lookism”?
IT: Yes, that’s one issue. I think there was always an advantage to looking good. It is a timeless phenomenon but we have the time and technology today to change our appearance and that increases the pressure to obsess about our looks. Since the advent of aesthetic surgery in the nineteenth-century, it has grown and become increasingly a part of our economy. In my opinion, our values are getting more and more superficial.
AFH: I've found some of your images on pro-ana sites. What are your thoughts about having your work appropriated into the context that you're critiquing?
IT: I have struggled to find my work on pro-ana websites. If I do, than I contact VG Bildkunst, which is a German union who covers my copyright, to have them deleted. I don’t want them promoting anorexia but seeing them on the sites shows me the big impact that images have in Western society. We have a responsibility when we create images and bring them to the internet. Of course I don’t feel guilty about my images being appropriated because I explain how this work is an unambiguous statement and it was never my aim to change society. I see this work more as a visual and critical statement on social currents.
AFH: Has doing your work about eating disorders influenced your own personal thoughts about your body, beauty and ageing?
IT: I don’t think it did influence my personal thoughts about my body but it influenced the way I look at the images that confront me daily. I am much more critical about photography than I was before this project.
AFH: Do you find a post-cosmetic surgery face beautiful? What is your aesthetic reaction when seeing these faces?
IT: Post-cosmetic surgery faces mostly appear so unnatural to me that I perceive them as dolls rather than real people. So, if surgery is obvious than I don’t think that they are beautiful.
AFH: I never understand cosmetic surgery. Women and men rarely look good with surgery. They just look like they've had surgery. What do you think that's about? Do you think they like that look? Is it about a form of conspicuous consumption?
IT: I’m not sure if they really like the look or if it is a symptom of a psychological problem. Maybe, it’s also about flaunting membership to a certain circle of society because it is a luxury to have cosmetic surgery.
AFH: Do you think that peoples' responses to these faces have changed now that it is all more accessible? The prices are not prohibitive to a larger and larger segment of society, especially with “surgery holidays” to countries performing these operations for lesser amounts.
IT: I think there is a big difference depending on the countries. There is a growing market and inhibitions are getting lower here but there are still more faces crafted by cosmetic surgery in America than Germany.
AFH: Part of why I love Berlin and plan to live here forever is the lack of artificial beauty. There are tattoos and extreme body-modification but little Botox. How does being a Berliner influence your beauty ideals and your art?
IT: My reasons for loving Berlin and living here are the same as yours. Individuality is so important to me and I appreciate a society that values it. Maybe that is because I grew up in the former GDR where there was no individuality at all. Having said that, I don’t think that Berliners influence my work directly but there might be a subconscious influence that I am not aware of. Young peoples’ increasing focus on becoming models and getting famous bores me. I really enjoy the diversity of the people living in Berlin and that diversity was a strong reason for me deciding to live here.
AFH: How do you think GDR repression influenced native Berliners’ values and attitudes towards others? There are so many places, like Russia, that emerge from repression to become repressive again. Berlin is different. It feels freer than anywhere else. Why do you think that's the case, if you agree with me?
IT: I think Berlin is different because it was always Germany’s capital. Berliners on both sides of the wall had a unique situation. The West Berliners were surrounded by the former GDR, as if they lived on a little island, whereas the East Berliners were hardly allowed to live. So, I perceive that as a truly rare situation. Maybe that is why people from all over the world move to Berlin. They want to be part of these changes and experience this history. This is why people believe that Berlin is so free and open to everyone.
Ivonne Thein, Untitled, from the series INCOMPLETE, 2008, Photography; © Ivonne Thein / VG Bildkunst
AFH: On the theme of change and development, your series UNVOLLKOMMEN translates to "unfinished," right? Can you explain the context for that series? Why do they have healthy hair on their heads but none elsewhere?
IT: The title refers to Plato’s feast, in which he writes about a human who owns both genders being the ideal human. That series is about intersex people whose bodies unite both genders. When creating this project, I was interested about how everyone possesses both male and female characteristics. It was interesting for me to observe that you can’t easily distinguish between men and women if you remove secondary sex characteristics such as body hair. In this series, I ask why we feel the need to have these two sexes and whether a third sex exists.
AFH: I like that, but doesn’t the title "incomplete" imply a negative judgment—that these figures lack something important? Why is there no question mark at the end of the title?
IT: I don’t see the title literally. It is really about a philosophical connection to Plato rather than implying a lack of something important. For me, a question mark would put it in a wrong direction.
AFH: Germany just passed law to recognize a third-sex. It is interesting that only Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal give similar status to intersex people. Why do you think so few countries are willing to acknowledge this identity?
IT: In so many nations, intersex people are forced to have to choose one sex in order to be accepted in society. Gender roles that existed for thousands of years will take time to change. It will be a slow process for many nations to accept that these roles might be a mistake and there are not only two genders. I think it really depends on how open and tolerant a country is that they even consider the struggles of such a small percentage of the population.
ArtSlant would like to thank Ivonne Thein for her assistance in making this interview possible.