Snipping Flesh For Art’s Sake

Fine art article: Mail & Guardian, 24 October 2000

It is tempting to use the cliché “cutting edge”, but surgery as art is at least a decade old. French artist Orlan is its most famous proponent, having undergone 10 cosmetic operations in her expression of carnal art.

In her latest she has created “the largest nose technically possible and ethically acceptable”, thumbing her now prodigious proboscis at the millions of women who have had theirs altered in attempts to conform to conventional ideas of beauty.

Calling cosmetic surgery art is not far-fetched. A person conceptualises the image they want and then has it constructed to their specifications, projecting a message to the world. Two artists currently showing in Cape Town have taken surgery as the basis of art works, both of them using the medium of flesh and scalpel to examine issues of gender.

Peet Pienaar plays with his sense of self in I Want to Tell You Something …. This is not unusual for Pienaar, but this time he cuts closer to the bone.

At the time of writing, Pienaar is languishing in bed, nursing his snipped willy. He has had himself circumcised and if all has gone well, you’ll be able to see the video at the Brendon Bell Roberts Fine Art Gallery.

Pienaar’s original proposal stirred up a lot of controversy. He was invited to join Ubudoda, an exhibition examining masculinity currently showing at the Association for Visual Arts. Pienaar proposed going through a masculine “rite of passage”, a circumcision, like that undergone by Xhosa males. He wanted the operation done in the gallery by a black woman doctor while people around the world logged on to a live webcast for $1 a pop. He planned to auction his foreskin on the Internet.

Fellow exhibitor Thembinkosi Goniwe was horrified by Pienaar’s appropriation of a cultural ritual that is not his own, especially since he aimed to turn it into a commercial spectacle. Goniwe also questioned Pienaar’s use of a black doctor, accusing him of power-mongering. Pienaar responded: “The doctor would have my dick in one hand and a scalpel in the other. I think I would be the vulnerable one.” After a public debate between the artists, Pienaar was excluded from the show.

“When people look at this exhibition 20 years from now,” Pienaar tells me, “they’re not going to see the same debate. They’re going to see this as a time when white male Afrikaners were feeling oppressed by their identity.

“Most Afrikaners aren’t circumcised – it’s a Jewish, Muslim or Xhosa thing – and this is a symbol of me broadening my identity.”

Meanwhile, Leora Farber is exhibiting Endless Renovations at João Ferreira Fine Art.

Farber looks at the cosmetic surgeon’s role in reshaping women’s bodies, tailoring them to create the ideal external appearance. The sculpture In-cise, a secretarial-style suit coated in fatty pink wax, conveys the idea of flesh as something that can be adjusted or even slipped off like an article of clothing.

It’s Farber’s video work and stills that deal most graphically with surgery. In the videos the delicate surgical procedures are set to lilting music. The music was fitting, but it became unsettling as layers of skin and strings of fat were stripped off a living body. There’s a quiet violence in cosmetic surgery.

For her stills, Farber has chosen to document a breast reduction. Ink lines mark where the skin should be cut – like the outline of a dress pattern.

Skin is removed. Fat is removed. At one stage the woman’s breasts are just bloodied lumps on her chest. Amazing the fuss made over two fatty pieces of meat. The woman finally gets her new breasts, complete with Frankensteinian stitches.

Farber sees cosmetic surgery as masochism, a destructive tendency of women to subordinate themselves to sameness and the desires of others. They’ve strengthened their gender identity, but weakened their sense of self.

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