Introducing new arts based research project ‘Skin as Repository’

about the project

 

For my Masters degree final project (2013), Obscure Objects of Obesity, an interdisciplinary research project, explores the obese body as a deviant body needing of control, restriction, and intervention to reach satisfactory 'normativity'.  Developing from my own emphasised awareness of my obese body due for gastric bypass surgery, I cancelled the operation but continued my enquiry situating my fat body as an axis for research.  As part of the investigation, I naturally went on to explore the sagging fat skin following weight loss.  However, the final outcomes explore the alien interventions of restricting the body of food for example.

Earlier this year I delivered a talk on the project at Oxford University which ignited my passion for the subject once again.  It became a natural route, following my own non-surgical dramatic weight loss within the last year, to return to the work exploring the sagging skin which remains.

Rebecca Harris Breasts art textiles

'Skin as repository: my deflated as an axis for research' is an interdisciplinary arts-based research project on the skin as a container of history, stigma, materiality, and identity.  A project consisting of the performance of myself as a life model, art exhibition and research paper. Currently in its research and development stage, the following describes the current rationale, aims, and objectives that will need further work as the project develops.


Following my continuing dramatic weight loss of several stones, I adopt an auto-ethnographical approach to investigate much more than just my own story. Nudity, shame, development, and changes of ‘self’ alongside the ‘gaze’ of others are all conditions which affect us all. Through this work, the audience access biomedical explorations through the conduit of art.  They also go on a journey of the metaphorical, visceral, psychosocial, emotional and symbolism of the personal interfaces of our internal and external worlds.

Intensifying the previous approach on the meditations of my lived bodily experience I further this approach with performance art. My own deflated body goes on display to observers-as-participants who draw myself as life model. Adopting a performative persona of a Greek statue with various life drawing poses similar to that of the classical sculptures. The idealised forms, those aesthetic nudes draped in their second skins/cloths which are both part of, and not of the body, which it modestly conceals.

As a performative model, I drape areas of my own body with swathes of skin like fluid fabric but still revealing the contrasting areas of sagging skin which also takes on the role of swathing veils to conceal my form beneath. The performative and participatory element comes at the early stages of the project.  Not only intending to start engagement throughout the project development but also as a stage to inform and propel the research and development of the artworks. The gaze of others, how they react, the areas they focus on to draw will provide research and inspirational material. I then move to the next areas of the project by creating a body of work for exhibition.

 

context

In weight gain arguably no other organ becomes visually or physically modified than that of the skin. Flesh, viscera and bones remain relatively undisturbed as the depersonalised body transmutes to that of the discursive abjectified fat persona. The stretch-marks are the indices to what the skin endeavoured to contain. In weight loss, the deflated and distorted skin retains its history and stories of a stigmatizing obesity. The skin becomes an archive to the body it left behind.

Rebecca Harris obese art MRI head scan

Through the slow execution of the preceding body, the unaccustomed form, concealed from sight and swathed in a transmogrified enveloping husk. Departed from the once defining fatty borders beneath and the now superfluous excesses in motion have no instruction nor intent. Its fluidity is unforgiving with total disregard of what is new, no recognition and no reconciliation. ‘New’, socially acceptable body, resides within the flayed skin of ‘old’ (fat) socially unacceptable body and thus leading to further surgery to ‘normalise’ this contradictory body. Well controlled and tucked away excess skin can be ‘lied’ about beneath clothing suggesting a desirable form. The fat inflated skin leads to fat discourses but inescapably so does the now ‘deflated’ (if exposed) stigmatised skin.

The skin speaks and in its status of ‘concealer’, it too becomes site to be covered in order to not reveal its actuality. Through literally stripping of my concealing clothes and supportive control wear undergarments I aim to ‘strip’ down, scrutinise my materiality to inform my research and the potential of textiles as medium and revealing ‘veils’.

 

aims

This interdisciplinary arts-based research project will draw on inspiration from my own body as an axis for research for literally revealing it to the public to bring into play their reactions and drawings of myself as performic Greek statue life model. Following this, I aim to create a series of artworks through the medium of textiles which draw on the analogies between skin/cloth and cosmetic surgeries/embroidery/fabric manipulation.

Rebecca Harris obesity art textiles

 

The initial part of this psychosocial, biomedical and phenomenological project will propose a great personal challenge for myself due to how I feel about my identity and fear of nakedness and exposure. It will enable intense investigation into how I can explore this within my art practice and the extent to which or how others perceive me through their renditions on paper and my response to their ‘gaze’. A further aim seeks others to talk through their similar circumstances, to help further inspire and inform the research and art based activities.

Rebecca Harris obesity art body

Textiles occupy something of ubiquity, that we are literally born into, reside in throughout life and enshrouded at death. As a medium, an audience becomes engaged through familiarity, haptic qualities and a visceral engagement as it relates to the body. Furthermore, through surgery the re-contoured body is stitched like a ragdoll and using stitch within my artworks will explore this concept further.  As the project develops I will undergo reconstructive surgery and continue with the life drawing classes in which participants will now have opportunities to draw me bandaged, healing and finishing when the scarred skin meets my new body. This part will also form a significant personal journey which will hugely impact on the research and final development of the artistic outcomes.

Where textiles are used to conceal the body I use them to reveal aspects of our lives. Through this project, I literally surrender my clothing in an intense exploratory project of nakedness, social perceptions and personal journey of exploring the universal themes of our attitudes and feelings to ours and others’ bodies.

 

support

Within the first stage, I hope to receive a ‘developing your creative practice grant’ (DYCP) from the Arts Council England.  This shall enable mentoring and exploration of the potential of life modelling as performance and, to strengthen and establish this new area within my art practice.  For which confirmation of support comes from Leeds, Oxford and Plymouth universities, as well as working with local artist Faye Dobinson.

Following my recent work with Oxford University, Professor of Human Ecology wrote a supporting statement to encourage funders to support the DYCP grant application.  The Institute if Social and Cultural Anthropology request we do further work together which include working on this project.  In supporting statement for the application Professor Stanley Ulijaszek comments:

It links with the interdisciplinary work we do at the University of Oxford on obesity and body fatness, and develops both existing methods within anthropology to a new field, and offers new approaches in Critical Fat Studies, as well as being deeply important and interesting art in its own right.

There are of course other artists who use body fatness as their subject and/or matter for their practice. How Rebecca D Harris differs is in the extent to which she is engaged in a truly interdisciplinary way in developing her practice and her work. She has the potential to do something really new, innovative, with significant impact. She delivers on what she promises and has a very strong likelihood of succeeding fully in this project. I am deeply impressed by her, and her work, and would very gladly collaborate with her. Rebecca D Harris is extremely intelligent and thoughtful, and is tough, rigorous and persistent in her approach to her work. She intends to take her practice to a new level, and with her keen original mind I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending her, in the strongest possible way, for funding from the Arts Council to develop her creative practice.

 

Only an extract from what shows as a glowing recommendation, if that does not convince the Arts Council I truly do not know what will!  I will return with an update once I hear of the decision due within the next three weeks.  If I do not get this DYCP grant I shall reapply but for the Project Grant also from the public funding body.*

*I recently attended an Arts Council funding workshop and do think I shall share what I learned here as a blog post soon!

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