Other bodies: modalities of appropriation



Considerations on the transformation of the idea of ​​a work of art and on the film “The man who sold his skin”

What is a work of art? Until the 1910th century, the answer to this question was simple, as the expression encompassed painting, sculpture, drawing, engraving and other related techniques. With the advent of vanguards, the issue is complicated; since the XNUMXs, works have been produced that do not correspond to any of the previous categories, but which nevertheless form part of the artistic field: collés papiers, collages, photomontages, readymades Duchampians, Dadaist objects and surrealist constructivist projects, among others.

This new idea of ​​work is based not only on the introduction of materials and techniques alien to the universe of art, but also, in cases like Marcel Duchamp's, on “idle action” or “refusal to work”, in which Maurizio Lazzarato detects a socio-economic critique of living conditions in the capitalist regime and a “philosophical” position that allows rethinking artistic activity, its production times and the subjectivity of the artist.[1]

From the second half of the 1950s onwards, the notion of work underwent a new expansion thanks to the happenings, dematerialization processes, the use of video, the use of the body, interventions in nature, installations, etc. The expansion of the concept of work is accompanied by the vertiginous growth of the art market which, in addition to traditional museums and galleries, encompasses biennials, triennials, quadrennials, fairs, auctions and online sales, evidencing two phenomena denounced by Duchamp at the beginning of the XNUMXth century: the domination of capital over the times of existence and the construction of the figure of the artist as an entrepreneur of himself, linked to “'projects', with which he tends to identify his own life”.

The use of one's own and another's body marks “the beginning of another XNUMXth century”, in the words of Jean-Louis Pradel. The Frenchman Yves Klein is one of the first to enter the field of body appropriation through happenings in which nude models were transformed into “living brushes”, to the sound of a string quartet (1958-1962). These “mundane liturgies” are analyzed by Pradel from the perspective of replacing the artistic object with an “erotic ceremonial, whose traces are piously collected in shroud sheets, causing the immaterial of the show to be imprinted, thus, on the immaculate canvas”. For Paul Ardenne, the female body in such actions should not be seen as matter or form; he is a “sign”, “a sublime random mark of blue”, left on a virgin canvas by the model's body previously stained with pigment. For her part, Sally O'Reilly has a dichotomous attitude towards Klein. If the use of models as brushes is defined as “dubious” in ethical terms, the author recognizes the historical importance of the gesture, which she points to a considerable change: the recognition of the body as an instrument of representation in itself.[2]

The Italian Piero Manzoni, in turn, introduces a transformation in the concept of ready made, by affixing his signature to the skin of young models. Entitled living sculptures (1961), such actions are seen by Paulo Venâncio Filho as the restitution of a possible authenticity to the individual in a mass and consumer society that tends towards its emptying. Contrary to Duchamp, Manzoni does not deal with an object appropriated and removed from the common world, but with “a body, a person”, offering anyone “the experience of being a work: of being looked at as a work and of looking at others as spectators, to carry himself as a work, as something casual, provocative and also unique”. In a game with the market, the artist gives certificates of authenticity to such appropriations and even signs his own body to make it a living work of art.

Juan Antonio Ramírez highlights two issues in Manzoni's gesture. By affixing his signature to the “clean support” represented by the female skin, by granting the certificate of authenticity or by temporarily placing the “work” on a pedestal, Manzoni finally achieved the “secular aspiration of art to appropriate life”. The people chosen to participate in this operation gained a “kind of immortality, which surpassed the biological limitations of their ordinary existences”.

Another Italian artist, Gino De Dominicis, performs in 1970 the zodiac, a kind of living painting, having as a source of inspiration 11 horses (1969), by Janis Kounellis. Between April 4th and 8th, the artist exhibits a peculiar zodiac, made with live animals – a ram, a bull, a goat and a caged lion; dead animals – a crab, a scorpion and two fish; human beings – two twins wearing identical costumes, a young woman (Virgo) and a middle-aged man in prehistoric robes with a bow in hand (Sagittarius); and objects – a scale (Libra) and three amphorae (Aquarius). Arranged in a semicircle, the twelve signs carry a peculiar poetic sense, based on the materiality of the language of things. “It is to the transformation of codified images into things that the artist entrusts the possibility of a surprise and a shock, otherwise impossible in a culture based on “figures” made official by current usage” (Renato Barilli).

De Dominicis, who had also used a live cat in another exhibition held in 1970, caused a huge scandal at the 36th Venice Biennale (1972), when he exhibited Second immortality solution (the Universe is immobile). Composed of three works presented at the first individual exhibition (1969) – a white square drawn on the floor (invisible cube, 1967), Rubber ball (dropped from a height of two meters) just before the rebound (1968-1969) and Waiting for a random general molecular movement in a single direction, likely to generate a spontaneous movement of the stone (1969) –, the work featured an observer with Down syndrome, Paolo Rosa.

The presence of the 27-year-old boy is strongly condemned by the press and public opinion, leading the artist to replace him with a girl. Even this solution does not quell the scandal and the room ends up being closed.[3] Rosa's presence in the exhibition space prevents any discussion about the meaning of the work. De Dominicis, who is prosecuted and acquitted in April of the following year, aimed to propose a confrontation between Rosa's "unique and particular" point of view, situated within the work itself, and that of the spectators, as he declared in an interview given in 1995 .

But there is a deeper meaning, of a philosophical nature, which involves the theme of death and the function he attributed to art. According to Gabriele Guercio, the central theme of the work was the conviction that death is a mistake and that it is possible to achieve the immortality of the body by reversing the modern idea of ​​time. Rose (and animals, as Valentina Sonzogni recalls) symbolizes a state of being not associated with progressive time, situated beyond the modern temporal conception and, therefore, death. Immersed in an eternal instant, Rosa would be beyond the awareness of time as a succession of past, present and future, looking at three works tasked with representing the instantaneous and eternal immobility prior to movement.[4]

While the cube represents something impossible to be seen and touched, the ball crystallizes time in the instant that separates the fall from the rebound, eternalizing non-movement. The stone, finally, synthesizes the impossible desire that something immobile acquire life, underlining the analogy between absence of movement and immortality. In this context of ideas, it is up to art to launch a challenge to the continuous mobility of nature through the aspiration to immobility, seen as a necessary condition to reach immortality.

In an article published on June 25, 1972, Pier Paolo Pasolini uses the exposition of the “subnormal boy” as a pretext to attack without half measures the “monstrous confusion” that had taken over Italian culture from the convergence between the absolute experimentalism of the neo-avant-garde and the neo-Marxist provocation of groups of students, which led to the ultimate consequences an “empty and verbalist denunciation” against traditional values. Dominicis' work would be nothing more than “the living symbol of the idea of ​​a work of art that, at this moment, determines the judgments of the Italian cultural (subcultural) world”.

The scandal also reverberates in the speech given by the poet Eugenio Montale at the 1975 Nobel Prize ceremony. Venice Biennale. Without mentioning the name of Dominicis, the poet places the work within the scope of the disintegration of naturalism, which had begun at the end of the XNUMXth century, leading artists to exhibit vitro, or also in nature, the objects or figures of which Caravaggio and Rembrandt would have presented “a facsimile, a masterpiece”.

The fact that the portrait reveals himself to be the “poor man in flesh and blood” is interpreted as a symptom of the “absolute necessity of the death of art”, proclaimed by critics who occupied university chairs. Its most obvious consequence was the democratization of art in the worst sense of the word. Art was nothing more than the production of easily disposable consumer objects, “in the expectation of a new world, in which man manages to free himself from everything, including his own conscience”.

The ethical question raised by De Dominicis gained prominence again at the end of the 1990s, when the Spaniard Santiago Sierra resorted to different strategies of appropriation of other people's bodies, subscribing to a trend called "performance delegated” by Claire Bishop. The artist chooses the participants of his actions among the impoverished layers of the population of a city (unemployed, street dwellers, prostitutes, drug addicts, people with financial difficulties or earning low wages), in addition to incorporating uprooted groups produced by different conflicts and by the global economy (illegal immigrants and political asylum seekers in particular). They are entrusted with repetitive tasks, meaningless, absurd or degrading, but based on work contracts, which stipulate the conditions of participation and the payment to be received.[5]

These contracts, which involve the artist, the representative of the performance and the participants, have as an assumption the objectification of a type of asymmetrical relationship, capable of providing “an indicator of the economic and social reality of the place where they work”. According to Bishop, Sierra creates “a kind of ethnographic realism”, based on a “cruel reflection on the social and political conditions that allow the emergence of disparities in people's 'prices'”.

As it would be impossible to cover all the artist's actions in this article, it was decided to analyze two modalities of appropriation, which involve direct interventions in the participants' bodies. Between 1998 and 2000, Sierra conceived works based on tattoos that, with the exception of the first one, followed an almost identical pattern. Line of 30 cm. tattooed on a paid person. Regina Street, 51. Mexico City (May 1998) consists of the inscription of a vertical line on the back of a man, hired for a specific quality. He not only shouldn't have tattoos, he shouldn't think about getting them, subjecting himself to the artist's design for needing the 50 dollars stipulated in the contract.

After this experience, the tracing of the lines becomes horizontal and starts to cover a larger group of people. In December 1999, Sierra performs in Havana Line of 250 cm. tattooed on 6 paid people. The participants are six unemployed young men, who are each paid $30 to have segments of black thread tattooed on their backs; when exposed lined up side by side they constitute the line mentioned in the title.

On two other occasions, tattoos are applied to drug addicts. In the action carried out in Puerto Rico (October 2000), two heroin addicts have a 10-inch line marked on their shaved heads in exchange for a dose of the drug. In December of the same year, Line of 160 cm. tattooed on 4 people (Salamanca) is captured on video. Prostitutes agree to receive pieces of thread on their backs in exchange for 12.00 pesetas, the amount corresponding to a dose of heroin. This type of action is strongly condemned by Ivana Dizdar, for whom Sierra establishes a game of power and transfer of responsibility with the four women, who submit to the artist's agenda in the name of survival and the desire to get a dose of the narcotic.

What the author analyzes in moralistic terms reaches a properly artistic dimension in the reflection of Ardenne and Ramírez. In a book dedicated to more recent art, the first states that Sierra plays, in a derogatory way, with the “fetish forms” of modernity, in order to demonstrate its absurd character, its aesthetic emptiness, its illusory content, its overvaluation. The prostitutes of Salamanca, graphically connected by a black line, would form part of this frame of reference. Ramírez had already analyzed Sierra's works involving tattooed lines from the perspective of “an inversion or parody of the dehumanized geometrization of some currents of Euro-American art”. Another hypothesis raised by the author concerns the tattoo industry, which offers its clients an illusion of individualization through a stereotyped iconographic repertoire. In this context, the horizontal line drawn by the artist, although it seems uniform and impersonal, is radically “different” from the proposals of professional tattooists.

Dizdar is even more severe with the performance which took place in London in July 2004, entitled Polyurethane sprayed on the backs of 10 workers. The result obtained – a multicorporal entity, immobilized under a thick layer of foam – is compared by her to acts of torture practiced in Abu Ghraib prison due to the fact that the selected workers were of Iraqi origin. The idea that the material could have a toxic action is contradicted by the care taken during performance.

Contrary to what is read in the article, the ten men had their bodies protected with insulating chemical clothing and plastic blankets. The use of polyurethane was also the basis of an action carried out in Lucca (Italy) in March 2002 with 18 prostitutes from Eastern Europe. The end result is a formless mass of white dots (polyurethane) and black surfaces (the plastic that protected the bodies), associated with food and drink residues spread across the floor and empty containers of the product used in the action.

The fact that Sierra makes explicit in some titles or in the information that accompanies the works the question of the remuneration of the participants has received dichotomous evaluations by the critics. His detractors see in them a nihilistic (and obvious) reflection on Karl Marx's theory of the exchange value of work and consider that the artist invests in contradiction by receiving payment for his actions. Dizdar, for example, believes that the sale of the results of performances be problematic: while the participants in the actions are subject to humiliation and the performance of arduous and sometimes painful tasks for a certain period and minimal compensation, the artist will be remunerated for them over years or decades.

The situation, however, is not so linear, as some actions clearly demonstrate that Sierra critically discusses the existing cleavage between artistic work and common work. This discussion is evident in Person saying a sentence (February 2002), captured on video on a shopping street in Birmingham. A man was hired to say the following sentence in front of the camera: “My participation in this project can generate a profit of 72.000 dollars. I am charging 5 pounds sterling”. An action staged in Barcelona is even more striking, demonstrating that the norms of capital are well entrenched throughout society. One of the prostitutes hired to participate in Person paid to stay tied to a block of wood(June 2001) demanded 10% of Sierra's earnings from the work, in addition to the $24 per hour, and was granted.

Against the grain of negative views, Elizabeth Manchester perceives Sierra's actions as “metaphors – or poetic equivalents – of all low-paid jobs, against the backdrop of the structure of the global market economy”. Through them, the artist emphasizes the tension that arises between the participants' involvement in certain tasks in exchange for a reward and their lack of choice due to an unsatisfactory economic situation or precarious health conditions. Bishop, in turn, recalls that Sierra's actions produce a sensation of “relational antagonism”, insofar as they confront the observer with a “specific racial and economic non-identification”. Her work recognizes “the limitations of what is possible as art” and brings into play “a divided subject, with precarious identifications, open to constant flux”, making any “transitive relationship between art and society” complex.

Based on the thought of the British author, Paulo Veiga Jordão gives special emphasis to the tension between capital and labor mobilized by Sierra, at the moment when he assumes the role of a contractor who abuses his contractors. The artist himself is quite explicit about this when he establishes a link between social dignity and money and recognizes that the person who pays to perform a task places his or her dignity in the hands of others. In recreating the lost battles of the workforce against capital, Sierra ostensibly embodies the bosses' mentality: “If I find someone who does a heavy job for 50 euros (a job) that normally costs 200, I use the person who does it for 50. That's right. Of course, extreme labor relations shed much more light on how the work system really works.” Ardenne, on the other hand, doubts the “political” character of the artist's actions, which he inscribes within the scope of the modern mentality, as they rest on confrontation. In his view, inviting a beggar to take part in an exhibition is nothing more than a cynical attitude that limits itself to highlighting the “glaring inequalities of today's world”.

The ethical issue raised by the radical actions of Dominicis and Sierra is also faced by the Belgian Wim Delvoye because of Team (2006-2007). Already known for tattoos engraved on pork loins,[6] Delvoye decides to apply a similar technique to a human being, the Swiss Tim Steiner. Former manager of a tattoo parlor in Zurich, Steiner undergoes sessions over two years (2006-2007), for a total of forty hours. The “human canvas,” conceived by the artist to question the extent to which money defines what art is, is filled with the most popular images from the tattoo world, covering Steiner's back from the nape of his neck to his tailbone. The motifs chosen are the result of a negotiation between Delvoye and Steiner: a Virgin Mary, from which yellow rays radiate, crowned by a skull in the Mexican style; swallows; bats; red and blue roses; oriental children with lotus flowers and sitting on fish; Japanese waves; the artist's signature on the right side of the piece.

exposed as Work in progress in 2006, Team It is sold two years later to the German collector Rik Reinking for 150.000 euros. One-third of the sum is given to Steiner, who is contractually obliged to spend six days a year at the collector's home. In addition, he can be exhibited in artistic institutions – sitting, shirtless, with his back to the public –, receiving daily wages for work shifts. After his death, the tattooed skin will be removed and the owner will be able to frame it and hang it on the wall like a picture.

Despite suffering some public abuse, Steiner shows no discomfort with his “living canvas” situation, subject to change over time, which may require surgical interventions. This unusual condition even generated protests in the name of human rights and provoked comparisons with slavery and prostitution. This did not prevent the exposure of Teamat numerous prestigious institutions, including the Louvre (May 13-September 17, 2012). Exhibited in the apartments of Napoleon III (as well as some pig figures, molded in polyester and covered with Indian silk rugs), Team creates a noise that is out of harmony with a sophisticated environment full of historical meanings.

The transformation of people into works of art aroused the interest of writers and filmmakers, who built plots inspired by specific cases. The primacy in dealing with this issue from an unusual and macabre perspective belongs, however, to Roald Dahl, author of the short story “Skin”, published in the edition of The New Yorker May 17, 1952. On a cold day in 1946, an elderly, poorly dressed man is attracted by a painting by Chaïm Soutine, displayed in the window of an art gallery in Paris. It brings back the memory to the autumn of 1913, when the young artist was painting the portrait of his wife Josie, with whom he was in love. The man, whose name was Drioli, recalls the day when, euphoric at having tattooed nine people, he got drunk and asked the artist to paint and then tattoo Josie's face on his back.

Reluctant at first, Soutine executes the work, which resembles others of his own, and signs it in red ink on the model's right kidney. Drioli enters the gallery, but is invited to leave. Before being expelled, he takes off his coat and shirt and exposes his back to those present. The owner of the gallery offers him 200.000 thousand francs, but comes up against the realization that the work would be worth nothing until the model was alive. He thinks about surgery, which would remove the tattoo, allowing it to be sold, but Drioli doesn't agree, as he fears he won't make it out alive, in addition to being attracted by the proposal from the owner of the Hotel Bristol in Cannes. This offers him the prospect of a life of luxury and comfort, with a single duty: spending the day on the hotel's beach, in bathing suits so that guests can admire “this fascinating painting by Soutine”. A few weeks later, a painting by the painter representing a female head, executed in an unusual way, is offered for sale in Buenos Aires. The narrator hopes that Drioli is all right, as there is no Hotel Bristol in Cannes…[7]

Klein’s “living brushes” served as the starting point for the short story “Les suaires de Véronique” [The shrouds of Véronique], published by Michel Tournier in the collection capercaillie(1978). An unsettling result of the abusive relationship between photographer Véronique and model Hector is “direct photography,” which consists of shots taken without a camera, without film, and without magnification. To obtain images that escape being subject to traditional techniques, the photographer immerses Hector in a bath of developer and lays him on top of minimally prepared photographic paper. If the result is unusual – “strange crushed silhouettes”, very similar to what was left on the walls of Hiroshima of people “destroyed and disintegrated by the atomic bomb” –, the consequences for the model are tragic, as he is hospitalized with a generalized dermatosis.

Taking her research even further, Véronique arrives at “dermography”, which uses photosensitized linen fabrics as a support, in which the body of the model impregnated with developer was wrapped. Even before learning of Hector's death, the narrator sees in the shrouds resulting from the new experience a fierce manipulation of the model, transformed into the “black and gold spectrum of a flattened, enlarged, rolled, unrolled body, reproduced in a funereal and obsessive frieze in all the positions” and associates them with extremely violent images, “a series of human skins ripped off, then displayed there like barbarian trophies”.[8]

Véronique’s lack of scruples, capable of sacrificing Hector to her artistic goals, is a trait shared with another character, Zeus-Peter Lama, “known and recognized throughout the world” and owner of immeasurable wealth. An artist who did not copy what he saw, as his works “enlarged, tortured, exaggerated reality, when they did not decide to ignore it”, Lama transforms the body of the protagonist of a film into a “living sculpture”. Lorsque j'étais une oeuvre d'art [When I was a work of art, 2002]. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt molds the figure of Lama from Orlan, a creator known for her proposal of “carnal art”, based on a set of surgical operations-performances, through which he modified his own appearance, with the aim of constructing a singular self-portrait, which contests the association between face and identity.

The artist even participates in the plot as “Rolanda, the Metamorphic Body”, the only one capable of rivaling the “living sculpture” Adam bis, “incarnated thought” of its creator. Despite considering the task of being a work of art to be very tiring, Rolanda does not give up on it or on exhibitions in museums. “Body-matter”, the artist considers to be “various objects”, “Ariadne's thread of metamorphoses” and “total poetry”.[9]

Schmitt does not spare readers all the mishaps faced by the young man after the surgery that turned him into a work of art: a certain inadequacy with his new body; voluntary reification in the name of fame; alcoholism; sudden mood swings; attempted lobotomy; monstrous vision of itself; selling it to a billionaire, who showed it off to his visitors; auction suspended by the State exercising its preemptive right over Adam bis; daily exhibition at the National Museum; entrapment after an escape attempt; discovery that he was no longer considered a human being due to having consented to Lama's modifying action, having been the subject of two sales, and being state property; beginning of a decomposition process.

Adam's fate would be tragic if he hadn't met Fiona, daughter of the blind painter Carlos Hannibal, who falls in love with him and takes his case to court to restore his lost freedom. The issue is very complex because the young man, who had simulated his own death with Lama's help, could not demonstrate his condition as a human being. As the lawyer explains to him, he was a commodity for the State, as he was “officially registered as an object, not a man”. The only way out would be to demonstrate that he was not state property, but “an employee at the service of the state”, who would be exposed a few hours a day, in exchange for a salary. Adam could not modify his own body, which he would forever keep "the mark of Zeus". Who finally finds the solution is Fiona, who convinces Lama to declare that Adam bis it was a fake, “a very successful imitation” and demonstrating the fact with the absence of the two signatures that should have been tattooed in places on the body that were difficult to discover: the right armpit and the left foot between the last two toes. It was a lie, but Lama had no choice, as the young woman had discovered that the artist was responsible for the death of the driver, whose body had been buried as Adam's. [10]

The course of a moral tale that Schmitt imprints on the narrative finds two moments of paradigmatic condensation in the theory of the three existences and in the contrast between Lama's charlatanism and body art as a whole and the true creation, represented by Hannibal. Lama explains to Adam that, in reality, his name was Tazio Firelli, that each human being lives three existences. “An existence of a thing: we are a body”, whose appearance does not depend on us. “An existence of spirit: we are a conscience”, which does nothing more than confirm reality. “And an existence of discourse: we are what others talk about”. Only the third existence really matters, as it allows for an intervention in the destiny of each one. It offers “a theater, a scene, an audience; we provoke, deny, create, manipulate the perceptions of others; even if we are little gifted, what is said is up to us”. The young man should be satisfied with the third existence provided by the artist, as he had become "a phenomenon", which everyone talked about.

This manifestation of cynicism is corroborated by the episode in Tokyo, the city in which Adam bis it is displayed in a large show of body art. Through Lama's gaze, Schmitt traces a devastating panorama of bodily manifestations and one of them, titled “My body is a brush”, is an obvious satire of Klein's actions. Artists naked and covered in paint hurled themselves against virgin surfaces or rolled on them. The most valued was Jay KO, a muscular man who, every three hours, would smash himself against a panel hanging on the wall, needing the attention of nurses. There was also the Kamasutra couple who, “covered in acrylic, copulated in front of everyone, depositing the marks of their erotic positions on large sheets”. These grotesque visions have a counterpoint in the exemplary work of Hannibal, who painted the air, the invisible, the elusive, awakening in Adam “a long, disturbing, violent emotion, halfway between stupor and admiration”.


The Man Who Sold His Skin

This disconsolate view of contemporary art is not the keynote of The Man Who Sold His Skin [The man who sold his skin, 2019], whose starting point is the exhibition of Team at the Louvre. Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania was deeply impressed by Delvoye's work, and two years later (2014) she ended up writing the film's story in five days. The script intertwines two current issues – the crisis of refugees who were born on the “wrong side of the world” and the growing cynicism of the contemporary art market –, interspersed by a love story, which gives a human dimension to what would be no more than a mere business transaction.

Sam Ali, a young Syrian refugee in Lebanon through a thoughtless act, receives an unexpected proposal from Jeffrey Godefroi, the “most expensive living artist in the world”, capable of transforming “worthless objects into works that cost millions and millions of dollars just for sign them”. The current incarnation of Mephistopheles, the artist proposes a Faustian pact to the refugee: converting his back into a work of art with the tattoo of the Schengen visa, an indispensable instrument for being able to enter the European Community. Ali, who had not been able to get a visa to Belgium, where Abeer, the woman he loved, lived, accepts the invitation and becomes a “living canvas”. Godefroi's argument to convince him may seem cynical, but it is nonetheless true: he would gain back humanity and freedom by becoming a commodity.

After the intervention, the artist states: “We live in a very dark era, in which if you are Syrian, Afghan, Palestinian and so on, you are persona non grata. I just made Sam a commodity, a canvas, so now he can travel the world. Because in the times we live in, the circulation of goods is much freer than the circulation of human beings”.[11]

Sam, who would receive a third of the sale and resale price, is on display at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels as part of a Godefroi retrospective. His feelings are quite mixed. On the one hand, he feels a certain humiliation for being exposed to everyone's eyes, without being able to interact with the public. On the other hand, he appreciates the comfortable life that his new profession offers him and the possibility of being close to Abeer, and refuses the protection of a human rights association, outraged by the treatment he was subjected to.[12] Totally alien to the universe of art, he passes indifferently through the museum rooms that take him to the pedestal where he positions himself each day. He does not notice, for example, a herd of pigs from Delvoye, which could awaken an association with his condition. The only work that draws his attention represents dead birds, and it pulls him out of indifference by allowing the evocation of a scene shared with Abeer.

More self-assured over time, Sam fails to notify Godefroi of the appearance of a pimple on the tattoo, receiving a reprimand and being converted into a “work in restoration”. Sold to the Swiss collector Christian Waltz, he lost the passport so as not to be displayed in his home, but, as the document had been recovered, he was obliged to comply with the contractual clause. The sale to Waltz has a legal justification: Switzerland did not consider that its possession by the collector could be associated with human trafficking or prostitution. Sam's exhibition at the Swiss's house provides a highly sarcastic sequence: the insurance agent, played by Delvoye, explains to the press that Sam could die of cancer, but that it would be disastrous if he lost his life in an explosion, because the masterpiece he carried on its back would be inexorably destroyed.

Making use of the cliché of the Muslim terrorist, the young man provokes a scene of panic in the public of an auction, in which he had been sold, leading to think of a manifestation of physical and psychological exhaustion. This impression disappears after he is acquitted in the process, but expelled from Belgium for not having renewed his residence permit. When he refuses the help of Soraya – Godefroi's gallerist in charge of assisting and protecting him– to resolve the situation because he intends to return to Syria with Abeer, it becomes clear that it was a plan to get rid of the condition of " living canvas”. Some time later, Soraya receives a video of Sam's execution by the Islamic State. Disturbed, the gallery owner calls Godefroi, who is in an aseptic environment and coldly receives the news of the boy's death, advising her to contact the insurance company to solve the problem with the work.

At that moment, the director partially resumes the initial sequence of the film, which showed the artist guiding museum employees to properly hang Sam's framed skin. This had been located on the US black market and given to a cultural institution, in compliance with international legislation on the matter. Then there is a plot twist. Godefroi phones Sam, who has staged his own death to rid himself of artwork status. The artist had actively collaborated in this outcome, collecting genetic material from the boy and cultivating it in a laboratory (which explains the aseptic environment he found himself in when Soraya called him) to obtain a new skin properly tattooed. Sam congratulates Godefroi for having managed to play a trick on artistic institutions, on which he foisted a fake, which will be even more valued if the fake is discovered; he informs her that he will laser the tattoo off and claims to have always been free.

This last assertion is not at all surprising, as the attentive spectator realizes throughout the plot that Sam has a goal and, in its name, he is willing – as Enea Venegani writes – to walk a path that limits his freedom. This perception can be expanded from the reflection of Claudio Cinus, for whom the young man never loses sight of the fact that a human being “has feelings and unpredictability that clearly differentiate him from an inanimate object”.[13] If Sam sells his body, he does not include his dignity in the transaction. As a “real presence”, a “corporeal materiality”, it confronts the spectator with something more than a two-dimensional image seen in newspapers or on the television screen: it looks like “an artifact of political art”, but in reality , is a presence with which it is necessary to settle accounts, as he is “a true human being”.

One of the most emblematic moments in the film is the moment when a teacher tries to explain to her students the meaning of the Schengen visa. Sam tries to interact with the children, but is forced to return to his role as a “living screen”. If he had been able to explain himself, he would probably have demonstrated that the visa tattooed on his back also told “the story of a dictatorship, a country under siege and an impossibility of movement that obliges him to find freedom by transforming it into a valuable object” (Enea Venegani). The engraving of the visa on Sam's back has a profound symbolic meaning: if the artist – as part of the critics think – has lost sight of the concept of humanity, Sam is the living demonstration that human beings are capable of any sacrifice. to achieve their goals, be they freedom, survival, the search for a more dignified life or love.

By opting for Godefroi's collaboration in rescuing Sam, the director demonstrates that she has a more nuanced view of the universe of contemporary art, quite different from the moralistic conceptions successively applied to the works of Dominicis, Sierra, Delvoye and symbolically bundled in the reflections of Tournier and Schmitt. Having Hannibal as the spokesman for his worldview, Schmitt draws a bleak panorama of the current artistic moment. Cynical, calculating, in search of success, Lama is not a great artist, but a “great manipulator”. His career was not built in the studio, but in the media: “journalists are his pigments, his oils”; the public, in turn, is continually mobilized as a function of “manufacturing a rumour, which looks like approval”. Since scandal is a “media accelerator”, he looks for “the idea that shocks”, managing to become a “criminal” with the transformation of a man into an object. For Hannibal, this last finding is comparable to a terrorist act, as it consists of “crushing” the model, “torturing it, violating it, dehumanizing it, stripping it of all its natural appearance”, causing it to lose “its man's place among men."

At first glance, this diagnosis could be applied to Godefroi, of whom spectators know only one work. But his fame as a neo-Duchampian, capable of transforming anything into art, leaves no doubt about the nature of his operations, which need media repercussions in order to exist. His final move, which uses social media to spread a fake execution, allows Ben Hania to shed new light on the freedom the artist (apparently) enjoys. As much as his works are worth millions, Godefroi is exploited by a system that continuously asks for novelties, which makes his works objects of lucrative exchanges, which seeks more and more the spectacle, which interferes in his life and in his choices. Placing a false servant on the wall of a museum and following the best practices it seems to be the artist's last margin of maneuver in an art system governed by a frenetic commodification, which knows no borders and, not infrequently, any kind of scruples. Godefroi and his model can be seen as complementary pairs: both offer their skin for sale in the name of different ideals, but equally valid for defining a goal in life.

* Annateresa Fabris is a retired professor at the Department of Visual Arts at ECA-USP. She is the author, among other books, of Reality and fiction in Latin American photography (UFRGS Publisher).



The Man Who Sold His Skin (The man who sold his skin)
Germany, Belgium, France, Sweden, Tunisia, 2019, 104 minutes.
Direction and screenplay: Kaouther Ben Hania
Cast: Yahya Mahayni, Monica Bellucci, Dea Liane, Koen de Bouw.



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[1] Similar attitudes are developed by the Dadaists and Surrealists; these give great importance to dream activity as opposed to the daytime world, based on work and production.

[2] For further data on Klein, see: RAMÍREZ, Juan Antonio. Corpus solus: for a map of the body in contemporary art.

[3] In 2006, the Wrong art gallery proposed an “ethical” version of the work in the London edition of the Frieze Art Fair. The curators Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick entrust the new staging to an actress who also has Down syndrome, but who is perfectly aware of the role she is playing. Dominicis's death in 1998 led Valentina Sonzogni to ask whether he had approved the work's re-elaboration and to consider that its “ethical” version called into question the original intention and freedom of artistic expression.

[4] In Franco Fanelli's article, the work is presented as a new staging of Melancholia (1514) by Albrecht Dürer. The objects placed on the ground would be “the somewhat exhausted symbols of thought and art”.

[5] Sierra's attitude has a precedent in working family (1968), by Argentine Oscar Bony. during the show Experiences (1968), the artist hired, for twice the normal salary, toolmaker Luis Ricardo Rodríguez to be exhibited together with his wife and son. The relationship between wages and worker exploitation is enacted by Sierra in 68 people paid to block access to a museum, in October 2000. performance consisted of blocking the Museum of Contemporary Art in Pusan ​​(South Korea) for three hours by workers who were paid 1.500 won per month, while Sierra was paying 3.000 won per hour. Five demonstrators carried a bilingual sign that read: "I get paid 3.000 won per hour to do this job."

[6] At first, the artist performed tattoos on pig leather purchased from slaughterhouses. The practice on live animals, the results of which are exposed from 1997 onwards, responds to two reasons: pigs offer a large work surface; as animals with little prestige, they are an “ironic vehicle” for the symbolism usually associated with tattooing (expression of affection for animals and people; manifestation of principles).

[7] The reference to the short story was found in Margot Mifflin's article.

[8] For further data on the tale, see: FABRIS, Annateresa. “A photographer and her model”.

[9] The author lists Rolanda's physical limitations as a result of seven surgeries: very tight skin; bruises; impossibility of closing eyes to sleep; feeding through straws; and loss of teeth.

[10] Lama, who had made and sold other “living sculptures”, should mark them with the two tattoos to attest to their authenticity, as for him trade preceded any scruples, as Fiona notes.

[11] This reflection is very close to Ramírez's analysis of Sierra: the artist treats the anonymous beings who agree to work for him as “things, materials for creation, perfectly interchangeable, as if they were merchandise. The social system and the artistic system are questioned simultaneously”.

[12] In Schmitt's novel, Médéa Memphis, of the Association for Human Dignity, disputes the disfigurement to which Adam was subjected, but the young man defends Lama's work, claiming it to be the first example of "disfigurative art" and being proud to be a “mark of genius” and an “art object”. The woman's intervention brings more public to the Tokyo show and Adam discovers, in the end, that it was all a publicity stunt by Lama.

[13] It is symptomatic that, in Schmitt's novel, Lama orders the lobotomy of Adam bis to “dehumanize him to the maximum”, to reduce him to the “vegetative state of a vegetable”, devoid of thought and vices. When he discovers that the doctor pretended to have performed the operation, the artist hires another professional to lobotomize his other “living statues”.

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