While at a retreat last month I came across an artist’s documentary artwork. I didn’t find out the artist’s name, but the work that he or she made stayed with me. It consisted of pieces of the artist’s body under glass within wood frames: fingernail and toenail clippings, along with long tufts of dark brown hair. The clippings were arranged in neat rows with each grouping dated in handwritten script. The hair was positioned similarly, with each distinct tuft accompanied by some space around it and a date.
The framing itself seems like an earnest device intended to confer gravitas on the work. If the clippings had been displayed in a pile, or on strings like a kind of talisman, or organized in a particularly symbolic shape, the work would read quite differently. Inside the frames, the clippings read as a document of the body. It is a record of the shedding or the pruning of someone’s skin. The retention of the parts of the body that are consciously shorn suggest a curious kind of ownership impulse: the simultaneously occurring desire to both let go of the body and not entirely relinquish it. This in turn can suggest a compulsion for control.
However, the work, I think, says much more than that. It is a document of a body changing. It is a look over the shoulder of what one produced in the process of living. The nails and hair are dead artifacts that are nevertheless indices of life, and being so operate as a kind of anchor in the present and a stay against the future.
It is tempting to see this work in terms of rigorous self-awareness: produced by a consciousness at work using the metric of time to map out the body’s skin reproducing itself, as if to say, I am here. I am grounded. I am not going away. In these terms the work seems to be about claiming presence — and perhaps a bit about the fear of losing this presence. Particularly in this cultural moment of increasing technologically aided abstraction widely expressed in various forms of electronic mediation, the body continue to nag at our collective consciousness. Salvaged artifacts of the body become signs of an impulse to preserve a particular kind of fleshy, spendthrift humanity.