The body delineates an intimate boundary between the individual and the incomprehensible mysteries of the universe. This fragile barrier allows us to negotiate a complex labyrinth of sensory information with our sense of self left relatively intact. However, while the body may contain the individual, the body itself is not a self contained entity. Its membranes are not impermeable, they are vulnerable; easily breached by culture and contaminated by ideas.
Western notions have shaped the body throughout the ages. Prior to the emergence of the modern body (a dispassionate carapace modelled on the inanimate beauty of a machine: hardwired and increasingly digitised offering endless possibilities for revision) the body was miraculous. The Medieval body was prone to stigmata, parthenogenesis and a wandering womb.
Before the body was unceremoniously left to science it belonged to the realm of philosophy. Plato bisected the body, separating the body and the mind. This division was not equal but indicated a hierarchy. The body was relegated to the role of mere vessel; constantly lusting after physical gratification, it was base, earthly, feminine. The mind became lofty, spiritual, capable of understanding the greater truths, masculine. Hardly a perfect marriage. Locked in perpetual conflict, the body and mind had irreconcilable differences and would have divorced, if only they could figure out how to divide the assets.
This notion persists today, yet it coexists with a contradictory, and equally popular, concept which acknowledges the interdependence of mind and body. In this view, beauty (or the lack of it) is a kind of rough justice; you can’t always get what you want, but…. you get what you deserve.
This particular pearl of pop culture wisdom is attributed, thanks to a quick Google, to everyone from random blogger’s grandmothers, to J Lo and Abraham Lincoln. But most often, the credit is given to George Orwell who said, “At 50 everyone has the face he deserves” or Coco Chanel, who said much the same thing but without the gender bias. As to who said it first, it hardly matters; they’d both been around the block more than once and knew a thing or two about personal transformation.
Did either Coco or George have the face they deserved at 50? He died at 47, so we’ll never know. Besides, the salient point here is that their widely disseminated and oft paraphrased notion implies that it is not just the physical reality of aging, but also personal actions which shape the body.
Artist Rhonda Dee takes this idea and manifests it in densely layered, deliberately ambiguous paintings of hybrid bodies. In Dee’s world, as illustrated in the Incomplete Original, the laws of physics are extended to the metaphysical. For every action, whether it be the wear and tear of hard labour or the emotional extremes of kindness and cruelty, there is an equal (if not opposite) reaction deeply incised on the body.
Dee captures the intangible force of potential and makes it visible. Subject to the inexorable creative power of personal metamorphosis, her bodies are caught in a constant state of flux. Dee’s paintings make static a fleeting instant in a perpetual cycle of transformation, as what she calls the “internal geography” of shifting individual identity seeps through the fragile membrane dividing interior from exterior and is mapped across the body.
Tracey Clement | 2009
Tracey Clement is an artist and writer. She is the Art Page Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald’s weekly Metro section and contributes regularly to several Australian and international art and design magazines.