Dermography

Stahl, Dermography (Detail)
Stahl, Dermography
Stahl, Dermography (Detail)

Darian Goldin Stahl, Artist-in-Residence //

Dermography

Charcoal

6′ x 16′

2018

Dermography considers how a haptic engagement with medical scans can mend the separation between scan-body and flesh-body after a diagnosis. When a patient sees an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan of their interior body, these ossified images are experienced only through the digital interface of a computer screen–that is, a translated and objectified body apart from the embodied self. In an effort to rectify this separation, I merge impressions of my own skin with drawings of my sister’s interior MRI scans as an act of embodied care-giving. This collaborative work pays homage to the messiness and ambiguity of the visceral body in direct response to sterile medical imaging technologies and seeks to create meaning from medicine in mutuality.

This piece consists of a curved grid of body stamps and reductive drawings. To create the drawings, I invented a way of “scanning” my own skin to closely resemble the black and white images of an MRI scan. I first dust powdered charcoal over large sheets of blank newsprint paper. The slight amount of friction of the black powder against the smooth paper ensures that only a thin layer of charcoal rests delicately on the paper’s surface. The next step is to gently press my hands, face, torso, and legs into the charcoal as I roll across the image plane. The oils on my skin and the textures of my clothes lift the charcoal off the paper to create a perfect negative impression of my body. The sensitivity of the fine powder is able to capture even the minutest details of my body: the creases in my lips, the flutter of eyelashes, and the velvet floral texture of my garb in extreme clarity. The rolling gestures of my body produce a final drawing that conveys depth and volume on the two-dimensional surface.

These bodily stamps can be taken as a kind of “automatic drawing” process promoted by the surrealists. When the body is allowed to create without conscious intention, then the drawings that result are reflections of unconscious emotion. Art history lecturer Ed Juler elaborates that surrealist drawing “undermines the structure of rational thought by representing that which is linguistically inexpressible: the haptic, the material, the optical and, above all, the visceral” (Juler, 2016 p. 372). Here, my body has drawn a figure whose impressions capture only the peaks of her features, resulting in a disjointed, malformed, and monstrous conflation of body parts that float in seas of darkness. However, this figure’s curving movements, light touch, and fine detail also display a corporeal elegance. The duality between the grotesque and the beautiful captured in Dermography makes visible the simultaneous tensions held within the unconscious, visceral body.

In order for this drawing to become a materialization of care, it is necessary to return intention and carefully merge my embodied stamps with my sister’s interior MRI scans. Attentively studying the digital images and their location within the body, I push around and remove the charcoal on the paper with my fingertips where they would be located beneath the skin. The brain, spine, teeth, soft palate, and nasal cavity are now merged with my protective clothes and flesh.

In addition to performing care, these drawings are also an act of rebellion against the typical MRI scanning procedure. The ubiquitous images of contemporary biomedical scanning technologies, in their quest for sterile objectivity, produce a visual culture of medicine that ultimately denies the mess of blood, flesh, and viscera contained in the lived body. This is not to say that the usefulness of medical imaging should be underrated, but that these images fail to capture any liveliness that the ill body contains. The process of making Dermography’s bodily images, on the other hand, is dirty. Carbon powder is pressed into my skin and clothes, and a thin layer of black dust covers the exposed surfaces around the drawing arena. These performative drawings better reflect the animated aspects of everyday life than the images of illness produced in the sterile confines of clinic or hospital.

In another act of resistance, our figure wears a floral dancer’s leotard in preparation for her charcoal scans instead of a traditional hospital gown. During the scan, she is no longer strapped to the bed of the machine by confining headgear. Instead, she is allowed to turn and roll her body in the act of creating an image. Whereas any movement of the patient results in a blurry and ineffective MRI scan, her very rotation in the charcoal ensures a multiplicity of perspectives around her dynamic body. This stretching, grasping, and tip-toe-balancing of this motion capture technique creates an aesthetic of grace and joy that stands in sharp contrast to the stiff and interned medically imaged body. Finally, the horizontal composition of the stretching figure appears as though she is rolling up the wall in defiance of gravity.

In order to move beyond the medical model of disability, which Professor of Disability Research Tom Shakespeare explains “tended to focus on disability as an individual deficit to be cured” (Shakespeare 195), we can instead broaden our perspectives of what a typical and fulfilling life can look like—which can begin by expanding the visual culture of medicine to include subjective re-imaginings of diagnostic images. This perspective is in line with the affirmative model of disability, which Disability Theorist Cameron Collin explains does not focus on the necessarily tragic, but instead affirms that “living with impairment can be experienced as valuable, exciting, interesting and satisfying.” By translating my sister’s scans through touch and drawing them into my own skin’s impressions, I am creating a relational space where the considerations of affect, compassion, and the lived body are given priority over any standards of objectivity. Dermography does not highlight or focus on the lesions exposed in my sister’s MRI scans, but instead adorns her scans with flesh, pattern, and movement as a testament to a fulfilling life.

Mapping the scanned body onto the topography of my own flesh using my fingertips allows me to haptically engage with medical scans with a level of intimacy that would not have been possible otherwise. These digitally translated scans of the lived body have been translated again by my digits in a process of re-externalization: my sister’s internal body was first projected onto a computer screen in the form of an MRI scan, these scans were then seen and internalized through my vision and then pushed outward again by my body and hands onto the charcoaled paper. The sense of touch that was missing from the digital representations of the ill body has been redressed by my hands’ re-translation as an act of materialized compassion. Professor of English Steven Connor explains that in the history of medicine and philosophy, compassion was considered a very literal physical exchange of marks and affect. He cites Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), who asserted that a sensitive person, when witnessing a wound, could manifest a likewise wound on their body and feel the same pain. We are capable of such visceral, compassionate connection because “seeing something involves making oneself over to it, a yearning towards the object of sight and merging of seer and seen” (Connor, 2007 p. 115). The urge to feel these scans is thus an act of my soul’s desire to know, care, and be in relation with an ill loved one. I aim for others to be similarly called by this figure, and find that since we all share anxieties over the precarity of our health, that we can also all share our bodies’ capacity for compassion.

Darian is the Artist-in-Residence at Synapsis. To see more of Darian’s work, please visit her website: http://www.dariangoldinstahl.com

Works Cited:

Connor, S. (2004). The Book of Skin. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Juler, E. (2016). Man’s Dark Interior: Surrealism, Viscera and the Anatomical Imaginary. In A. Whitehead, & A. Woods, The Edinburgh Companion to the Medical Humanities (pp. 356-376). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Shakespeare, T. (2017). The Social Model of Disabilty. In L. J. Davis, The Disability Studies Reader (5th Edition ed., pp. 195-203). New York: Routledge.

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