|April 13-June 16, 1996
Aziz + Cucher: Less Is Often More
Aziz + Cucher
Ken , 1995
digitized type c-print
50 x 40 inches
Courtesy of Haines Gallery, San Francisco, CA
|The human body and
its representations are the mechanisms through which we process our shifting
culture. Aziz + Cucher's startling photographs question the ways in which
we perceive and present our selves, our genders, and our beauty. They
study and display the ways our bodies may be inscribed upon and into the
social order through technology.
Aziz + Cucher create photographic portraits of men, women, and children, whose eyes, nostrils, and mouths have been digitally "erased," and therefore the features that make each of them unique are no longer present to define them. Because the orifices through which we see, smell, taste, and speak the world are obliterated, our own equilibrium may be disturbed when we strain to see ourselves in these portraits of what may have been, before alteration, "everyday" men, women, and children. The effect is, then, to declare all that constitutes normal versus deviant a now-contested zone. Through these images, in which too little rather than too much is exposed, we find a shift from the sexually explicit photographs in fashion, art, and advertising that often dominate how culture presents our bodies. Yet Aziz + Cucher's images question more than just appearances. Using a technology that appears hostile, the artists examine the increasingly invasive role of technology in our lives, playing on our fears of surveillance, loss of control, and loss of unique human identity that cyberspace, virtual reality, cameras in the workplace, and surgical alteration induce in our culture.
But first we may consider the immediate effects, which seem stretched between beauty and horror. What is it that Aziz + Cucher hope to depict of their sitters, or what is left of the sitters? The frontal and three-quarter poses that are so like those of our everyday experiences-driver's licenses, passports, images of loved ones-but simultaneously and shockingly different, leave us searching for a social context in which to place these sitters. While their features have been erased, the sitters are still mostly identifiable by their race (one is black), and by their approximate ages. Because Aziz + Cucher have photographed the sitters so that their unclothed shoulders are visible, we may find ourselves looking for other bodily clues to their identities. A delicate collar bone, an interesting hairstyle, and the skin's condition (assuming that it is real and not digitally altered) provide us visual markers with which to know the sitters. For instance, Martha's gray hair and wrinkled neck confirm her age, while the image titled Bill & Patti illustrates two people situated close together with heads inclined toward one another. They appear to be a couple, and their youthful, healthy-looking skin and bodies are a sharp contrast to Martha's older body. The gestures of the sitters offer another avenue by which to access them. Ken's head resting on his fist, in what we might see as a thoughtful pose, and Maria's turned head, which delineates the graceful curve of her neck, allow Ken and Maria to be visible and even beautiful in different ways than they would be if their features were shown.
But what of gender? Does it maintain its currency today and is it valuable to define or assign it in a culture in which all orthodox gender and sexual classifications can be called into question? Perhaps Aziz + Cucher erase the features of the face to resist those traditional definitions, which culture itself (or at least culture in the margins) seems to demonstrate are unstable or even negotiable. Certainly drag queens, transsexuals, transvestites, hermaphrodites, and cross dressers, to name a few, confirm that gender is never fixed, but changeable. For instance, in Pam & Kim , we cannot really be certain of either sitter's gender. Nothing in their vulnerable and featureless visages conclusively identifies their bodies as male or female. Neither figure is photographed so that breasts are revealed, and we know that hairstyle and hair length are not indicative of gender. It may be that we perceive Pam and Kim as both female only because it has been suggested to us to do so, as both names are traditionally gender-specific names. The sitters' names (even though we do not know if these are their actual names) may provide us a comfort zone in territory that frightens and unsettles us. Yet, as in the case of both Pam and Kim, it is a prickly and even questionable comfort, since naming is perhaps the most arbitrary of gender-constructing acts, the act in which the subject so named is not even consulted.
In Aziz + Cucher's photographs, technology writes itself onto the body and face of humankind. The uncomfortable results challenge us to reconsider not only our own images, but the photograph itself, which has been thought of as the medium that most precisely records us. However, as we have come to know, the photograph does not faithfully document us: who among us thinks that we look like our driver's license photograph? The only truth of the photograph is that someone or something "took" the picture. What it means and how it is interpreted is contingent on literally everything else, such as the economic, social, cultural, and personal forces behind its production. With these photographs, the artists challenge conventional ideas of beauty, gender, and identity, and ask what medium, if any, can be trusted to truly render us visible in a world where technology may have the last word.
In order to more fully consider the photograph as a document-or not-it may be useful to look at the impact of the photograph on 19th-century attempts to regulate the social body. By the mid-19th century, the photograph functioned as an archival tool with which to systematize the social order into upper and lower classes, criminals, the insane, prostitutes, nonwhites, and females. Photography had also been put to the service of phrenology and physiognomy: the belief that the body, especially the face-forehead, eyes, ears, nose-and head revealed the inner character of the person represented. 1Through this policing of the human body, determinations could be made about who would enjoy freedom and who would be bound by surveillance. It was "part and parcel of a larger effort to organize social relations according to categories denoting normality versus aberration, healthy versus pathology, and national security versus social danger." 2While we may no longer believe that the shape of a nose is indicative of the criminally insane, we do make causal determinations about one another based on an expression in the eye, or a belief in culturally promoted ideas of beauty and what is normal. However, in a country where plastic surgery and prostheses (the cyborg body) allow us to alter our appearances almost at will, what is beautiful and normal is up for grabs. We can now change our eye color as easily as our clothes. Therefore, our own visual consistency or even the recognizable features of a loved one can no longer be an expectation. Similarly, photography, which can be fed into a computer and transformed through morphing, further demonstrates the mutability rather than stability of both our bodies and their visual representations.
Aziz + Cucher register anxiety for the body, which is both served and controlled by technology, plastic surgery, and computers. By wiping out the features of the face, Aziz + Cucher may warn us about the dangerous terrain we enter when we alter our body and its representations at the service of culturally and scientifically determined standards of acceptability and normalcy. Their oddly attractive images of loss seem to ask that we reconsider conventional thoughts about failing to conform to gender roles, and that we risk disenfranchisement in order to override divisions such as normal versus deviant and beautiful versus ugly.