By Chloé Tabur for Derm-ink.com
English version: http://www.derm-ink.com/interview-with-jessica-harrison/
Version française : http://www.derm-ink.com/jessica-harrison/
Jessica Harrison is a young artist who questions our vision and connection to the body through sculpture. The LJ Gallery in Paris receives her brand new works set till the 24th of June after the first instance of the Hey! exhibition. With « Flash », Jessica Harrison investigates the tattoo in a surprising angle, as an independent element of the body. To better understand her approach, Derm-Ink has asked her some questions.
In all your work, it seems that you’re constantly challenging our vision and connection with the body? Why are you so passionate by this topic?
That is exactly what I’m trying to do – the body is what connects us all, it is something we all have and we all experience in different shared ways. I am not particularly interested in the figure, but sometimes it is a useful tool to explore our idea of the body, which is almost always a different shape to the figure. The subject of the body fascinates me because I consider it as something permanent, in the sense that it is always present in our perception and our experience of the world. By unreeling aspects of this perception and with experience, I hope to understand more about the body itself and therefore be able to use it in new and interesting ways within sculpture, to present alternative ways of thinking about the body to the viewer.
« Flash », your exhibition, is about tattoos. You don’t have any tattoo yourself, what motivated you to explore this topic?
I’m using the tattoo in this series to explore the skin space rather than creating any tattoo art itself, which is a completely different thing. Tattooing is not a painting or a drawing onto a static plane, it is incredibly sculptural, literally, threading ink into a moving surface. So although some of the pieces are called ‘Painted Ladies’ in reference to the old term for a tattooed woman, they, in fact, draw from something incredibly sculptural and active in space: the skin.
Most people would perhaps think about a tattoo as something embedded within the skin, as ink held between layers of the dermis in a very permanent, static and unchanging way until we die – this permanency (the aspect of tattoos that prevents me from getting one) is obviously becoming less than an issue in our appearance as the tattoo continues to boom in popularity in Western culture, across all ages.
In my practice, I’m trying to look beyond the traditional model of the skin in which this idea of the tattoo sits, and position the skin not as a dividing wall between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the body, but instead as a space where inside and outside, body and world mingle.Contrary to the image of a sack that contains the body, the skin is a space where things meet, shift and become less well defined, as an environment that draws things together. Thinking about through skin, in this way places the tattoo in a much more undefined and interesting position, as something simultaneously both inside and outside of the body, something that is perhaps not part of the body at all. In opening out the skin from its traditional structure, I hope to begin to unravel the drawn line of the tattoo from the skinpresenting it within a sculptural space.
In your opinion, what do tattoos tell about our connection with our bodies, for both, tattooed and non-tattooed people?
I think the tattoo is a very potent way of presenting yourself to the rest of the world – it certainly suggests to me an unimaginable decisive quality about a person – I’m famous incredibly indecisive and deliberate about ridiculously unimportant options for hours/days/months. I think the bodily connection for tattoos is impossible to pin down, as it will be different for everybody – some will get a tattoo to fit in with a certain fashionable ‘look’ whereas others will do it to try and feel more individual, and outside of group of people. Some people will be tattooed to feel more connected with their bodies and some will do it to remember an event, or an entirely different person. The process of tattooing is fascinating to me, and I think overall piercing and etching into the body can tell us so much about not what the person necessarily wants to look like, but what stories they are trying to tell, or inscribe on their memory, what connection they are trying to make to their past or future.
For this exhibition, you are presenting a new series of ceramic figurines. Those mass produced objects represent an idealized and old-fashioned representation of feminity. What can you tell us about covering them with old-school tattoos or mutilating them?
The tattoo imagery I have used in the new work is all from war-time source imagery, to try and reference an era before the popularity boom of the tattoo when it maybe pointed more towards a particular kind of harsher life, or a more threatening kind of person. The idea in the ‘Painted Ladies’ was to present opposing outer layers, contrasting skins, where masculine illustrations are intertwined with overtly over-idealised feminine costume. The viewer is presented with the question of what we are supposed to consider beautiful, which costume to believe.
Likewise with the ‘Broken’ figurines – in their unaltered state they represent the image of an impossibly fair-skinned ‘perfect’ woman. I was attracted to these found ceramics precisely because of this image they portray of the female body – my aim was to counter it and present its opposite within itself. This was easily done by taking a hammer and chisel to them, breaking apart the hollow cast pieces and ‘revealing ‘ the interior, a standard formula in Western knowledge for making discoveries about the body. The female interior is a space still laced with taboo in a way that the male interior is not, and for me this gender bias of what is most often an invisible space in our everyday lives was a fascinating and important one to address.
What do those figurines mean to you?
The ceramics from the ‘Broken’ and ‘Painted Lady’ series of sculptures are very bland to me in their ‘perfection’ before I break them or paint over them. I think they make more sense in their altered forms…
The « Hand Drawn » objects are sculptures made from the images of the old flash (painted on the ceramic figurines) as if the tattoos had been torn out from the skin, to be independent images. What did you want to express in this work?
The ‘Hand Drawn’ objects were made to juxtapose the ‘perfect’ mass produced casts of the ‘Painted Ladies’, a reaction to the smooth, hard, cold shapes of the figurines. I wanted to make something much more fleshy, that described the movement of a tattoo within the living body, something that wasn’t painted on, but part of the skin space. The pieces were each made very quickly by hand modeling – I spent an average of 10 seconds shaping each piece. This quick hand-made process is visible in the fingerprints left behind in each shape, although it sits oddly against the finely glazed surface, where I tried to paint the colours and details of the images as accurately as possible. This contrast was intended to make the pieces like they had been drawn out from the body, that this is how they might feel if you could hold a tattoo in your hands. Although existing in various degrees of skill and delicacy, any tattoo is a fundamentally handmade image, drawn for the moving body, for a shifting surface that is constantly growing, shedding, changing in colour and texture. A tattoo moves as the body moves, a three-dimensional object drawn into the three-dimensional body.
With the « Hand Drawn » objects, you are showing that those traditional flash tattoos still have a visual impact and meaning, even after years. They evolve through time with the skin. They are existing independently of the body, they come from the popular culture and imagination, beyond personality or taste, and have been reproduced over and over again since over a hundred years.
This is one of the aspects of the tattoo that fascinates me – the reproduction of the image across different bodies over different times and how the meaning of those images changes, or sometimes remains exactly the same. In making the ‘Hand Drawn’ objects, I was almost thinking about the tattoo before it was part of the first body it was drawn upon, when it was maybe the image of a woman, the tattoo artist had met or seen in a magazine, and all of the different layers of skin has travelled through before ending up as a model in my hands.
In the paintings « badges », the flash tattoos are becoming embroidered badges. Is it a way to prove that the skin can be like any canvas?
The idea of embroidering the badges was really to create a continuing line of my own narrative within the concept of the tattoo, so they could be reproduced and shared through many different people and groups, almost continuing the development of the images from their conception in the early 20th century into a new era. I don’t really like to think about the skin as a canvas, more like a way of bringing together threads, a space where they can be knitted together to create new meaning. Embroidering the patches, but not providing a surface, frame or item on which they should be attached, they represent a sort of mingling of the images, a narrative of my own thought processes in exploring the original flash art.
What did your exhibition, « flash », teach you about the body, the skin and tattooing?
From exploring the skin space through the tattoo, I have been allowed to completely reconsider the relationship between the image and the skin, something that I had been avoiding in previous series of work as something too specific to the individual figure. I have found that marks and images upon the skin are not necessarily part of the skin at all, but instead the skin serves as a means by which fleshing out an idea or story; filled in, drawn out of one place into another.
After all this work around tattoos, would you like to get one?
No – definitely not – I’m still too indecisive!