As our role models become even younger and more idealised, we are so more afraid of ageing that the quest for youthful preservation generates an obsession with our bodies. As we align our sense of self-worth with self-image, the psychological and emotional consequences are tortuous.
The Side Gallery in Newcastle was the perfect North East location for Zed Nelson’s ‘Love Me’ exhibition. Signs on the gallery wall warned that some of the images might disturb visitors but the show was so cleverly curated that the full impact of a photograph depicting with the interior walls of a stomach where fat had been scraped away so that the skin could be stitched back into place, minus and inch or two, to create the perfect tummy tuck hit me full in the face. Nelson’s work packs punches in ways that are both full on and extremely subtle and thought provoking.
The exhibition, showing next at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford from the 4th of March to the 29th May 2011, is a delicious, delirious mixture of voyeurism, realisation and beauty. ‘Christopher, 22 – Chest wax,J. Sister’s salon, New York USA’ looked as though he had fallen from the skies and lost his cherubic wings on the descent as he tenderly stroked his hairless chest in a hand mirror.
‘Antony Mascolo, 46 Liposuction to chin and abdomen, New Jersey, USA’ looked resigned to his fate as he sat, clad in a paper gown and surgical socks with black pen marks scrawled all over his soon to be removed chin. The caption alongside the photograph, “I’m competing with men 20 years younger than me” was a striking reminder of the times in years gone by when a senior figure in the workplace would have commanded respect and have been in possession of a job for life. Times have changed and the experience and knowledge held by Mascolo seemed to count for very little in his own eyes against the rising tide of young and handsome competition that was chasing in his wake.
One thing we know for certain is that the body is the place where each of us lives, and the place where each of us will die: our body will always, in the end, betray us
Tim Adams, Writer – quoted on the gallery wall
‘Joany Macias, 33′ was pictured standing outside a sleek modern building somewhere in Los Angeles. She was beautiful. Her lips painted scarlet, her hair scraped back and piled on the back of her head, her eyes sparkling with ruddy good health. In the photograph she wore tight low cut denim leggings with a zip that vertically dissected her groin. The caption at the side of her photograph read “To be honest I never thought that I needed it. But I read about the procedure in a magazine.” The procedure in question? “Designer vaginal rejeuvenation” surgery. Suddenly that zip seemed awfully sharp and close to the knuckle.
An image of an x-rayed foot with metal bars intrigued me. “Foot x-ray. Toe reduction surgery. Kristina Widmer, 36 New York USA” The caption read “I’ve had three toes shortened – a portion of bone removed between the joints and fixed together with metal rods. I like to wear Jimmy Choo’s, three inch heels with a pointy toe.” Like Joany’s zip, the thought of Kristina’s ‘pointy toe’ in this context made the French saying ‘Il faut souffrir pour être belle” frighteningly poignant.
There were moments of celebration, however. One of the most moving portraits in the exhibition was of ‘Belkis Estrella Maldonado, 31.’ She was ‘Contestant number 9′ in the ‘Miss Penetencaria’ prison beauty contest. She stood, perfectly framed by the bars of her cell door , with a fiercely proud stance, resplendent in a strapless black gown, her eyebrows perfectly arched, her nails shaped into long white talons with a delicate diamante necklace around her neck. The caption next to her image read, “Sentence 4 years. Drug smuggling. Rio. Brazil.”
Nelson noted that “Tavalera Bruce Maximum Security Women’s Prison in Rio holds and annual beauty contest for inmates. The prisoner judged most beautiful is crowned ‘Miss Penetencaria’, and wins a 14-inch colour television, an electric fan and cosmetics.”
Not every contestant was so assured and proud, however. ‘Miss Essex. Loser. Miss England Competition, Leicester UK’ had been captured with a torrent of black mascara stained tears pouring down her face, her mouth twisted with grief like a Munch painting, her earlobes pulled down low by clusters of diamante earrings as she clung to the shoulder of an anonymous bleached blonde man in a tuxedo shirt.
‘Katie, age 9. Winner, University Royalty Texas State Pageant. Texas USA.’ whose rosebud lips sported a thick patina of lip gloss and whose wide eyes were adorned with layers of frosted gold eyeshadow, was the poster image for the exhibition. She sported a tiara that was taller than her own head, even including the ‘carefully curled ‘up do’ and her gazed followed me up the street as I left the exhibition, the words above her angelic face declaring simply: ‘Love me.’