Alexa Meade’s Still Lifes

Film theorist Andre Bazin saw the age-old pursuit of the plastic arts to replicate as realistically as possible the human image as akin to the ancient Egyptian practice of embalming the dead:

“The religion of ancient Egypt,” he writes, “aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. … To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly … in the hold of life”.

I wonder what he would say of Alexa Meade – the contemporary artist who, painting on humans, turns living flesh to acrylic-encased sculptures?

This man, made to look like a painting, was photographed as he was walking around in public. It would be pretty cool to see him moving about on the train; but it would also be a little uncanny, I think, to such see a painting come to life. Here is the human body is made unfamiliar with two-dimensionality and paint, familiar brushstrokes – the conventional signifiers of a two-dimensional painting – made unfamiliar with three-dimensionality and motion.

Natura Morta
by Alexa Meade 2009
Live installation: Acrylic on objects, walls, and flesh

Entitled “Natura Morta”, or “Still Life”, this painting inspired the following narrative by an amazed blogger:

The hotel room begins to devour her every muffled breath before she can even force it from the hollow in her chest. Uneven beats fill that vacant cavity with untiring angst, but her mind is disconnected. Thoughts rising like hot air loom along the musty ceiling where mold clings. She feels the flesh, which binds her in detached hatred, still moist from his body. She watches, as his imprint on the coarse sheets seems to dig deeper into the mattress, though the slammed door failed to carry even the softest breezes into the room with his exit. He was just another and yet she is still the same. It’s tiresome how time comes to reveal the same revelation over and over in new light. She wants to reach over to the lamp and illuminate her feet resting on the dingy carpet but her arms weigh in defiance. She wishes those feet could carry her out into the daylight and stirring air, where she might find something worth living for.

(The blogger’s full commentary, which links this painting to Saussure, can be found here.)

It seems that, rather than being a defence against death, a guarantee of immortality, here painting and sculpture coalesce to signify death itself – the flat lifelessness of the human soul.

To this Bazin might say that photography, as a medium of mechanical reproduction that “satisf[ies], once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism”, has freed painting up to pursue goals other than physical realism – such as, in the case of the above artwork, emotional realism. But what would he say to the fact that it is precisely in a photograph that Meade’s three-dimensional human model is flattened into an image of a painting? Here the camera has apparently forsaken its bid for physical realism, and is instead used to make real objects look less realistic, to give the living human, who in a live installation can still be observed to blink and fidget, the precise appearance of still, flat deadness.

For this photograph Alexa Meade painted directly on Sheila Vand’s body which was then submerged in milk mixed with paint. While in a live installation one would still be able to see a certain three-dimensionality, especially in the motion of the pool of swirling paint and milk, this photographed portrait depicts only stillness. As living human is turned into the still deadness of a painting, the traditional realistic aim of both painting and photography is subverted.

If at the heart of the realistic tradition lies the desire for immortality, then from a similar psychoanalytic standpoint, does Meade’s work with its deliberate reduction of photographic realism reflect the opposite – that is, a desire for death?

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 22.20.25

I don’t think so. For the model, after the performance, eventually cracks open her acrylic coffin and, like a butterfly from its cocoon, steps out again into the free air and blue skies, breath and movement liberated once more. She looks and feels like the same person, yet if I were her I’m sure I’d be changed, however subtly, by the experience. Almost as if she’d gone through an ancient ritual of death and rebirth, the model, having washed the last vestiges of paint from her body, can now proceed to claim her prize: a photograph of herself; memorialising, for eternity, that little moment in her life in which she tasted death, and came out immortal.


三国 (Three Kingdoms)

Regarding his epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings, father of fantasy J. R. R. Tolkien said, “the theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.” This is why his secondary world Middle-earth, though replete with elves, dwarves and dragons, is bound nevertheless by its own inner laws that stray not too far from the natural laws of our earth. From Homer to George R. R. Martin, myth, or what we now call fantasy, has always been ruled by what Tolkien calls an “inner consistency of reality”; it is that which gives the genre its relevance and appeal. Stories like the Game of Thrones or The Name of the Wind are so loved not because they depict worlds in which anything goes but because they depict characters bound by rules that force them into difficulties or situations they must face with wit, courage, or conscience. Placing them in a different world simply allows us to see, from a different view and perhaps more clearly, the same age-old human conflicts arising from those clashes of interests and values that have been around ever since humans started living together.

I was sucked for the longest time into the whirling Chinese epic 三国, or Three Kingdoms – the 2010 TV series based on Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese literary classic.

Set in the Han dynasty, the show depicts the struggles between the famous political leaders Cao Cao (曹操), Liu Bei (刘备) and Sun Quan (孙权), as well as the highly impressive, sometimes amusing, other times pitiful, but always entertaining battles of wit between their strategists Sima Yi(司马懿), Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮) and Zhou Yu (周瑜)respectively.

I must admit that I took such a long time watching it because I absolutely refused to rely on English subtitles; so thank God for Pleco, the Chinese-English dictionary app without which my watching of the show would have been a whole lot more tedious. The full force or impact of words are somehow always lost in translation. The rhythms, cadences, meanings and emotional impact of the Chinese poetry and dialogue somehow just seem clumsy in English, or just plain silly.

This is not to say that non-Chinese-speakers cannot enjoy the tale. When I was watching the TV series I was also at the same time reading the English translation of Luo Guanzhong’s novel, and even the bare bones of the plot has sufficient drama to entertain. I found the names confusing, though – often there seemed to be too many characters to remember; characters are not always referred to with the same names (Cao Cao, for instance, is also referred to as Mengde, Cao Mengde or just Cao), and spelling of Chinese names seem inconsistent and overly complicated. Without faces to go with the names it was pretty frustrating. One is much better off watching the TV series, even if it must be with English subs. The plot will blow your mind. I almost fell in love with Zhuge Liang during the show; he’s that brilliant.

Referring to a map of the ancient world of the time of Three Kingdoms was immensely satisfying – a habit which fans of epic fantasy should be familiar with. It gave me a better understanding of the plot, the characters’ strategies and a greater appreciation of their ingenuity.

And in fact the deeds of Zhuge Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 15.10.14Liang have been thought of as magic. But no, despite being a lover of the Fantasy genre, I must say Zhuge Liang’s ingenuity far outshines any mere magic. Magic, especially under the hands of less talented writers, can sometimes be used as a much too convenient plot point. But anyone who followed closely Game of Thrones for love of the game would find that the game played here is far better played – a dance that, as Patrick Rothfuss would say, reveals the moving of great minds.