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?
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.
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?
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.