Visual Poetics of Embodied Shame – Skin Deep
Performance, Photography, and Video, 2014
” Skin Deep” explores the visual culture of shame in relation to the body, subjects and power in contemporary art.
Shame is a complex, universal and often painful affect connecting subjects to social relations. It is an innate human reaction rooted in childhood experience, and it is linked to sexuality and the cultural norms that regulate the body. Shame operates on the relation between self and other, between the emotional and social. The etymology of the word shame is derived from the Old German meaning, “to cover” or “to hide” oneself. The dynamics of shame revolve around the world of sight and of being seen. Freud suggested that visual pleasure is related to shame, as the physical gestures of blushing, downcast eyes and slack posture are projected on another—the subject imagining herself as seen by the gaze of the other. This aspect of shame as located at the interface between a vulnerable self and an outsider, between cover and discover, makes it significant in visual art.
But Freud didn’t consider eastern cultures. Asian societies are associated with “shame culture.” In this context, on the one hand, shame can involve honour and positive change. On another hand, it is an insidious social control mechanism playing on the emotion’s negative aspects. Despite the rise of feminism and many acts of aesthetic, theoretical and cultural transgression that have attempted to challenge taboos, the deep structure of shame has not been significantly undermined. Shame is, therefore, a central feminist issue, and an important one to rise within my artwork and its associated research.
In ” Skin Deep” I translate the word “ shame (to cover)” to a cultural symbol by wrapping my face in Chinese silk brocade fabric. this work contains photographs and a performance video: while standing still and breathing under the fabric in the video, I position myself in front of camera and creates a series of ID-card photographs. The reason I cover my face is because the notion of shame – or “losing face” – is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. In fact, if one has “ lost face,” one feels shamed of letting down culture, family, or self.
Shame in this work is both social and personal that arise from the awareness of the consequences of my failure in maintaining my identity as a Chinese after living in the West for many years. In order to reinforce my cultural identity, I deliberately mask myself with the symbolic fabric. However, contradictorily, while my collective identity becomes visible, my individuality as an individual disappears because the gesture of covering my face with fabric is a metaphor of self-effacing. As a result, I both literally and metaphorically “lose face, ” and feeling shamed of losing self begins. Maybe shame in this work has transformed itself to a visual symbol alive on my skin already. It knits difference into identity and identity into difference, becoming signs of awareness and evidence of inability to escape.
Over the past two years, I have been creating a series of works related to shame that integrates performance, photography, video, and installation. My focus is exploring the visual culture of shame associated with vulnerability in its personal and socio-political dimensions, deconstructing the experience of shame through gestures, movements and audience participation. In my practice, I consider feminism, globalization and psychoanalysis, positioning shame as a feminist strategy of resistance—an ethical practice that seeks altered states of consciousness that possibly leads to restore dignity and humanity.
Photo credit: Dayna Danger