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Saturday, December 31, 2011


On the 30th December I was walking past the National Portrait Gallery in central London and on a whim popped in to have a look at a new exhibition, The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011, and was taken aback by its obsession with portraying the human body at its most flawed, broken, diseased or infected. This was portraiture as selected by Hieronymus Bosch and styled by Joel Peter Witkins, where stumped limbs vied with pierced genitalia and diseased flesh for our attention, where deformity and perversion are celebrated over beauty and perfection. It is in fact an exhibition not of man’s beauty or even of man’s ability to overcome adversity or of inner beauty but rather it is a celebration of the ugly and the vile and the objectification of the grotesque in the name of diversity and the pursuit of equality, while beauty and the perfection of the physical, is like intelligence, brought down to its most base level.
The celebration of beauty and perfection and even of the human and the human body as an aspirational object is now fraught with danger, with every limb and sinew a minefield of politically correct catechisms. Where once the pinnacle of each race was of a body perceived to have been created in God’s image and that the best and healthiest examples of that body, if not attainable for all, were at least to be aspired to. Now we spurn such perfection as elitist and hurtful of those less fortunate or able bodied. At worst such displays of Greek and God like perfection are seen as Darwinian, fascistic, racist, or as a veiled attack on the disabled or physically handicapped and as such are increasingly taboo. 
Only in the freak show world of trash celebrity is the twisted and mercurial nature of the human body discussed, loathed or aspired to. In this world the celebrity aspirants in a gallery of ‘national portraiture’ would not be chosen for how many boxes they ticked on our ever burgeoning politically correct scales but rather for how many aspirational body segments that male or female celeb rated perfection in. Here, in a world as grotesque as its politically correct counterpart hanging on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, the human body is dissected and scrutinized for each flaw, with each imperfection celebrated as evidence of a celebrities fallibility and vulnerability. In this world scars signify surgical enhancement, large breasts a sure sign that nature has been cheated, fat, a sign of gluttony or sloth, thinness a symptom of anorexia or bulimia, while cellulite and wrinkles show that age, even in celebrity, cannot be stopped. The celebrity body is, like its atrophied counterparts in the National Portrait Gallery, a caricature to be gawked at, fawned over or examined like some exhibit in a Victorian sideshow.
The human body, like the human mind and the skin that encloses them, is being brought down to its lowest level. In picture after picture men and women are shown at their most base. Disease and wounds are nolonger hidden or concealed but in the name of diversity and inclusivity put on display. So a portrait of a couple is rendered somehow more ‘real’ for showing (genital) warts and all, and the picture of a soldier who has lost a leg is somehow made more ‘meaningful’ for showing the actual stump or a cancerous face more pitiable for us being able to see each rotting cell of flesh. 
This is our brave new world, a world in which even beauty is to be tamed and restricted in the name of ascetic egality and visual equality. It was telling that even where real beauty was on display in the Taylor Wessing exhibition in the form of a large photograph of the actress Keira Knightley that the colours had been muted and subdued to the extent that all life had been removed from the picture. This left her flesh tones neither pale and interesting or bright and cheerful but rather dead and lifeless like those of a corpse in a morgue. 
This grey-green hue seemed to pervade almost every image as if the exhibitors, not satisfied with displaying image after image of diseased, wounded and broken bodies, wanted to imbue the whole exhibition with a veneer of death and decay. If this exhibition of British photographic portraiture says anything of our nation and its people it is not, as I am sure the selectors and judges intended, one of hope over adversity or of tenacity over prejudice or sexual diversity triumphant, but rather of misery and squalor, of death over life, of ugliness and egotism, of perversion, pain and penury. This is not a celebration of human life and the human body in all its glory but of human life and the human body at its most vulnerable and miserable. It is a portrait of flesh, cast not in God’s image, but in his shadow.
It is no wonder then that as we enter 2012 and the nation prepares to embrace the Olympics and the human form at its most vigorous and athletic that the UK’s diversity obsessed establishment should have chosen as its mascot not some God-like creature 
whose physical demeanor represented these noble qualities but rather its complete opposite. The 2012 Olympic mascot is in fact the antipathy of the Olympic ideal, a atrophied, limbless, grey, anaemic one-eyed shapeless blob that represents neither the human body, sexuality, intelligence, beauty or skin colour and as such offends none of the totems of multiculturalism, nationhood, gender, religion or able-bodied over disabled. 
The Olympic mascot is the natural culmination of the Establishments quest for a non offensive human form, a shapeless blob. This too is where in a few more years The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait will end up in its striving to offend no one and to subvert beauty. Soon diseased flesh and genitals will not be enough and no doubt excrement and faeces will vie with open sores and corpses as being more real and inclusive. Until one day a one-eyed grey-skinned blob hangs on the wall and we will have achieved perfection...
Happy New Year.
© Nigel Wingrove 2011

1 comment:

  1. Like you I have "marvelled" at a Taylor Wessing exhibition (2008) but at the ordinariness of the images displayed. 2008 was the year of the girl with a plastic carrier bag on her head. A strange image, which, for me provoked no emotion apart from bewilderment. Yet in the same exhibition was an image that still makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise. It was a simple portrait of an old man, A three quarter shot, his body and face turned away from the viewer, his hands clasped in front of him. It was in Black and White - which always attracts my attention - His face and stance radiated a steadfastness but my first impression was technically good but what was the photographer trying to show me? My eyes followed his body downwards, along his arms to the skin that was showing from underneath his cuffs - to a series of numbers tattooed on the inside of his arm - that one insignificant piece of the photograph told such a powerful story that it made the whole exhibition worthwhile.

    My point? There is always a pearl. They never seem to win prizes or awards but they create powerful emotions and perhaps thats enough!