Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Preoccupied with Decay (Part II): Beautiful Decay

In 1999, Floria Sigismondi--perhaps best known for her exquisitely macabre music videos and the more recent feature film about the all-girl band The Runaways--released a photographic compilation, titled Redemption. Among these pages, containing intensely colored, satin-sheened publicity photos for musical artists like Tricky and David Bowie, are young, peroxide-haired waifs who bathe in the square metal tubs of hospital burn units. Decrepit Nurse Rachetts load steel syringes and ready surgical instruments in Victorian hospital wards. Sigismondi includes shots of The Mutter Museum's bizarre collection of human physiological anomalies. There seems to be little redemption in Redemption, and a great deal more sacrifice. The book offers a glimpse of a percolating cultural fear that expresses itself through decaying environments and elliptical horror.

Sigimondi appears interested, too, in expressing both psychological disintegration as well as physical collapse, as evinced by the image of the characteristically pale-featured but ink splattered Marilyn Mason (above, left), whose thin frame slumps against browning walls covered with graffiti. This frenzied, claw-like writing gives the distinct impression that it is actually Manson's scribbling, perhaps done during the period when his arms were free of the straitjacket. Here again, the horror is present but an oblique narrative. The decay is obvious. Its capture, smoothly seamless and expressed in a two-dimensional beauty across pages bled-to-the-edges with full color. It looks dirty, but we can touch it without fear. It cannot hurt us--its immediacy is removed, even (can I actually say this?)...dreamily romanticized. No, not the romaticization of flowers and candy, but there is a quiet solitude rather than a frenetic energy that seems to have preceded the shot. Moreover, Manson seems deep in thought, far behind the cotton batting of his own morbid lunacy.

In some ways, I find myself drawn to the grime and fright of these images, but only because they are safe, wrapped in a figurative plastic. No threat here. And here, you see, we are presented with a premier example of Decay #1: Beautiful Decay. I'm not talking ravishing sexiness or traditional, flawless beauty. I'm talking sumptuous decay that incites the approach/avoidance mechanism nascent inside in every human: we want to look, to analyze, to see everything we can, but if it is too real, we invariably run from it (even as we look backward through our fingers at it).

In 2005, Sigismondi produced another anthology of photographic work and video stills called Immune. It's an interesting title choice, considering the ongoing theme of decay considered in her work. One example, featuring a diptych of a filthy bedroom beside a defaced picture of a swimsuit model decoupaged with an image of Castro, seems to move more towards political, even human rights commentary, at least as I read it. Is she commenting on the quality of life in Cuba, pointing to the country's perhaps inaccurate associations with sandy beaches when the everyday reality of its people under Castro's long rule has been comparatively bleak? And how does this relate to the title, exactly. Are we "immune" to this sight, to this brand of false marketing? I don't think so.

To the left, another diptych. The face of the woman pictured is darkened and obscured. She is obviously clad for warmer temperatures. Yet, next to her is a bleak-looking cityscape, seemingly covered in ash and comprised of decrepit buildings and a gray, smoggy skyline. Perhaps this, too, is Cuba? Here, Sigismondi seems to allude to the potential difference (or, perhaps, the similarity) between the dying urban area and the vital, faceless beauty whose body is more prominent than the face. She is positioned against a scarified wall, suggesting this is a detail of the larger city pictured: is she perhaps somewhere among the urban alleys, is she perhaps another hooker forced to make a living by walking the streets? And are we then supposed to detect decay lurking somewhere inside her apparent vitality? Or this, too, might be a fashion shot, might it not? So then, is this a commentary on fashion--the horror of the commodified woman, or maybe the location shot with emphasis on the body alone--because in fashion, that's what it's all about anyway, right? The walking mannequin, the feminine automaton ("And darling, don't talk please, it will ruin the effect. Just wear the clothing and walk).

In the next post, we'll look at Decay #2: Disorder and Asymmetry, as considered by writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch.

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