Oooh, you're hot.

Chris Langton

catalogue essay for Chris Langton exhibition, Tolarno Gallery, Melbourne, 2003

Temperature is evident in two predominant domains: outside of the body and within the body. Dividing the two is skin: a psycho-sexual epidermal field of tactility. One's skin is both barometer to external climate and thermometer to internal constitution. The skin of one's being, then, is the dimensional warp between the social and the self. While appearing to be the aerated cloth of flesh accountable for the greater proportion of dust in the domestic environment, skin is far more than a microcosmic forest of physicality: it is the border between the molecular grain of existence and the macrocosmic forces which shape existence. It can map the touch of ice cubes, fingernails, clamps, tongues, sugar, hair, oil and teeth as imprints of the presence of someone else onto oneself. Those imprints become their own 'bodyprint' across time, greatly affecting the self through a personal history of touch.

As the prosecution of rape hinges on penetration, the prosecution of child abuse hinges on being touched, so does the definition of the body commence with skin. Nightmare On Elm Street's Freddie Kruger is the monstrous apparition of the transgression of skin. Burnt alive by the parents of those he molested while alive, he returns from his hellish furnace, transmogrified and gloved with metallic rapier digits. His ravaged skin is that of the most wrinkled and impotent paedophile; his 'fingers' the harbingers of the most murderous and soul-destroying touch. Throughout the Elm Street cycle of films, his skin is fetishized for its corruption; his touch is magnified for its destruction. True to the ectoplasmic phantasmagoria of 80s special effects movies, his whole being is rendered not simply as abjectified flesh, but as skin: stretched, gashed, marred, peeled. His being is one whose skin engulfs and overwhelms space, drawing one into contact with his multiplied form.

Skin is the draped flesh drawn by the artist of the nude; the translucent reflective fabric which grants the photographer form. Less a window to the world or a mirror to the soul, skin is the icing on the flesh cake. It beckons with its saline sweetness and its glycerine aura. The visual arts present it as a fecund accruement of form: from the ripe fruit of Rubens to the succulent rumps of Picasso to the eviscerated gore of Francis Bacon to the withered frames of Giacometti to the melted putrescence of Max Ernst to the bleached visage of Andy Warhol. Not surprisingly, the presence of skin in art's erotica is a post-Gothic veil wafting in the mental miasma of desire, welcoming sex and death in a series of enveloping folds. More than bones alone - the repository of graveyard ritual - skin is the medium of choice for necrophiliac artists. Ed Gein's infamous artworks included not only his mummified mother's skin suit, but also lamp shades made of skin and a shagpile carpet of shredded skin. Like an Ikea store at Auschwitz, Gein's household of horrors subsumed the most frightening identification with skin into the domestic realm.

In Iconic art of Orthodox dogma, the representation of flesh is both refuted and celebrated. The skin of God must be comprehensible in human guise yet palpably Other from human touch. The technique of alchemically balancing red hues with green metaphysically approximates skin as the dimensional dermis of the corporeal and spiritual, using frequency vibration in light's colour spectrum to clash the two at the optical bordering of red's overtake of green. Icon portraiture physically shimmers at the granular level of the painted surface. Transferrals of religious encounters - from the realms of ethereal apparitions and extraterrestrial visitations - are portrayed with not dissimilar 'post-colourization'. Ghosts are rendered transparent, their skin a sign of vaporised translucence which is an ideal in the mortal world of beauty. Aliens oppositely are figured with skin that emits light. Brilliance streams from their surface, glowing and radiating an intensity beyond the colour spectrum. Pushed past being light-reflectors, they are unearthly light-broadcasters from beyond.

Skin is also the layer of significance which communicates to the doctor the state of one's being. It can be read like the sky - an expanse of hue, luminousness, vibrancy; it can be interpreted like weather charts and geographical maps - a series of ovulating swirls of colour-banding across the rainbow spectrum. Like a homeopathic colour chart, skin can turn blue, be ruddy, become jaundiced. It can be touched to feel its heat, but its true state will initially be signalled by its external look. Skin, of course, is thermal in every sense. It is the heat glove that depicts the presence of humans in environs removed from sight. Thermal cameras from the room next door or from a satellite above can zone in on the hot spots of any clandestine activity. Thermal readings and graphs of the body - its corpus, its brain, its blood system, anything - pass through the skin to that which percolates, bubbles and boils below its surface. Numerous monster films thrill to the depiction of thermal activity. The screen's romance with grain is suddenly thwarted by harsh posterization and solarization as we see how the Other sees. Following the point-of-view in Wolfen, Predator and Vampires, we hunt humans, optically following their presence as warm-blooded mammals: meals just out of the microwave, heated and ready to go.

A chilling torture technique employed by modern-era extortionists is to make a shallow 1cm horizontal incision across a (man's) chest then slowly peel back the skin downwards with pliers. Skin is sturdy enough to carry with it any adjoining stretch while lifting off its upper layer to reveal the bloodied impasto underneath its fine lining. The concept of this torture is not merely to inflict pain, but to traumatise through the act of seeing what lies beneath one's skin. Like a projection into the future where one witnesses one's death, the sight of the dimensional depth just the other side of 'skin-deep' can debilitate beyond comprehension.

Philip Brophy. Pale-skinned, thin-framed, fast metabolism.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Chris Langton.