In repairing the object you really end up loving it more, because you now know its eagerness to be reassembled, and in running a fingertip over its surface you alone can feel its many cracks. ― Nicholson Baker
Written On the Body
In the quote above Nicholson Baker is writing about the Japanese aesthetic known as wabi-sabi, an Eastern concept of beauty that stands in opposition to the aesthetic idioms those of us in Western culture have inherited from the ancient Greeks.
Classical greek aesthetics celebrated perfection and permanence, which was then re-discovered and championed in the Renaissance and is still a dominating influence today. Try this thought experiment: close your eyes and imagine what is arguably the world’s most famous sculpture, Michelangelo’s David. You get the idea.
These assumptions and biases about beauty persist and continue to insinuate themselves into both high and popular culture. High art: consider the overweening influence of the landscapes of Ansel Adams, and how this work continues to be endlessly replicated by seemingly every camera club photographer on the planet. Mass media: think about how fantasies of perfection drive the world of fashion and fuel the cults of personality that transform pop stars into celebrity icons and millionaires. Popular culture: just try googling ‘instagram selfies’.
In contrast, the aesthetics of wabi-sabi have been summed up by author Richard Powell as following three basic principles: nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, and nothing is finished. This is why a Japanese tea house often features weathered, unpainted wood, and why a cup used in a traditional tea ceremony will typically be chipped or have a dimple in its otherwise perfectly round rim. Transience and impermanence, can evoke feelings of melancholy and loss, but can also convey a sense of humanity, intimacy, and warmth.
To describe Paula Rae Gibson’s work as imperfect would be to engage in gross understatement, and to entirely miss the point of why she makes her photographs. Her images are more than altered, they are distressed. Their surfaces have been marred and abraded. Whatever markers of perfection her subjects may have originally possessed have been written over by a seeming obsession with erasure and cancellation. These are anxious images, injured objects.
This hole in my heart is in the shape of you and no-one else can fit it. Why would I want them to?”
― Jeanette Winterson
The work is also riveting, stunning really, in its vulnerability, violent tenderness, and naked heartbreak. It’s catalyst was the untimely cancer diagnosis and eventual death of Gibson’s husband. This when their daughter was only 20 months old.
What tongue does trauma speak? What is the antidote for this level of loss? Gibson’s images are not palliative, they do not soothe, salve, relieve, or release. Instead, they capture the visceral anguish of loss, inscribed in a grammar where all nouns are objects of desire, and all verbs are executed as energy on the surface, in unrelenting signals of grief.
Hands are sacred things. Touch is personal. Fingers of love, feelers of blind eyes. Tongues for those who cannot speak. ― Keri Hulme
Gibson uses the female body – most often her own – as a private language that is autobiographical and confessional. We are invited into a personal landscape where bodies and gestures are supercharged with meaning and significance, and offered a glimpse of a privileged vocabulary – an emotional shorthand, a somatic sign language.
These images don’t feel like photographs, because details and specifics have melted and dissolved. They are images on the verge of self immolation, ablaze with raw emotion, where the photographic surface functions as a metaphorical second skin, making visible the wounds and trauma buried beneath the surface.
Gibson immerses us in a song, a lamentation, an incantation attempting to conjure, reanimate a fleshy, carnal core. Finger, feel. Brush, skim. Graze, stroke. Caress, fondle, embrace.
This is a strange, dark beauty. One made all the more piercing and seductive because it is written on the body. And these bodies, like chipped and misshapen vessels, are all the more beautiful because their surface bears witness to the marks of history. This wearing down is relentless and mournful, but it also reveals a wounded radiance – harmony, grace, hopeful resilience. Reminding us that nothing is perfect. Nothing lasts. That life and love is still, always, unfinished.
The only cure for love, is love. ― T. Scott McLeod