I've been thinking a lot about skin of late, partly because of Mark Taylor's book, Hiding, but also because of some intense focus and reflection upon materiality as it plays out theologically. I've also been doing a little inventory work on the development and arc of my own thinking for a project i'm about to get started on and I realize that there is an increased attention of the lived experience, with particular emphasis and focus on issues related to the surface of the body--what we do to it, how we dress it, what it means to pay attention to the surface of things.
I must admit that a significant theological shift came via two aesthetic artifacts, Kevin Costner's much maligned, Waterworld, a film which challenges how we perceive depth, i.e. surface is the new depth--rhyzomic rootedness across the surface of things, and Mark Tansey's painting, The Myth of depth which challenges Clement Greenberg's assumptions about depth and surface in relation to modern painting, and which I have used to rethink the function, purpose and resourcing of theology.
Ariana Page Russell has highly sensitive skin which allows her to draw on her own flesh, she then photographs the results,
"A body is an index of passing time. Skin protects us as it shows shifting bones, bruising, muscles loosening and tightening, and freckles and wrinkles forming. I think of this as a transient fashion of skin, including the revealing way a blush decorates one’s cheek, freckles form constellations on an arm, or hair creates sheen on skin’s matte surface.
My skin is very sensitive and I blush easily. I have dermatographia, a condition in which one’s immune system releases excessive amounts of histamine, causing capillaries to dilate and welts to appear (lasting about thirty minutes) when the hypersensitive skin’s surface is lightly scratched. This allows me to painlessly draw on my skin with just enough time to photograph the results. Even though I can direct this ephemeral response by drawing on it, the reaction is involuntary, much like the uncontrollable nature of a blush."
The surface of her body becomes the site for an ephemeral artistic endeavour, this ephemerality can be recorded by another medium, but the 'original' is always lost, it's impermanence becomes a new mode of communication, in fact, were it not for the impermanence, she would be able to communicate the way she does. It's also timebound, as there is only a short window for artistic expression. As Taylor writes in his work on the skin,
"the skin(surface) is a site of research whose superficiality is its strength rather than weakness."
The reason, or another reason, this piqued my interest was because of an article I read recently about the 'ephemeranet,' the new apps which allow us to share images with particular people for a limited amount of time before they disappear forever--Snapchat being perhaps the most well-known among them. They, like Russell's art, are impermanent and timebound, which is what makes them desirable. The article quotes one of Snapchat's founders as saying that,
"the increasing pressure on them to manage their idealized online identity has “taken all of the fun out of communicating”. In glorious contrast, the transient and ephemeral nature of Snapchat provides a more spontaneous, less controlled or contrived way of communicating."
This could be seen as counter-intuitive to much of the Gospel, or at least the way the Gospel has been handled, "a man's life doesn't consist in possessions--all flesh is as grass etc." I, on the other hand, sense that there are rich lessons to be learned here about the potential virtue of being timebound and living with a sense of impermanence--we often use religion to trade the ephemerality of the physical, of skin, for the supposed permanence of the 'soul,' whatever that may be, but perhaps things written on the surface, as Taylor again writes,
"by repeatedly seeking what hides, we tend to forget how to read the surfaces on and between which life is lived."