Body and image:

the female body between attraction and revulsion in the digital photographic installations made by Magdalena Frey

by Lydia Andrea Hartl


The connection of shame and guilt

Feelings of shame and guilt have so much in common that they are taken as one emotion with two performances within our consciousness. Whereas shame includes real and expected environmental sanctions, guilt is related more to expected internal sanctions. Guilt is the key emotion for the development of personal and social responsibility. Shame is more effective in smaller societies than in larger heterogeneous populations which makes sense from a psychological viewpoint. Shame being frequently elicited by other persons represents a quite effective control function in relatively closed societies, where everybody knows everybody, whereas in urban societies with a high degree of anonymity and social permeability the individual is used to internal control. Men, in general, report feelings of shame and guilt less often than women.

As far as expressing emotions is concerned, guilt and shame are both nearly invisible and strongly private. They may prompt a subject to blush, to bow the head, to turn away the eyes or to lower the eyelids. Guilt is experienced as the torturing feeling of being wrong or that things are not right either in relation to others or to the person him/herself. It is connected with a high degree of tension, with sorrow and anxiety. Blushing intensifies feelings of shame by drawing additional attention to someone’s face. Experiencing shame usually starts with a sudden and intense increase of self-consciousness which strongly inhibits cognitive processes. As a consequence, sudden clumsiness and loss of presence of mind predominate the subject combined with feelings of being small, stupid, helpless and lost. Paradoxically, shame can be experienced after being judged positively by others as well.

Shame widens the permeability of the boundaries of self. This is ambiguous as it could result in destruction of individuality or, on the contrary, an increase in self control and autonomy. Fighting feelings of shame may increase personal freedom. Frequent feelings of shame, however, lead to sorrow and depression.

Shame and intimacy are connected with visual contact, personal involvement and sexual lust. This may represent the source of the wide-spread taboo regarding long lasting eye-to-eye contact between individuals who are not intimately acquainted.


Aesthetics and the body between visual lust and taboo

Visual lust, although seeming to be an anthropological constant, and representing sensory lust in general, has always been prosecuted by taboos. Images used to be a solution to bypass the prohibition of bodily lust. Mankind has ever been highly inventive in broadening the possibilities for visual lust via a variety of technologies. The multitude of technological "eyes" is singular in the history of the senses.

Eyes, skin and its openings (natural openings as well as wounds) to the inside are borderline metaphors of the body. In the visual arts the wound of Christ - metaphor of his being between life and death shortly before his transformation - is often depicted as a slit and thus resembles the female vulva which is also a stigmatisation and can bleed at certain periods. The human flesh, material substance of human beings and thus sign of visibility, is enrolled in skin, the skin of the perceiving and seeing body.

Shannon’s theorem of information technology describes that only exceptional processes elicit interest. The non-visible but nonetheless existent, the so-called private parts, the femal sex organs, are objects of interest. The history of the connected visual and tactile taboos is long. The transformation of the feared which is often regarded as the ugly or the forbidden (gorgo medusa) into the beautiful in art is one possibility of bypassing the taboos. This, precisely, has been the fate of the female body.

The human body is a spatial construction which does not open up its internals easily. Methods have to be developed to discover this aspect . This cannot be done in a holistic way, it has to be done fragmentarily. As long as the body has a soul, only certain doors and windows can be opened, whereas the dead body can be opened only via destruction and, thus, sacrificing insight into its functioning. In visual arts, long-term studies have been made to solve this problem. Arts dealing with the so-called new or multi-media present a high percentage of objects which show journeys through the human body or situations restricted by visual taboos (birth and dying), the dead body is symbolised or prepared as a model..

Constructing identity requires bodily experiences. One can guide what one wants to demonstrate or hide of one’s self by disguising or unveiling. Without this intention (the moment of being unobserved) the voyeuristic view starts. The voyeur longs to see what is not meant to be shown and what is without intention: the subject’s pureness. Faust, as an example, was fascinated by the innocence of Gretchen, by her not pretending anything, because it is the intention which creates guilt.

In our day and age the fragility of identity is the main problem. The former individual cannot be recognised as a stable individual any longer, but can take on different identities which differ substantially in contrast to the former ones. It is no loner obligatory to keep the former constructs of identity, neither in form nor in content: changes in concepts of gender, nature, time and structure are discussed.


Voyeurism as a problem of gender and a problem of artists

In oculo visus, in corde peccatus: in the (male) eye lies vision, in the (female) heart sin: Ambrosius describes the problem of the Fall of Man. Vision, motivated by lust, is tempted by images. The relation between gender, visual object/subject and visual lust has its meaning not only regarding the teachings of the fathers of the church and the following Byzantine iconographic controversy where it was the women who defended visual idols, but reaches to this day to multiple social, individual and aesthetical themes.

Ascetics and moralists, especially in the late middle ages and the early modern age, were actually afraid to look into the eyes of a woman. Women were strictly advised to guard their eyes for multiple so-called moral reasons. This advice was thought to keep away danger, the danger of seducing men or falling into the trap of sinful lust/love themselves. The taboo of vision, the lowering of the female eyes has remained to this day, at least in a modified way, a paradigm for shame and guilt: vision and cognition means becoming guilty as well, but in contrast to the fall from paradise where it meant both Adam and Eve, Eve has been excluded from reaching cognition. Voyeurism is defined by psychology/psychopathology as a pathologically narrowed need to observe as a form of sexual gratification. The observed person is not always informed.. Voyeuristic behaviour as variant of gaining sexual gratification is almost exclusively observed in men who also dominate the market for pornography. Masks, however, have remained a women’s specialty: they are forbidden to observe and to research, neither in science nor in arts. They are, in contrast, allowed to put on veils and masks and slip into other skins, to direct and perform their own plays. There are still some sorts of visual taboos, especially regarding certain themes of female existence and certain parts of the female body. In a world of growing visibility, demonstration and visibility of the female "private parts", the vulva, the process of giving birth, menstruation and abortion, still underlie a visual taboo: female existence remains connected with feelings of guilt and shame.


Aesthetics and the disguising of the gaze

Visual taboos exist not only socially but within the domain of aesthetics as well, because social and cultural prejudices operate in a broad range. Picasso´s famous early masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, was taken as the beginning of cubism when it was bought by the Museum of Modern Art (1939). Leo Steinberg´s essay "Das philosophische Bordell" (1972) changed the context of interpretation and revitalised the discussion: Steinberg insisted that Picasso concentrated on the brothel as the main theme and not of inventing cubism. Although there was a real and visible painting, the American reception had totally excluded the possibility of interpreting ugliness combined with sexuality. It seemed to be more important to invent a new classical period of the modern time where a theory of aesthetics of the ugly (a social taboo) was disturbing. This tendency proceeds and can be observed in discourses of the not turned out, the non-beautiful, and the beautiful ugly of contemporary art.

The viewing of the ugly is veiled by bringing the ugly closer to the reality of everyday life and thus pretending to remove aesthetical borders. The polarity of nature and art had started to dissolve during the turn of the century. Since 1945, the beauty in art has vanished into the new beauty of nature represented by the appearances of modern civilisation.


Unveiling the gaze and bodily image

The individual is now found not in the external other but only in the internal as a way of being different qualitatively. Its subjective reservation has to be perceived as the form of a minimal deviance, it has to be observed and analysed carefully. Efforts of this kind are not done by systematic theory and analysis but only by perceiving, by seeing itself. Observing perception is the means of searching the difference of the self at the borders of the world. The constructing power of imagination adds an abstract element to the artistic result: the concept alone is not enough to form content.

The body is the partly visible bearer of the subject. The body, however, is an object representing the "most beautiful object of consumption"as well. Thus, the situation of a woman is exaggerated because her (inferior) body bearing her (inferior) subjectivity becomes more and more the state of an object, is exhibited as an object of consumption. The body is also a third thing, the place and bearer of interaction, of relations (between the inside and outside of the subject and the inside and outside among different people).

In cultural history, great aesthetical differences can be seen regarding standards of beauty. On the other hand, the temptation to find and define the uniform ideal of the female body ignoring the "natural" state of most female bodies (using rearrangements, emphasis or partial reduction of parts of the body) always existed. These efforts have in common that they regard the female as being the other, the foreign, the exotic, but also being closer to nature. "The female is the other, the male is the standard. He has his standpoint and functions producing ideologies. The female has no place. The female stares into reality to which she does not belong from outside, with the gaze of the speechless foreigner, of the extraterrestrial visitor, of the child which is not yet in-corporated. Thus, she is doomed to speak the truth and not the beautiful pretence".


Shame, abortion, polish cuisine

The obligation to speak or to show the truth is often felt an artistic obligation. Magdalena Frey has already been undertaking this effort in her work for a long time. Her works seem to start from everyday constellations which lead to the essential issues of identity and of the border between life and death, of that which is one’s own and that which is foreign and that which is somewhere between the two. The cycle "Abbruch", "abortion" deals with the aesthetic dimensions of manipulating life as a metaphor of the border between self-determination and being bound bodily and socially. First the female was defined as a purely biological existence, now she is simply abolished by technology. Medical technological solutions are ambivalent, one the one hand, they represent freedom, on the other, a radical change in the meaning of existence or the right to exist, to the point where the utopia of technological medicine could mean the end of the cultural role of existence, gender. The cycle "Scham", "pub(l)ic shame" shows the vulva being an eye, a blushing mirror, a curtain, a performing stage for social and private existence, and forces the glance to become a gaze in which the images tend to tilt back and forth. "Polnische Küche", "Polish Cuisine" reminds of prejudiced "polish management". Eyeryday existence is shown in collages, fragmentary installations through photographic and digital techniques. Pictorial fragments combine the apparently banal with far away visual elements, and the aesthetic installation lead to redefinitions of identities who live, in a cultural sense, as a melange themselves.

Magdalena Frey as an artist undertakes the role of a female voyeur continuing the series of establishing a way of artistic photographic anthropology. The "female" way of vision in this context is the "other" vision which longs to establish a new aesthetic language of images which reaches far above individual affection. In literature, Elfriede Jelinek.has already demonstrated expressively that new languages of this kind are not the same as the well known language of the (male) voyeur.