Published on December 15th, 2013 | by Chris Campbell1
A Transient Fashion of Skin
I got a chance to chat with Ariana Page Russell, who creates images by using her own hypersensitive flesh to illustrate the ways we expose, express, adorn and articulate ourselves. Skin becomes like paper, a place to document.
All images, unless otherwise noted, are by Ariana Page Russell.
CC: How can skin become art?
APR: 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 skin’s surface is lightly scratched. This allows me to painlessly draw on my skin with just enough time to photograph the results.
CC: What do you find most fascinating about this exchange between you and your skin? And can you give us a sense of the processes you use in order to weave your skin’s stress into art?
APR: I am interested in skin because it’s such a huge part of my experience, as well as all human beings’ experience. I wouldn’t say my skin is stressed, nor would I use that word to describe my process. In order to draw and write on my skin I use gentle pressure to make welts. It is painless and temporary.
‘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’ – in APR’s words.
CC: Dermatographia. When I first saw the word I thought it meant skin disorder. It doesn’t. It means to write on the skin. This lends itself to ideas of authorship, and to thinking of skin as parchment. Do you perceive yourself differently after directing the spotlight on yourself in this way?
APR: By drawing attention to something that could otherwise be seen as weird or gross, I make it something to be proud of. Rather than being ashamed of my skin’s sensitivity, I wear it proudly. Hopefully I can be a role model for others with unique skin.
CC: Your portfolio includes photography, collage, wallpaper, and video. What makes these mediums appealing?
APR: I’ve always been interested in photography, so it seemed natural to start there. The photographs are also the basis of the collage, wallpaper, and video. There is opportunity for accurate representation as well as crazy abstraction with photography.
Sometimes I use the collages to decorate my skin by scanning the patterns and turning them into temporary tattoos. Then I place the tattoos back on my body as an additional layer for the fashion of skin. The tattoos are red and pink shades of sensitivity so I can adorn myself with a longer lasting, intentional welt or blush.
CC: You are the subject of your photography – and you are a very compelling presence! Your look alters radically from shot to shot. At times you appear natural, unembellished, simple. At others – sleek, slick, chic. The intensity of your blue eyes increases, decreases, as does the strength of the contact they make. What purpose do these oscillations serve?
APR: Thanks for the feedback! Things like eye contact and posture vary depending on the project. Some work calls for more vulnerability to be present in the images, and some calls for addressing the viewer more directly. I’m always being myself and it’s always me, but in varying manifestations of my personality to fit each body of work.
CC: If your body chemistry alters over time, and one day the reactions cease, what will your response be? Sadness? Relief? Excitement? Nostalgia?
APR: It’s actually very common for the condition to fade as we age. So I need to take advantage of it while I can! If it does go away I’ll just find a new way to work; I’d probably be sad that it’s gone, but excited for the next step.
Painting of skin and hair cells by Michele Banks.
CC: Last month you started a blog called Skin Tome. It is in its very early stages but is super interesting and great! Can you tell us a bit more about it? And are there any other upcoming projects or exhibits you’d like to mention?
APR: Thanks for mentioning the blog! I’m really excited about it—to have a space for me and others to candidly talk about skin and all that that encompasses. Otherwise, the next big thing is my show at Magnan Metz here in New York in May 2014. I’m hard at work in the studio for that!
[In addition to Skin Tome, Russell also runs Dematographic, a community blog for people who also have the skin condition to share stories and images.]
CC: What advice do you have for others regarding how to creatively claim ailments instead of concealing them?
APR: A professor of mine, Peter Goin, once told me that my weakness can also be my greatest strength. He’s so right! Not that I consider dermatographia to be an ailment or weakness, but it is something that could be seen as a disadvantage. If there’s something about yourself you don’t like, dig deeper, spend some time with it. It could be something unique and inspiring if viewed in a different light.
CC: When you hear people talk about your ‘body’ of work…and when you hear idioms like you’re getting under my skin, be comfortable in your own skin, by the skin of your teeth, etc. – do you get a silent chuckle? And, if you could invent an idiom having to do with skin, what would yours be?
APR: I love ‘be comfortable in your own skin’. If you can be that, then anything is possible! If I were to invent an idiom it’d have something to do with the voice of skin, listening to skin, and learning from one’s body and experience.
CC: You’ve been asked about tattoos in other interviews, and how you feel about their permanence. Your response is that tattoos are only as permanent as our bodies…eventually it’ll all be gone anyway. There is almost nothing as powerful as allowing your mind to travel down this timeline…accepting how time will work you over, how different components of your body will undergo their own private half lives, and to dust you shall return. Why is it important, and fun, to exist with a cosmic perspective?
APR: It’s important to be in touch with spirituality, God, life, death, cosmos—whatever makes sense to you—to live life to the fullest. It’s healthy and realistic to be aware of the temporality of life, and making the most of it is fun.
Image by Jack Wolf.
‘Living in a city with millions of people, I’m used to seeing a lot of faces in a day. They all blur together, but a few stand out. Some subtle interaction, a glance or expression, catches my attention and there’s eye contact. These fleeting moments reveal something deeper than the persona.
In Chinese language there are 98 different concepts of “face”. They believe the face is a mask with incarnate spirit—a totem—and we are saving or losing it to stay members of society. In some American Indian cultures people use face paint to describe an emotion, augment one’s appearance and power, or prepare for battle.
To some degree we have control over how we portray ourselves and what’s revealed, but we still leak emotions and aspects of our being. This makes us human. Using temporary tattoos made from photographs of my flushing skin, I wear this vulnerability as war paint, playing with the idea of face.’