Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Design for Life?

Surgical Procedure: an incision was made in Princess Margaret’s temple running downward and backward to the apex of her ear. From here a crease ran toward her lobule in front of the ear, and the incision followed this crease around the lower margin of the lobule to a point slightly above the level of the tragus. From there, at an obtuse angle, it was carried backward and downward within the hairy margin of the scalp.

From Princess Margaret’s Facelift, J G Ballard

I was reminded of Ballard’s short story Princess Margaret’s Facelift (from The Atrocity Exhibition) while staring at the endless array of photographs charting the transformation of Michael Jackson’s face that have appeared since his death last Thursday.

Ballard’s cut and paste technique – the insertion of Princess Margaret’s name for that of the anonymous ‘Patient X’ in a genuine medical description of a face lift – is a provocative marriage of form and content. Plastic surgery is a form of collage practised on the body, a grafting of previously disparate features into a new composition. The disjunctive quality of seeing Princess Margaret’s name in the context of a blunt medical description is a graft itself, a similarly violent juxtaposition.

Plastic surgery though differs from collage in an important respect. Or at least it should. While collage stresses the cuts between displaced objects, relying precisely on their lack of ‘fit’, plastic surgery strives to be seamless and invisible. It’s often said that rather than making people look beautiful, plastic surgery merely makes them look like they’ve had plastic surgery. The truth though is that this is only when the surgery goes wrong, or in Michael Jackson’s case, far too far, and the surgery itself becomes the dominant visual characteristic.

If plastic surgery is collage(n) then, it is more digital Photoshop – striving for seamlessness – than analogue cut and paste. Which makes Jackson’s face, along with all those other celebrities with their grotesquely distorted features – a real life version of the website Photoshop Disasters. One’s first thought on seeing a picture of his face towards the end of his life was: can it really be like that? But if his face became a dreadful mistake, what was he striving for?

Someone once said that Jackson wasn’t using surgery to turn himself white but to turn himself into Elizabeth Taylor. Certainly his shiny black bob, white skin, red lips, pencilled eye brows and heavy make up were undeniably feminine. His tiny triangle of a nose (itself a prosthetic, like a little piece of white chocolate Toblerone* literally stuck onto the void where his old nose used to be) was a caricature of female desirability. His clothes were equally fascinating, mutating from the pantomime military dictator look noted by Owen Hatherley, to the bling and badge encrusted blazers of his later years that made him appear like an ageing millionairess tottering around her Miami Beach condo.

Jackson was grotesque not only because his surgery appeared to have gone so wrong but because he no longer bore any resemblance to who he had been before. With his exorbitant wealth and lack of any kind of reality check he had gone further than anyone else in re-designing himself. There are few precedents for this so perhaps it's not surprising he got it wrong.

Stephen Marquardt - a prominent plastic surgeon in California who specialises in rebuilding the faces of crash victims - has attempted to analyse the proportions of the human face in order to help his patients choose their new features. His analysis concluded (somewhat fortuitously) that beauty in human faces was based on the ratio of proportion developed by Pythagoras, the golden section, which was used as the compositional basis for classical architecture and painting. Marquardt produced overlays of ‘classically’ beautiful faces such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor to illustrate how the proportions of the features related to the golden ratio. The only problem with this is (as Robin Evans has noted in different context in his essay Translations from Drawing to Building), the golden ratio assumes a flat surface - such as a drawing or a façade - to work. Dr Marquardt’s overlays treated his faces as if they were flat screens seen perfectly head on, with no allowance for depth or perspective. Importantly Marquardt’s analysis was based on photographs of movie stars and not real faces.

(Image taken from this article in Discover magazine)

A few years ago I reviewed an exhibition of Playboy magazine covers from the 1950’s to the present. What struck me was not so much the way that the design of the magazine had developed over the years but how the designs of the bodies within it had. As the settings and scenarios of the shoots became less elaborately staged the bodies had become more so, pumped, primed and almost literally pneumatic. Their disparate body parts had been grafted like a pornographic version of a police identikit image**. Here was a reversal of Dr Marquardt’s analysis, faces and bodies designed to be viewed through the flat pages of magazines or television screens.

If plastic surgery has a precedent in design it might lie unexpectedly in the picturesque gardens of the 18th century. These gardens were three-dimensional collages based on flat images; in this case the allegorical 17th century paintings of Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin. Objects and landscape features such as lakes, groves of trees, ruins and follies were lifted from these paintings and grafted into the English landscape by designers such as Humphrey Repton. Although highly artificial these gardens were intended to be seen as seamless extensions of the ‘natural’ landscape. In essence they were surgical enhancements; a nice little ravine here, a charming waterfall there.

Today these experiments in re-designing nature occur even more invisibly, in a seam that runs from the reshaping of the countryside for aesthetic pleasure to the development of genetically modified plants and biological cloning.

Which brings us back to the real horror that Jackson’s face evokes. His features were like some picturesque garden that had gone horribly wrong, one where the artificial lakes had dried up and the land begun to rot and fester. Parts of his face had literally died, cut off from their blood supply they had started to turn black and fall off revealing the crude mechanism that held them together. For Jackson was a cyborg, a result of science as much as nature.

The fear of artificiality that runs through all arguments against humans ‘playing god’ ignores the fact that nature itself is a cultural product, the necessary counterpoint to the artificial. The ‘natural’ is impossible to locate except as the inverse of everything else. As Donna Hathaway has argued in her "Cyborg Manifesto", we are all already cyborgs, attached to machines, networked together. Plastic surgery merely makes evident the degree to which we are products of culture rather than nature.

And with that we are alone.

* And, like a piece of Toblerone, melting in the Californian sun.

** In his notes to The Atrocity Exhibition Ballard describes medical textbooks as a “vast, dormant pornography waiting to be woken by the magic of fame”. He describes the two as being on a “collision course”, a multiple pile-up that has indeed occurred over and over through tabloid descriptions of Jackson as well as a litany of lesser stars such as Jordan, Jodie Marsh etc.

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