I met artist and Master’s candidate Sophie Bandelin for breakfast on a cool autumn morning. I remember the sun and the wind that day. As we sat outside and ate, there was a stiff breeze that blew hair across my eyes, and then the sun drenched them in light. Through the course of breakfast, Sophie told me about her project. It seemed so incredible to me that at first I blamed my poor German for its intrigue: did she really just say she was making moulds of people’s bodies, recreating their skin out of silicon and taking photographs of other people wearing them?
Turns out I can have more faith in my capabilities.
The next time I saw Sophie, my eyes were drenched in a different kind of light. I’d said yes to taking part in her Masterarbeit and found myself staring down studio lights at the Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle. While I was caked in corn starch and tunneling myself through the torso of another person’s body, Sophie painted the pits of its arms and other corporeal crevices with a solution of powdered chocolate and water.
Sophie didn’t explain much in the lead-up to our shoot. She told me that the skins I’d be wearing are those of a fellow male art student, Fabian (not his real name), a man who is “quite present; perhaps outgoing”; and Henriette (also not her real name), a female psychologist – “sensitive and a good listener”.
Sophie said that there was nothing she was looking for in the shots; just to see what happens.
In her exposé, Sophie writes:
“The body is understood more than ever as a variable object of self-presentation. But the world, society, is already under our skins and determines its appearance and structure. I want to bring the world, the outside world, under the skin. A person, a body, is enveloped in the skin of a stranger.”
Fabian has a larger body than mine, with different shapes in different places. As I waited for Sophie to adjust and focus the camera, I felt the weight of the silicon pull at my shoulders. Movement was strained. I breathed heavily and soon became warm within him.
Through Fabian I studied my stance; how I would – or should – carry myself, if I were this man. Does he hunch? Does he stand with his legs apart? Is he the same as other men? How do they stand? What’s a manly stance?
I baulked at my line of questioning and my mind went a bit meta: I am a man. Do I stand like one? How can I not know how to stand like a man? Why would a man even ask how a man stands?
I realised that perhaps I’m not a man-stander; I’ve spent the best part of my physical life with one leg crossed over the other. So why did it take wearing another man’s skin to make me consider my own masculinity?
After some time, Sophie asked if I’d like to switch bodies. As I unskinned, re-starched and prepared to burrow through Henriette, I couldn’t help but think of Virginia Woolf’s dualistic novel Orlando, whose title character’s body traverses sexes and centuries whilst delving into different pockets of her/his constant mind.
“For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have many thousand… and these selves of which we are built up, one on top of another, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own…” (Ch. 6)
Henriette’s body relaxed me. Her movement was more constricted, but less heavy. I had fun exploring her extensions and end points. I felt freer to be myself inside her skin yet at the same time cautious of sensing her too much, of exploring the intricacies of her shape to the touch; I felt, unlike Fabian’s, that this body wasn’t mine to explore.
I left the studio with questions about why I felt more comfortable in Henriette’s body. Do I embrace femininity more? Am I scared of pitching myself against other masculine things? Or, like a tourist, was I more comfortable in Henriette by way of tradition? One rarely acts the tourist in one’s own town.
Since the shoot, I’ve given the experience, and Sophie’s exposé, more consideration. Sophie was looking for the moment in which there was only one body present, when the wearer becomes the worn, leaving only one single connection between the non-physical and the physical.
Perhaps the art of the project I’m only coming to terms with now.
The goal wasn’t for me to, in my own skin, experience that of another through shape, touch and movement, but to, like a snake, fully shed my own skin before experiencing the space.
Through studying senses of masculinity while wearing Fabian, and my awareness of intrusion into Henriette, I projected my physicality into them.
Considering my current (non silicon) skin a similar suit, I have worn me for nearly 32 years and up until now I haven’t questioned what a ‘man’ is because the fact is, within my skin, I’m not a man; spirits are sex-less things.
Like Woolf suggests in Orlando, perhaps our skins merely hold and protect the working organs inside of us, while our spirit does the rest.
And when we perceive something that is not within us, we layer it with gendered attributes; we know others not like ourselves.
I’m not sure if Sophie was able to capture a moment of symbiosis between the inner me and the outer other. Perhaps it happened for a split second in between the shutters, or perhaps it won’t happen until I, like Orlando, learn to shed my own skin and embrace something new as readily as I embrace the function my current cover delivers.
Sophie Bandelin’s work features in the exhibition unMENSCHLICH at Künstlerhaus 188, Halle, from 4 – 16 July. More info on the venue’s website.
Cover shot: Public domain art.