“We Were Amazed”: Anatomy Comes to Japan

Imagine living in a country whose government decided to block any scientific discovery coming from abroad.
Even worse: imagine living in this hypothetical country, at the exact time when the most radical revolution of human knowledge in history is taking place in the world, a major transformation bound to change the way Man looks at the Universe — of which you ignore every detail, since they are prohibited by law.

This was probably a scientist’s nightmare in Japan during sakoku, the protectionist policy adopted by the Tokugawa shogunate. Enacted around 1640, officially to stop the advance of Christianity after the Shimabara rebellion, this line of severe restrictions was actually devised to control commerce: in particular, what the Shogun did was to deny access and trade above all to the Portuguese and the Spanish, who were considered dangerous because of their colonial and missionary ambitions in the New World.
China, Korea and the Netherlands were granted the opportunity of buying and selling. Being the only Europeans who could carry on trading, in the enclave of Dejima, the Dutch established with the Land of the Rising Sun an important economic and cultural relationship which lasted for more than two centuries, until the sakoku policy was terminated officially in 1866.

As we were saying, Japan ran the risk of being cut off from scientific progress, which had begun just a century before, in that fateful year of our Lord 1543 when Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and Vesalius his Fabrica — two books which in one fell swoop dismantled everything that was believed was above and inside Man.
If the nightmare we previously mentioned never became true, it was because of the Rangaku movement, a group of researchers who set out to carefully study everything the Dutch brought to Japan.
Although for the first eighty years of “isolation” the majority of Western books were banned, ideas kept on circulating and little by little this quarantine of culture loosened up: the Japanese were allowed to translate some fundamental works on optics, chemistry, geography, mechanical and medical sciences.
In the first half of the XIX Century there were several Rangaku schools, translations of Western books were quite widespread and the interaction between japanese and foreign scientists was much more common.

Medical studies were recognized since the beginning as a field in which cultural exchange was essential.
In Japan at that time, physicians followed the Chinese tradition, based on religious/spiritual views of the body, where precise anatomical knowledge was not seen as necessary. Human dissections were prohibited, according to the principles of Confucianism, and those doctors who really wanted to know the inside of the human body had to infer any information by dissecting otters, dogs and monkeys.

The very first autopsy, on an executed criminal, took place in 1754 and was conducted by Yamawaki Tōyō. The dissection itself was carried out by an assistant, because it was still a taboo for higher classes to touch human remains.
All of a sudden, it appeared that the inside of a human body was much more similar to the Dutch illustrations than to those of traditional Chinese medicine books. The account of the autopsy signed by Yamawaki caused the uproar of the scientific community; in it, he strongly supported an empyrical approach, an unconceivable position at the time:

Theories may be overturned, but how can real material things deceive? When theories are esteemed over reality, even a man of great widsom cannot fail to err. When material things are investigated and theories are based on that, even a man of common intelligence can perform well.

(cit. in Bob T. Wakabayashi, Modern Japanese Thought)

In 1758, one of Yamawaki’s students, Kōan Kuriyama, conducted the second dissection in Japanese history, and was also the first physician to cut up a human body with his own hands, without resorting to an assistant.

Sugita Genpaku was another doctor who was shocked to find out that the illustrations of Western “barbarians” were more accurate than the usual Chinese diagrams. In his memoir Rangaku Koto Hajime (“Beginning of Dutch Studies”, 1869), he recounts the time when, together with other physicians, he dissected the body of a woman called Aochababa, hanged in Kyoto in the Kozukappara district (now Aeakawa) in 1771. Before starting the autopsy, they examined a Western anatomy book, the Ontleedkundige Tafelen by Johann Adam Kulmus:

Ryotaku opened the book and explained according to what he had learned in Nagasaki the various organs such as the lung called “long” in Dutch, the heart called “hart,” the stomach called “maag” and the spleen called “milt.” They looked so different from the pictures in the Chinese anatomical books that many of us felt rather dubious of their truths before we should actually observe the real organs. […] Comparing the things we saw with the pictures in the Dutch book Ryotaku and I had with us, we were amazed at their perfect agreement. There was no such divisions either as the six lobes and two auricles of the lungs or the three left lobes and two right lobes of the liver mentioned in old medical books. Also, the positions and the forms of the intestines and the stomach were very different from the traditional descriptions. [Even the bones] were nothing like those described in the old books, but were exactly as represented in the Dutch book. We were completely amazed.

(1771: Green Tea Hag, the beginning of Dutch Learning)

Genpaku spent the following three years translating the Dutch textbook. The task had to be carried out without any knowledge of the language, nor dictionaries available for consultation, by means of constant interpretations, deductions, and discussions with other doctors who had been in contact with the Europeans in Nagasaki. Genpaku’s colossal effort, similar to an actual decryption, was eventually published in 1774.
The Kaitai Shinsho was the first Japanese illustrated book of modern anatomy.

As Chinese traditional medicine gradually began to pale in comparison to the effectiveness and precision of knowledge coming from Europe, in Japan the practice of dissection became widespread.

This was the context for the real masterpiece of the time, the Kaibo Zonshishu (1819), a scroll containing 83 anatomical illustrations created by Doctor Yasukazu Minagaki.
Minagaki, born in Kyoto in 1785, attended public school and became a physician at a clinic in his hometown; but he also was a better and more gifted artist than his predecessors, so he decided to paint in a meticulous way the results of some forty autopsies he had witnessed. The scroll was part of a correspondence between Minagaki and the Dutch physician Philipp Franz von Siebold, who praised the admirable drawings of his Japanese collegue.

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There are  several online articles on the Kaibo Zonshishu, and almost all of them claim Minagaki was obviously distant from the classicist European iconography of the écorchés — those flayed models showing their guts while standing  in plastic, Greek poses. The cadavers dissected here, on the other hand, are depicted with stark realism, blood trickling down their mouth, their faces distorted in a grimace of agony.

But this idea is not entirely correct.
Already since the XVI Century, in Europe, the écorchés paired with illustrations of an often troubling realism: one just needs to look at the dissection of the head by Johann Dryander, pre-Vesalian even, but very similar to the one by Minagaki, or at the cruel anatomical plates by Dutch artist Bidloo in his Anatomia Hvmani Corporis (1685), or again at the corpses of pregnant women by William Hunter, which caused some controversy in 1774.
These Western predecessors inspired Minagaki, like they had already influenced the Kaitai Shinsho. One clear example:

The representation of tendons in the Kaibo Zonshishu

…was inspired by this plate from the Kaitai Shinsho, which in turn…

…was taken from this illustration by Govand Bidloo (Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams, Amsterdam, 1690).

Anyway, aside from aesthethic considerations, the Kaibo Zonshishu was probably the most accurate and vividly realistic autoptic compendium ever painted in the Edo period (so much so that it was declared a national treasure in 2003).

When finally the borders were open, thanks to the translation work and cultural diffusion operated by the Rangaku community, Japan was able to quickly keep pace with the rest of the world.
And to become, in less than a hundred years, one of the leading countries in cutting-edge technology.

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You can take a look at the Kaitai Shinsho here, and read the incredible story of its translation here. On this page you can find several other beautiful pics on the evolution of anatomical illustration in Japan.
(Thanks, Marco!)

Death and Broken Cups

This article originally appeared on The Order of the Good Death. I have already written, here and here, about the death positive movement, to which this post is meant as a small contribution.

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As soon as the grave is filled in, acorns should be planted over it, so that new trees will grow out of it later, and the wood will be as thick as it was before. All traces of my grave shall vanish from the face of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will vanish from the minds of men”.

This passage from the will of the Marquis de Sade has always struck a chord with me. Of course, he penned it as his last raging, disdainful grimace at mankind, but the very same thought can also be peaceful.
I have always been sensitive to the poetic, somewhat romantic fantasy of the taoist or buddhist monk retiring on his pretty little mountain, alone, to get ready for death. In my younger days, I thought dying meant leaving the world behind, and that it carried no responsibility. In fact, it was supposed to finally free me of all responsibility. My death belonged only to me.
An intimate, sacred, wondrous experience I would try my best to face with curiosity.
Impermanence? Vanishing “from the minds of men”? Who cares. If my ego is transient like everything else, that’s actually no big deal. Let me go, people, once and for all.
In my mind, the important thing was focusing on my own death. To train. To prepare.

I want my death to be delicate, quiet, discreet”, I would write in my diary.
I’d prefer to walk away tiptoe, as not to disturb anyone. Without leaving any trace of my passage”.

Unfortunately, I am now well aware it won’t happen this way, and I shall be denied the sweet comfort of being swiftly forgotten.
I have spent most of my time domesticating death – inviting it into my home, making friends with it, understanding it – and now I find the only thing I truly fear about my own demise is the heartbreak it will inevitably cause. It’s the other side of loving and being loved: death will hurt, it will come at the cost of wounding and scarring the people I cherish the most.

Dying is never just a private thing, it’s about others.
And you can feel comfortable, ready, at peace, but to look for a “good” death means to help your loved ones prepare too. If only there was a simple way.

The thing is, we all endure many little deaths.
Places can die: we come back to the playground we used to run around as kids, and now it’s gone, swallowed up by a hideous gas station.
The melancholy of not being allowed to kiss for the first time once again.
We’ve ached for the death of our dreams, of our relationships, of our own youth, of the exciting time when every evening out with our best friends felt like a new adventure. All these things are gone forever.
And we have experienced even smaller deaths, like our favorite mug tumbling to the floor one day, and breaking into pieces.

It’s the same feeling every time, as if something was irremediably lost. We look at the fragments of the broken mug, and we know that even if we tried to glue them together, it wouldn’t be the same cup anymore. We can still see its image in our mind, remember what it was like, but know it will never be whole again.

I have sometimes come across the idea that when you lose someone, the pain can never go away; but if you learn to accept it you can still go on living. That’s not enough, though.
I think we need to embrace grief, rather than just accepting it, we need to make it valuable. It sounds weird, because pain is a new taboo, and we live in a world that keeps on telling us that suffering has no value. We’re always devising painkillers for any kind of aching. But sorrow is the other side of love, and it shapes us, defines us and makes us unique.

For centuries in Japan potters have been taking broken bowls and cups, just like our fallen mug, and mending them with lacquer and powdered gold, a technique called kintsugi. When the object is reassembled, the golden cracks – forming such a singular decoration, impossible to duplicate – become its real quality. Scars transform a common bowl into a treasure.

I would like my death to be delicate, quiet, discreet.
I would prefer to walk away tiptoe, as not to disturb anyone, and tell my dear ones: don’t be afraid.

You think the cup is broken, but sorrow is the other side of love, it proves that you have loved. And it is a golden lacquer which can be used to put the pieces together.
Here, look at this splinter: this is that winter night we spent playing the blues before the fireplace, snow outside the window and mulled wine in our glasses.
Take this other one: this is when I told you I’d decided to quit my job, and you said go ahead, I’m on your side.
This piece is when you were depressed, and I dragged you out and took you down to the beach to see the eclipse.
This piece is when I told you I was in love with you.

We all have a kintsugi heart.
Grief is affection, we can use it to keep the splinters together, and turn them into a jewel. Even more beautiful than before.
As Tom Waits put it, “all that you’ve loved, is all you own“.

Painting on water

If you have some old books at home, you might be acquainted with those decorated covers and flaps showing colorful designs that resemble marble patterns.
Paper marbling has very ancient origins, probably dating back to 2.000 years ago in China, even though the technique ultimately took hold in Japan during the Heian period (VIII-XII Century), under the name of suminagashi. The secret of suminagashi was jealously kept and passed on from father to son, among families of artists; the most beautiful and pleasant examples were used to adorn poems or sutras.

From Japan through the Indies, this method came to Persia and Turkey, where it became a refined art called ebru. Western travellers brought it back to Europe where marbled paper was eventually produced on a large scale to cover books and boxes.

Today in Turkey ebru is still considered a traditional art. Garip Ay (born 1984), who graduated from Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul, has become one of the best-known ebru artists in the world, holding workshops and seminars from Scandinavia to the United States. Thanks to his extraordinary talents in painting on water, he appeared in documentaries and music videos.

His latest work recently went viral: painting on black water, and using a thickening agent so that the insoluble colors could better float on the surface, Garip Ay recreated two famous Van Gogh paintings, the 1889 Starry night and the iconic Self-portrait. All in just 20 minutes (condensed in a 4-minute video).

The magic and wonder of this suprising exploit reside of course in Ay’s precise artistic execution, but what is most striking is the fluidity, unpredictability, precariousness of the aqueous support: in this regard, ebru really shows to be a product of the East.
There is no need to stress the major symbolic role played by water, and by harmonizing with its movements, in Eastern philosophical disciplines: painting on water becomes a pure exercise in wu wei, an “effortless action” which allows the color to organize following its own nature, while the artist gently puts its qualities to good use in order to obtain the desired effect. Thus, the very obstacle which appeared to make the endeavour difficult (the unsteady water, disturbed by even the smallest breath) turns into an advantage — as long as the artist doesn’t oppose it, but rather uses its natural movement.
At its heart, this technique teaches us a sublime lightness in dealing with reality, seen as a tremulous surface on which we can learn to delicately spread our own colors.

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Here is Garip Ay’s official website, and his YouTube channel where you can witness the fascinating creation of several other works.
On Amazon: Suminagashi: The Japanese Art of Marbling by Anne Chambers. And if you want to try marbling yourself, there is nothing better than a starter kit.

Collectible tattoos

For some days now I have been receiving suggestions about Dr. Masaichi Fukushi‘s tattoo collection, belonging to Tokyo University Pathology Department. I am willing to write about it, because the topic is more multifaceted than it looks.

Said collection is both well-known and somewhat obscure.
Born in 1878, Dr. Fukushi was studying the formation of nevi on the skin around 1907, when his research led him to examine the correlation between the movement of melanine through vascularized epidermis and the injection of pigments under the skin in tattoos. His interest was further fueled by a peculiar discovery: the presence of a tattoo seemed to prevent the signs of syphilis from appearing in that area of the body.

In 1920 Dr. Fukushi entered the Mitsui Memorial Hospital, a charity structure where treatment was offered to the most disadvantaged social classes. In this environment, he came in contact with many tattooed persons and, after a short period in Germany, he continued his research on the formation of congenital moles at Nippon Medical University. Here, often carrying out autopsies, he developed an original method of preserving tattooed epidermis he took from corpses; he therefore began collecting various samples, managing to stretch the skin so that it could be exhibited inside a glass frame.

It seems Dr. Fukushi did not have an exclusively scientific interest in tattoos, but was also quite compassionate. Tattooed people, in fact, often came from the poorest and most problematic bracket of japanese society, and Fukushi’s sympathy for the less fortunate even pushed him, in some instances, to take over the expenses for those who could not afford to complete an unfinished tattoo. In return, the doctor asked for permission to remove their skin post mortem. But his passion for tattoos also took the form of photographic records: he collected more than 3.000 pictures, which were destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII.
This was not the only loss, for a good number of tattooed skins were stolen in Chicago as the doctor was touring the States giving a series of academic lectures between 1927 and 1928.
Fukushi’s work gained international attention in the 40s and the 50s, when several articles appeared on the newspapers, such as the one above published on Life magazine.

Life

As we said earlier, the collection endured heavy losses during the 1945 bombings. However some skin samples, which had been secured elsewhere, were saved and — after being handed down to Fukushi’s son, Kalsunari — they could be today inside the Pathology Department, even if not available to the public. It is said that among the specimens there are some nearly complete skin suits, showing tattoos over the whole body surface. All this is hard to verify, as the Department is not open to the public and no official information seems to be found online.

Then again, if in the Western world tattoo is by now such a widespread trend that it hardly sparks any controversy, it still remains quite taboo in Japan.
Some time ago, the great Italian tattoo artist Pietro Sedda (author of the marvelous Black Novel For Lovers) told me about his last trip to Japan, and how in that country tattooers still operate almost in secret, in small, anonymous parlors with no store signs, often hidden inside common apartment buildings. The fact that tattoos are normally seen in a negative way could be related to the traditional association of this art form with yakuza members, even though in some juvenile contexts fashion tattoos are quite common nowadays.

A tattoo stygma existed in Western countries up to half a century ago, ratified by explicit prohibitions in papal bulls. One famous exception were the tattoos made by “marker friars” of the Loreto Sanctuary, who painted christian, propitiatory or widowhood symbols on the hands of the faithful. But in general the only ones who decorated their bodies were traditionally the outcast, marginalized members of the community: pirates, mercenaries, deserters, outlaws. In his most famous essay, Criminal Man (1876), Cesare Lombroso classified every tattoo variation he had encountered in prisoners, interpreting them through his (now outdated) theory of atavism: criminals were, in his view, Darwinianly unevolved individuals who tattooed themselves as if responding to an innate primitiveness, typical of savage peoples — who not surprisingly practiced tribal tattooing.

Coming back to the human hides preserved by Dr. Fukushi, this is not the only, nor the largest, collection of its kind. The record goes to London’s Wellcome Collection, which houses around 300 individual pieces of tattoed skin (as opposed to the 105 specimens allegedly stored in Tokyo), dating back to the end of XIX Century.

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The edges of these specimens show a typical arched pattern due to being pinned while drying. And the world opened up by these traces from the past is quite touching, as are the motivations that can be guessed behind an indelible inscription on the skin. Today a tattoo is often little more than a basic decoration, a tribal motif (the meaning of which is often ignored) around an ankle, an embellishment that turns the body into a sort of narcissistic canvas; in a time when a tattoo was instead a symbol of rebellion against the establishment, and in itself could cause many troubles, the choice of the subject was of paramount relevance. Every love tattoo likely implied a dangerous or “forbidden” relationship; every sentence injected under the skin by the needle became the ultimate statement, a philosophy of life.

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These collections, however macabre they may seem, open a window on a non-aligned sensibility. They are, so to speak, an illustrated atlas of that part of society which is normally not contemplated nor sung by official history: rejects, losers, outsiders.
Collected in a time when they were meant as a taxonomy of symbols allowing identification and prevention of specific “perverse” psychologies, they now speak of a humanity who let their freak flag fly.

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(Thanks to all those who submitted the Fukushi collection.)

Daikichi Amano

Daikichi Amano è un fotografo nato in Giappone nel 1973; dopo gli studi in America, torna in patria e si dedica inizialmente alla moda. Stancatosi delle foto patinate commissionategli dalle riviste, decide di concentrarsi su progetti propri e comincia fin da subito a scandagliare il lato meno solare della cultura nipponica: il sesso e il feticismo.

I primi scatti di questa nuova piega nel suo lavoro sono dedicati al cosiddetto octopus fetish (di cui avevamo già parlato brevemente in questo post): belle modelle nude vengono ricoperte di piovre e polpi, che talvolta sottolineano con i tentacoli le loro forme, ma più spesso creano una sorta di grottesco e mostruoso ibrido. Le immagini sono al tempo stesso repellenti e sensuali, quasi archetipiche, e il raffinato uso della luce e della composizione fa risaltare questa strana commistione di umano e di animale, sottolineando la sessualità allusa dalla scivolosa e umida pelle dei cefalopodi.

Poi gli animali cambiano, si moltiplicano, proliferano sui corpi delle modelle che sembrano sempre più offerte in sacrificio alla natura: anguille, rospi, rane, insetti, vermi ricoprono le donne di Amano, in composizioni sempre più astratte e surreali, ne violano gli orifizi, prendono possesso della loro fisicità.


Con il passare del tempo, la fotografia di Daikichi Amano rivela sempre di più il valore mitologico che la sottende. Le donne-uccello ricoperte di piume ricordano esplicitamente l’immaginario fantastico nipponico, ricco di demoni e fantasmi dalle forme terribili e inusitate, e la fusione fra uomo e natura (tanto vagheggiata nella filosofia e nella tradizione giapponese) assume i contorni dell’incubo e del surreale.

Mai volgare, anche quando si spinge fino nei territori tabù della rappresentazione esplicita dei genitali femminili, Amano è un autore sensibile alle atmosfere e fedele alla sua visione: non è un caso che, così pare, alla fine di ogni sessione fotografica egli decida di mangiare – assieme alle modelle e alla troupe – tutti gli animali già morti utilizzati per lo scatto, siano essi polpi o insetti o lucertole, secondo una sorta di rituale di ringraziamento per aver prestato la loro “anima” alla creazione della fotografia. Il mito è il vero fulcro dell’arte di Amano.


Le sue fotografie sono indubbiamente estreme, e hanno creato fin da subito scalpore (soprattutto in Occidente), riesumando l’ormai trito dibattito sui confini fra arte e pornografia: qual è la linea di separazione fra i due ambiti? È ovviamente impossibile definire oggettivamente il concetto di arte, ma di sicuro la pornografia non contempla affatto il simbolico e la stratificazione mitologica (quando si apre a questi aspetti, diviene erotismo), e quindi ci sentiremmo di escludere le fotografie di Amano dall’ambito della pura sexploitation. Andrebbe considerata anche la barriera culturale fra Occidente e Giappone, che pare insuperabile per molti critici,  soprattutto nei riguardi di determinati risvolti della sessualità. Ma nelle fotografie di Amano è contenuta tutta l’epica del Sol Levante, l’ideale della compenetrazione con la natura, il concetto di identità in mutamento, l’amore per il grottesco e per il perturbante, la continua seduzione che la morte esercita sulla vita e viceversa.


Le sue immagini possono sicuramente turbare e perfino disgustarci, ma di certo è difficile licenziarle come semplice, squallida pornografia.

Ecco il sito ufficiale di Daikichi Amano.

Pubblicità giapponese

Sono aperte le scommesse per capire quale sia il prodotto sponsorizzato da questa splendida pubblicità televisiva, assolutamente weird.

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Trevor Brown

L’artista inglese Trevor Brown è celebre per le sue opere estreme e macabre, che spesso affrontano temi difficili e spinosi. Trasferitosi in Giappone all’inizio degli anni ’90, ha goduto di una fama sempre maggiore mano a mano che le sue pubblicazioni raggiungevano un’ampia diffusione, e che le sue immagini venivano utilizzate per adornare copertine di album di vario genere, e pubblicate sulle prime pagine di diverse riviste famose.

I dipinti di Brown sono ispirati dagli scritti di Sade e di Georges Bataille sull’erotismo, ma ciò che li rende davvero unici è la commistione di innocenza e violenza con la cultura pop giapponese. Trevor Brown esplora diversi territori ritenuti tabù: la pedofilia, la tortura, il medical fetish (di cui è pioniere riconosciuto), il BDSM e altre parafilie.

Protagoniste dei suoi disegni sono quasi esclusivamente bambine sottoposte a vari generi di stress, torture o costrizioni. Eppure, grazie appunto alla forza con la quale l’artista riesce a fondere la sua sensibilità con la cultura giapponese, queste immagini crude e forti emanano un’aria di innocenza e di infantilismo che contrasta con gli aspetti più macabri. I colori pop estremamente accesi, i grandi occhi in puro stile manga, la limpida pulizia dell’immagine rendono i suoi dipinti delle specie di teatrini astratti, pure icone di repulsione e desiderio.

Alcune delle sue immagini più celebri esplorano il cosiddetto medical fetish, vale a dire il feticismo ospedaliero per le bende, le siringhe, gli strumenti chirurgici e ginecologici. L’ispirazione principale (dichiarata) per questo tipo di feticismo restano i romanzi di uno dei maggiori scrittori inglesi del dopoguerra, James G. Ballard (Crash e La mostra delle atrocità sopra a tutti).


Trevor Brown è anche affascinato dalle bambole create da sua moglie: da un certo momento in poi comincia quindi a inserirle anche all’interno dei suoi lavori. La bambola è un altro stratagemma efficace per creare quel senso di disagio e spaesamento che l’artista ricerca: simbolo ludico e infantile per eccellenza, viene qui posto in situazioni invariabilmente adulte, crudeli o morbose.

Eppure, per quanto macabri ed estremi, i suoi dipinti hanno sempre qualcosa di indefinitamente positivo. Le ferite, gli ematomi, le garze oftalmiche divengono quasi un gioco sensuale, perdono il loro alone di semplice sofferenza: rappresentati come oggetto feticistico, sembrano divenire orpelli quasi desiderabili. Sembra cioè che le stesse bambole se ne rendano conto, e si compiacciano ingenuamente che la loro bellezza venga esaltata da questi strani ornamenti.

L’apparente semplicità dei disegni di Trevor Brown nasconde una cura maniacale per il dettaglio, e un senso della composizione non comune. Grazie all’ibridazione fra l’immaginario infantile e quello feticistico, Brown riesce a interrogarci sulla natura sadica del desiderio, mettendoci a disagio con pochi, precisi elementi.

Il sito ufficiale di Trevor Brown.