By Seth Greenwald
All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable
beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature,
to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
In Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, an emotionally disturbed Catherine Deneuve carries, in her handbag, a decaying rabbit-carcass, her symbolic child (the product of a rape, itself seemingly imagined). This rotting corpse is disarming, precisely because there is something human about it, because it could be her aborted, or stillborn infant. Like Frederick Sommer’s 1930s photographic compositions using chicken entrails, Polanski’s putrefying rabbit, through a process of psychic transposition, comes to represent that bizarre region, in which our bodies are defamiliarized, where death and life appear blurred. Have you never awoken to discover an arm danglingly numb, and felt sheer panic at seeing what appeared to be a part of you become apart from you?
Asger Carlsen’s curious photographs also exist in this shadowland, where the banal and the horrifying merge to describe what Freud termed the unheimlich, or uncanny: “That class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” His bodies seem entirely real, yet utterly unbelievable; they suggest the contours, folds and dimensions, of human physique, while remaining vexingly beyond classification. As though playing with the tropes of innumerable horror movies, Carlsen’s ungodly beings seem the result of some biological experiment gone terribly wrong and reflect those sublimated aspects of our bodily condition that we normally turn away from: the scatalogical, the genital, the tumorous. We regard them the way we might thalidomide babies, the hydroencephalitic, and the severely obese -- with both fear and fascination.
Of course, in this enlightened century, we are not so easily fooled, and quickly deduce that these images are the product of digital manipulations. Yet, part of Carlsen’s visual sleight-of-hand, is his inclusion of those imperfect details that another might eradicate -- dirt on the wall and floor, household objects strewn about. In addition, his models are engaged in actions stultifyingly common, rendered in monochrome. We suspend disbelief precisely because there appears to be something so ordinary about the pictures, as though they were the Hallmark cards of some parallel, if deformed, universe. Still, Carlsen’s grotesques can be seen as referencing earlier photography: the Coney Island pictures of Lisette Model and Leon Levinstein, in which corpulent bodies line the beach like so much shoreline flotsam, Bill Brandt’s exaggerated nudes, or Hans Bellmer’s misshapen dolls, which, also eroticize the dysmorphic.
In a culture that extols the desirability of those taut bodies most often found amongst the young, Carlsen’s characters lie outside the symbolic order and, thus, short-circuit the tedium of rote bourgeois fantasy: an otherwise nondescript man embraces and gropes a biomorphic sack of flesh, in what appears to be an innocuous, suburban parking-lot; a seemingly average couple pose for a studio portrait, their normalcy only ruptured by the addition of a second head atop the man, perched there like some fiendish doppelgänger; a woman, (photographer Alex Prager), seems attractive enough until we notice her second pair of legs and, (not unlike Man Ray’s fortuitous darkroom mishap, Marquise Casati, 1922), second pair of eyes. In each unlikely depiction, capitalism’s standard reliance on a homogenized, scrubbed-clean image, of the body, is subverted.
We are trained, from birth, to deny and avoid those trappings of our physicality: commonplace odors, sagging flesh, bodily fluids, epidermal defects. Indeed, natural childbirth, itself, is rejected as increasing numbers of women opt to undergo Cesarean sections simply for reasons of personal convenience. In viewing Carlsen’s photographs, we are forced to confront these inadequacies and, by extension, our own mortality. Consequently, his body of work can be seen as transgressive and antithetical to the dominating language of our times, advertising. In essence, by presenting such freakishness as viable, Carlsen’s invented menagerie decolonizes the body and allows it to function outside the commodity fetish. It is social radicalism masquerading as pictorial novelty. Julia Kristeva suggests, “It is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order.” Like Elena Bobbit tossing her husband’s amputated genitalia, from her car window, Carlsen explodes the body, emancipating its constituent parts to function outside the constraints of Darwinian evolution (a mutant limb morphs into a phallus, women’s breasts relocate to their buttocks). These jettisoned objects, (Kristeva), become magical talismans, of a sort, consistent with the reversal and substitution of body parts that is frequently seen in Surrealist imagery. Consider the displacements of mouth, eye, armpit, breast and derrière interspersed throughout Buńuel and Dalí’s, Un Chien Andalou, 1929; the body is atomized, as in a dream, with each part functioning disconnectedly.
It is important to remember that this work is manufactured using one of the very instruments that serves to promulgate our social order; photography is a significant part of that prevailing system and it is through acknowledging (and subverting) its dominant codes that the pictures acquire meaning. In an era where practically all commercial imagery receives some degree of digital postproduction, Carlsen weaponizes his computer, turning the technology on itself, democratizing its capabilities. Indeed, if metol and hydroquinone were the amniotic fluid of silver photography, surely Photoshop is the erectile tissue of the new. Like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect (designed to awaken his audience from a state of intellectual passivity), Carlsen’s optical shock therapy rewrites that old aphorism, “Pretty as a picture,” making it a form of protest.
Ultimately, Asger Carlsen’s work might stand as a cautionary tale, a missive from a world gone mad. God, it has been suggested, forged man from clay and woman from an extracted rib. Today, through embryonic stem-cell research, genetic modification, and organ regeneration, we are reverse-engineering the very foundations of human existence. The dystopian side of such an emerging transhumanism brings fears of biotechnology run amok, of paying the price for tinkering with natural selection. Carlsen populates his images with just such errors and domesticates their mutations. Like Eisenhower-era science fiction that brought unease over atomic mishaps into American living rooms, his pictures make accessible the unthinkable. Yet, at a time when nuclear disaster in Japan causes elevated levels of radiation on America’s west coast, and online retailer Amazon hawks portable Geiger-counters, the nightmare might not be so far-fetched.
Despite all of this, Carlsen’s pictures can be oddly tender, and downright comical. They are slapstick for the post-apocalypse. A young man holds his friend aloft in a show of strength, despite his legs having been replaced by some crude, wooden prostheses; a besuited gentleman seems surprised and humbled to receive a bouquet of flowers, his double set of eyes making his expression that much more endearing...all, the simple stuff of life. These characters exist in a perpetual state of vulnerability and, as such, are not so different from us. We cheer them on, like athletes in the Special Olympics, who, transcending their limitations, remind us of our own. Perhaps, Carlsen’s greatest strength is not his vision, but his humanity: these are the family snapshots of a fragile people, unsurely marching into a new century.