Our skin tells us stories about ourselves through each freckle, bruise and blush, which temporarily punctuates our flesh with evidence. Ariana Page Russell tries to discover more such narratives which speak louder than others of what we do and where we’ve been. Her skin condition dermatographia makes her skin so hypersensitive that on being slightly scratched hives are raised within minutes because of the amount of histamine her system releases. She talks to Emaho about how the artist within her took this condition in her stride to make some unique art with her skin itself as the canvas.
You use the tenderness of your skin to transcend the usual limits of flesh to create art on your skin. What do you aim at, with your art?
I like to think of it as giving a voice to skin and body, making it heard, increasing its visibility. And with that, helping others with the same condition feel more comfortable in their own skin as I explore mine.
The designs you make on your skin via use of stencils, knitting needles are distinct images. What inspires the type of art you choose to make on your skin?
If skin could speak I think it’d make sounds like “ohhh”, “ahhh”, “mmmm”. Skin does have a language, it’s just not one we’re used to understanding. Freckles, wrinkles, redness, even its translucency reveal something. I’ve thought of other ways skin could form language, like in Index where I’ve written some free association text on my legs, thinking of a book with abstract poetry. In some of the works I’ve also traced patterns from clothing, letting the clothes I wear leave a mark. Or I’ve appropriated other decorative elements like wallpaper designs.
Corsage © Ariana Page Russell
Your series ‘Dressing’ is a collage made from photographs of your skin showing shades of sensitivity in reds and pinks made into patterns. What was the process of executing this on your skin and what was the thought behind making clothing- like patterns all over the body?
The collages start with photographs of skin in different tones of pink and red to mimic a blush. Then I cut the photographs into shapes that form the collage. After scanning them in the computer, I make them into temporary tattoos. Everything is done by hand, so I can control how large and bright each tattoo is. I think of skin having its own fashion in the form of freckles, wrinkles, a blush, so I decided to give an extra layer to that with the tattoos. They become an outfit, makeup, or bathing suit.
‘Save Face’ is a very fascinating name for your series where you have self-portraits in shades of red. What was the creative direction you intended to take with this series?
It all started with portraying a blush as a sign of strength instead of a sign of vulnerability, so I thought of the blush as war paint. Using photographs of flushing skin, I made temporary tattoos into shapes resembling war paint and masks—playing with the idea of persona and what the face can reveal or conceal.
Pharaoh © Ariana Page Russell
The ‘Gather Wall’ and ‘Purse’ installations are very striking projects in your ‘Blouse’ series. Please throw somelighton their conception and executio
Temporary tattoos of nipples cover the wall in Gather Wall. They start on my torso in the photograph then spread out over the gallery.Nipples are sexually charged, but also intimate body parts. I’m taking nipples off the chest and making a pattern with them, making them viral. Similarly, with Purse, I use temporary tattoos of pursed lips, which end up looking abstract when removed from the face.
You were quoted as saying, “I am investigating where one surface ends and another begins, the bloom of adornment, and how shifting exteriors reveal as they conceal,” how far have you come with that approach?
I think I’ve come pretty far in this investigation, but it’s something I’ll be doing for a long time. There’s not really an end point, and the details of my exploration shift just as skin does.
Flora © Ariana Page Russell
You’ve done quite bold things on your skin like joining freckles on your skin to form constellation-like patterns, writing love notes on your legs using blunt knitting needles, making floral prints, temporary tattoos as in ‘Leather & Lace’ and much more. What can we expect next?
The piece you’re talking about with the legs – Index, is free association text, not a love note. But that’d be cool! I’m working on more text on skin photographs, temporary tattoos, and even sculptural work. In May 2014 I have a show of new work here in New York at Magnan Metz Gallery, so keep your eyes peeled! I’ve also started a blog called ‘Skin Tome’ that will be an extension of my work, it’s still in the early stages, so check that out to learn more about my process.
Your blog, ‘Dermatographic’ which describes itself as a forum for sharing about dermatographia, seems to be forming a community of dermatographics from across the world where you have become an inspirational figure for them. You’re changing perspectives. How do you feel about your self-portraits which you say reflect your “vulnerability”?
Thanks for mentioning the blog! It’s my favourite thing I’m working on right now. I love bringing people together with the same skin condition. There’s so many of us out there, and we’re choosing to reveal this intimate condition. It’s vulnerable, but also empowering to celebrate our uniqueness. Everyone has something they’re ashamed of, and that’s okay. Sometimes what we consider a weakness is actually a great strength.
Art & Culture Interviewed by Raksha Bihani
Seethe © Ariana Page Russell