Translated by Arlyne Moi
When we began wearing clothes, we became something more and something different than the other animals. Our biological body and the skin surrounding it did not change. The skin was the same as before, but on top of this layer we began adding new layers, artificial layers. We also began wearing jewellery, shaving body hair, cutting the hair on our head, tattooing our skin and applying make-up to it. Since that time, we have distinguished ourselves from the other animals who of course always move around only in the same skin, the same fur. They themselves do not decide on their appearance. The first clothing was probably made of animal skins. Later, we learned to make textiles with plant fibre and animal hair and to make clothing from that. Only in modern times have we developed artificial fibres.
We can think of clothing as a cultural skin that changes our appearance by covering us and adding something new that, through its qualities, can provide better protection from weather and wind. It has a different tactility and appearance than our biological skin. Clothing can also give us a different form by exaggerating and reshaping our proportions, drawing attention to some parts of us while hiding others. Clothing covers us but it also reveals something new and makes us new.
Like all other animals, we are separated from our surroundings by skin. Through our skin we encounter the world around us. The skin’s surface holds us together as a single entity, and it is also what others see and physically encounter. Skin contains the sense of touch and receptors for temperature and pain. Sebum in the skin makes an almost waterproof barrier that hinders fluids from seeping in and out. As a sense organ and mediator of aesthetic stimuli, skin is one of our most important bodily organs.
The concept of aesthetics can be traced back to the Greek term aesthesis – sensation. Aesthetics as a field of study focuses on what we are in contact with via our senses, that is, the things that influence our senses in one way or another and which we respond to not only intellectually but also bodily. The field of aesthetics also concerns how this is possible, given the bodies that we have. I would claim, however, that the aesthetic project is as old as we humans ourselves. From the beginning, as human beings – clothed animals – we have been concerned with what we can see, hear, smell, taste and feel and what we can react to emotionally; these are things to which we cannot be indifferent. Even though the first humans of course did not develop aesthetic theories and had not yet developed written languages to express such theories, we can nevertheless trace an aesthetic exploration through what they left behind, which archaeologists can uncover.
We have a sense of form that causes us to stand in a sensory relation to the material we sense, and this is in an intellectual way that nevertheless is bodily. This sense is critically focused and relates to the possibilities that present themselves in materials, thus allowing us to reshape the materials into something new. When we clothe ourselves in new layers of skin, we explore who we are and who we can become. We are no longer the naked animals that repeat the same behavioural patterns from generation to generation, as do lynxes and fallow deer, for instance. We change ourselves through our own exploratory activity. This is why what we look like and what we create cannot be explained solely through biology. We are more than nature, but we are still also nature.
To use artistic production to relate to our own surface is a concentrated way of working with what clothing has been about from the very start, namely to create oneself as a human being. In such artistically-researched works, the connection to sensory phenomena must be central, even if the works have an inherently conceptual nature. Siri Skjerve’s art can be seen as a part of this type of research project; through it, she explores the possibilities of the human surface, yet in a way that is not superficial.
A surface layer is more than a covering. The layers we add to ourselves have meaning and express something new. The choices of materials, textures, forms and colours reveal something deeper, for instance underlying thoughts and a developed sensibility. The truth about ourselves is not naked but shows itself in the surfaces. The clothed body says the most about us; naked, we are animals. The aphorism ‘appearances are deceptive’ expresses the notion that whatever is on the surface of something can hide an underlying truth. I would rather say that the appearance, when we choose it ourselves, expresses something true about who we are, namely human beings.
We do not emerge from Nothing; we are born into a social and cultural world as naked animals from a warm and enveloping womb. Almost the first moment after birth, we are wrapped in clothing and become human in a cultural sense, not merely by virtue of our human organisms. Perhaps we can say that the human being begins there where the naked animal almost disappears under clothing.
Siri Skjerve explores this theme, reaching back to prehistory when our clothing consisted of animal hides and we adorned ourselves with jewellery made of organic and inorganic materials. She concentrates on rawhide, tanned leather, fur and intestines from pigs and cattle – the skin and entrails of animals. Since these materials are no longer connected to the animal bodies that had them, they have become things. Nevertheless, they have a strange intermediate status by having previously surrounded animals who had life. They also carry qualities linked to life, both the aesthetic and the functional. Fur incites us to stroke it, maybe sniff it; the intestines remind us of our own internal viscera and the biological processes taking place under our skin. Rawhide, tanned hide and intestines as materials are also imbued with insights about death, the animals’ death. The materials come from what were once living animals, but which now no longer live; they remind us that we too will die but also of our deadly power over other animals and nature itself.
Some of Siri Skjerve’s works can be carried, thus drawing the human being directly into the art work. Others are freestanding sculptures we can imagine as being filled with bodies or linked to the muscular and organic innards of a body’s dark and hidden spaces. None of the works are functional art, but through associations to clothing, some of them appear as reflections over how we in fact clothe ourselves, what we want to emphasise and what we want to hide. Other works, through folds, curves and layers, show us how life forms itself into organisms that develop in metabolism and gas-exchange with the environment. Yet others show our relation to nature as such, that we are integrated into the web of nature, sometimes with power over it and at other times powerless. There is an ambiguity in the works that resonates with the ambiguity of life itself and our relation to nature and other animals.
Karl Marx, in one of his early works, wrote that nature is mankind’s inorganic body. In the exhibition, the spherical sculpture made of rawhide, with large holes, openings and frayed edges, can perhaps be read as an attempt to show how our exploration and shaping of the surface of our own body has now come to encompass nature itself, with the consequences this has for the climate and the living conditions of other creatures. In the Anthropocene Age, we change everything, yet without understanding and having an overview of what we are doing. Art projects that explore what happened when we became something other than naked animals can perhaps help us understand the great nature-transforming processes that we have set in motion, and how to rediscover harmony with nature.