Myrna Ayad: For starters, the word ‘extimacy’ is a smart inversion. How did you arrive at naming this new body of work?
Hayv Kahraman: I was doing some research about terms that describe an ‘other’ or in-between space, searching for some definition which transcends a dualistic principle. I first came across the Foucauldian heterotopia [put forth by French philosopher Michel Foucault which suggests that there are spaces of ‘otherness’ that are at once physical and mental]. I found it very interesting in terms of relating it to Diasporic cultures, yet it still felt rather distant. I then started reading texts by Elizabeth Grosz [Australian feminist who has interpreted the work of philosophers, including Foucault] where she mentions the Möbius strip as a structure that is conceived and contingent upon the inside as well as the outside. Within this line of thought, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan coined the term extimité ─ derived from the words ‘exterior’ and ‘intimacy’ ─ which simultaneously describes the distinction between the two words as well as the sum or effect of them. In many ways, the use of skin in the work denotes this very concept of an exteriority or border of the body that is inverted and placed within the context of the inside of the body in the work.
MA: It feels like your work is steeped in intimacy – there is a warmth, a sensuality to it which is inescapable. How did you separate this sensation with its total contrast, i.e. extimacy?
HK: The work I produce is often seen in a public space, yet it comes from, and reflects a private and intimate space. I do think that my work carries contrasts with regards to the aesthetic aspects and subject matter. There is a lot of care and detail that goes into creating a balanced and ordered composition, yet the subject matter is far from balanced in that sense. These women are violently detaching their limbs and nonchalantly displaying them to the viewer. It is an act that is reminiscent of an uprooting as they are actively deracinating their bodies into cross-sectional slices. The nonchalant qualities speak to a subdued state of mind; of being and existing as a refugee. These women are left fragmented and abnormal, sort of like cyborgs or hybrid identities that are the outcome of colonialism and war.
- MA: Some-cross sectional slices you have dismembered from the women are parts of the female body, which epitomise the female form – her neck, breasts, stomach (womb). Was this intentional? And what was the underlying reason(s)?
HK: I had all 542 horizontal cross-sections of my body cut out of wood to play with, and in doing so, found myself innately attracted to the curvature and shape of certain forms. It was interesting to examine the reasons behind my choices. Am I in some way asserting myself as a woman? There is a clear gender contrast in the choice of these shapes and, perhaps by grafting them into the composition, I can further highlight these women’s agency. I do also feel that these ultra feminine forms woven into the work can blur boundaries of dichotomous thoughts such as masculine/feminine, mind/body and public/private.
- MA: Why six women? At first I considered geography and seven continents. And why rawhide? I thought of the Queen of Sheba and how she ‘unified’ Carthage using a single ox’s hide.
HK: The focus was not on one woman; but rather, women as a group. The number itself was an arbitrary decision which satisfied the need to use this idea of a multitude somewhat reflective of a Diasporic population.
I was drawn to working with skin mostly because it serves as a link to the body and was once part of a living organism that moved and breathed yet is now fully detached, solidified and fixed. It also proved to be a fascinating surface to paint on as the skin mutates and wrinkles depending on the environmental space that it is in. I found it ironically cooperative as I was painting the body slices on this material that is skin. There’s something very eerie and intriguing about working with skin. I actually get it shipped to me frozen in a box from Texas where the animal is skinned, de-haired and washed in lime. It’s always a surprise to open the boxes – each hide is different and acts as an historical fact sheet which details where the animal has been and any other significant encounters that have left marks on its skin. Some are also labelled with numbers, which introduces a whole box of inquiries. There’s a lot of preparatory work involved after receiving the skin; it’s first soaked in water, stretched, dyed and then left to dry. This process is fascinating to me because the skin changes when it dries. It contracts, gets thinner and changes colour and the level in which it does this depends on the area of the skin, i.e. the stomach contracts more because it’s more flexible. It makes me think of a photographer in a darkroom developing an image that magically appears after soaking it in chemicals.
What I also find interesting is a sense of violence that the skin transmits because of this hidden narrative that precedes it. I feel that it relates to issues of colonialism and war and, to a certain degree, the psyche of a displaced person. As the skin is now marked and reduced to a number, it is static and confined to these very narrow parameters within a rectangular frame. It makes me wonder what this skin belonged to, where had this creature been and why is it inanimate now?
- MA: While conducting 3D digitial scanner did you feel as though your own body was being invaded or violated by rays/scans?
HK: I’m not sure if ‘violated’ is the appropriate word. It was certainly an elaborate process, as I had to stand completely still, in the nude and covered in cornstarch for a period of eight hours in two sessions. A 3D digital scanner that is actually used for scanning and documenting archaeological sites conducted the scan and produced up to 80 individual three-dimensional images of my body that were then pieced together to form the body in its entirety. With an accuracy of 0.3 mm, I prompted myself to hold my breath to avoid any movement each time the red ray travelled from top to bottom. This was a performative act as I was constrained and forced to stand absolutely still in one spot. Interestingly enough, it did trigger thoughts of vulnerability and restraint, particularly as a woman standing there being scanned by a man operating the device.
- MA: The depth by which you have gone into scanning your own body to then use within your artwork hints at a oneness between you and your work – a desire on your part to perhaps unify yourself and your work?
HK: I feel that by being subjective and personal, the work becomes genuine in a way and perhaps I can establish a connection with the viewer. The majority of my work has been an extension of myself and here I’m taking it a step further by physically inserting my body and displaying it in the space. As my last series dealt with issues of outside body modifications and alternations, this new work goes deeper by actually looking at the inside of the body as I use tomographical imaging as inspiration.
- MA: And how do you feel after you’ve gone through this process?
In the beginning, a part of me was scared about laying out my body in that way for people to look at and judge. But after going through this, I almost feel liberated. Maybe there’s a case of personal extimacy here where I’m presenting myself, my body in a public space.
- MA: Can you elaborate a little on our bodies being ‘socially formed’. How do you feel that cultures affect us on a physical level?
HK: I reject the Cartesian dualistic philosophy of mind/body. The body is never simply just a physical object, but rather contingent on social, cultural and economic attributes and an embodiment of consciousness. To perceive the world is to reflect on possible actions of my body on the world. I both have and am a body, hence the body is socially formed. I also feel that our bodies are vehicles for understanding our very being. An ontological investigation through our bodies is something that I find very intriguing. We are, after all, inhabitants of our bodies and perhaps the space we understand the most is/should be our body. It is an organism that not only pertains to me, but one which also defines me. I look in the mirror everyday yet I’ve found that there’s a gap, or neglect if you will, towards our bodies. This is when I chose to investigate my own body visually. Questions of spatial divisions or spatial order in relation to the body started to arise here as well as possible distortions of the relationship between embodiment, culture and society.
- MA: First you dismembered, and then you based the skin’s ‘faint structure’ on Girih – the Islamic mathematical tessellation system. It seems like you’re continuously breaking down the body. Are you, in this process, also breaking down the self?
HK: I’m not sure if I’m consciously trying to break down the self. It depends how the ‘self’ is defined here. What I’m more interested in is the discussion of self in social terms where it becomes the identity of a person and ideologies of Self and Other arise. Perhaps relevant in this case is the consideration of words like Occidentalism and Orientalism where the ‘other’ is the latter of the two. I think Homi Bhabha puts it so elegantly when he says, “It is not the colonialist Self or the colonised Other, but the disturbing distance in-between that constitutes the figure of colonial otherness.” I think what I am trying to discuss in the work ─ specifically the works on rawhide, Thorax and Cranium ─is more of a fragmented self where the actual image of ‘body’ is identified, catalogued and even marked by a coloniser’s gaze. The Girih structure placed behind the skin is perhaps a way for me to personally retrieve a slice of myself that was robbed and displaced because of wars ─ a return or affinity, if you will, to this lost location.
- MA: You worked on the exterior and the interior. What’s in between; what binds the two?
HK: The inside and the outside are intrinsically bound and what separates them is one’s perception. As in the Möbius Body work where I’m using this mathematical structure of a Möbius that has a non-orientable surface (meaning it only has one side and one boundary) ─a sheet of paper or a sphere are examples of orientable surfaces where you could paint each side a different colour. Even though the Möbius strip appears to be a two-sided strip, it actually isn’t, because there is no ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ . Elizabeth Grosz used the analogy of the Möbius strip to deconstruct binary notions of mind/body and inside/outside where hierarchy is created by one element that is inherently becoming the subordinate of the other. Within feminist critical theory, the attribution of mind to masculinity and body to femininity has always been problematic ─ man is associated with rationality and intellect while woman is associated with the irrational/ body. Grosz here lays the focus on the body as embodied: a combination of social and material, an interaction between exterior and interior inscriptions that produce a cultural and social embodiment. The Möbius not only blurs the boundaries but also merges them at the same time creating ‘extimacy’ as a collage of the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ .