Hands on Rawhide

A Conversation with Sarah Bliss

by by Grier Stockman & Claudia Norton

illustration by by Henry Swanson

When you see Sarah Bliss in line at the post office, you probably can’t guess what she’s thinking. Sarah Bliss has short, gray hair and wears loose fitting earth tones. There are no frames around Sarah Bliss’s photographs, and for the provocative themes her art tackles, the artist is surprisingly calm.

At her show’s opening at the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center last Thursday. Bliss carried herself with thoughtfulness and spoke of her artwork slowly and with a considered seriousness. Her show “All the Flesh of His Body” will exhibit in Brown’s Sarah Doyle Gallery until March 22.

Sarah Bliss is a new media artist who works in video, sound, performance and photography. The work in “All the Flesh of His Body” was incubated during an extensive stay on the remote Gaeltacht (Gaelic-speaking) coast of southwest County Kerry, Ireland. It negotiates the competing worldviews of an Irish Pagan era and a post 5th century Christian era. While the Pagan era was characterized by porous boundaries of nature and humanity, Christian dogma promotes the idea of the transubstantiation of the body of Christ.

Bliss deconstructs bodily boundaries, forefronting the seamlessness between material realities and the continual flux of form and matter. Scenes of a man encased by, struggling with, and romancing the skin of another animal are filmed and then projected onto sculptural forms molded from rawhide (created by sculptor Roslyn Driscoll). These projected images are then photographed. This continual transformation and the layering of permutations of flesh on flesh through flesh – dead and alive, flayed and intact – builds a world located somewhere between hallucinatory dream, piercing vision, and presumed reality. Along with the aforementioned photographs, All the Flesh of His Body includes a video installation entitled You Leave Here and two audio pieces.

The Independent: So, what’s your background?

Sarah Bliss: I’m an artist with formal training in theology. I have a Masters from Harvard Divinity School. My practice centers on the body, exploring the spiritual, psychological and physical realities of embodiment, so all of the work that I do draws from that way of being in the world and the experience of embodiment.

Indy: Did you have a particular connection to Ireland before the retreat? What was your intention in going?

SB: I had been doing a lot of work investigating and exploring the kinesthetics of sacred space and the experience of the body within planned architectural spaces. I was very interested in continuing this research in Ireland in the ruins of both secular and sacred sites.  I did a tremendous amount of research before going to Ireland, steeping myself in its history, particularly the history of the coming of Christianity to Ireland, and also the more recent history of the Great Hunger of 1847-49. The work in this show grew out of that experience and my interest in the Irish people’s navigation of cultural change and loss, both as a people subjected to political and cultural imperialism, and as a people navigating the same kind of ruptures from land, place and culture that are happening worldwide.

One of the interesting things about Ireland is that it was converted to Christianity without violence. There were no Irish martyrs. It’s the only place where that happened. What was it about the compatibility of the pre-Christian Celtic mindset and early Christianity that facilitated that?

For me, there’s a wonderful dialogue between those two sensibilities.  It’s a dialogue that can be contentious but it is also one where there is much resonance between the two worldviews.

Indy: Language, lost and found, plays an important role in your work. Your video, “You Leave Here,” is overlaid with a strong muffled voice. What is the voice doing in this work?

SB: The video is really about the experience of rootedness and place, and the way that is centered in the body. The voice gives directions about how to get from one place to another across a very specific landscape.  Instructions about where to turn and which road to go down are interwoven with both a personal history and a cultural history of a specific place and a particular community.  But the voice stumbles and falterst—hose pieces of history are broken and inaccessible.

The attempt to create a map, a way through or a way out, ultimately fails.  This is a metaphor for the destruction of the Irish language, which was banned by British colonialists.  The destruction of language destroys culture, disconnects people from their particular way of experiencing the world and expressing that experience. “You Leave Here” tells the story about the way that the pain and loss of that theft becomes lodged in the body.  The hands become stand-ins for the entirety of the human body and they speak, silently but powerfully, of the anguish of that loss.

Indy: Could you speak to the “porous” nature of body and spirit as depicted in your work. Do you think  humans are conscious of this fluid physical-spiritual relationship? Or is it your intention to bring awareness to it through your artwork.

SB: Yes, this fundamental truth is not part of our conscious lived experience.  We are very much out of touch with our bodies in lives significantly oriented toward technology; and we prioritize vision almost to the exclusion of touch, sound, smell, and sense of movement. I do seek to communicate about these truths in my work and to inspire reflection on them. The photographic work in the show is from an ongoing project that examines the back and forth of matter, and the cycling and slippage of the body and its transformations.

I’ve been researching the structures and systems of industrial slaughterhouses, learning a lot about exactly how living bodies are transformed in massive numbers into food products.  Its brutally horrific, and it’s something that our culture has chosen to sequester from the view of the public, because it is so deeply morally repugnant.  I believe that it’s vitally important that this massive killing machine, which brutalizes not only the animals it slaughters but also the workers who labor within it, becomes known to us so that we can make clearer ethical choices about our own bodies’ participation in this cycle.

Roz and I have been looking for ways to bring our human bodies into another kind of contact with these animal bodies.  We’ve been projecting my video of human bodies onto and into and through the cattle skin. The photographic imagery in the show is made by filming a human model who is exploring, fighting with, and engaging the cattle skin. That video footage is then projected onto and through large sculptural forms that have been made with the rawhide. This new species of animal (a sort of compound cow-human) is then photographed.

The link with Ireland is explored specifically through engagement with both Christain and pre-Christian texts (St. Patrick’s 5th century Confessio, and the 1st century pre-Christian epic Tain Bo Cuailnge).  The Tain exquisitely expresses the pre-Christian sensibility of fluidity of matter the continual morphing and shape shifting of human and animal, sea and sky, plant and people that are happening around us all the time.

Indy: We’ve heard rumors that you’re planning to print the photographs in this show on hide. Is this true?

SB: This presentation of the photographs is not wholly satisfactory for me. I want to have a closer marriage. I want the skin to stay present all the way through, and having it on paper was a compromise for me. I have begun experimenting with making contact prints of the images onto animal skin. I’ve been working with a wonderful old-style tannery. I can describe to the folks there the specific type of skin I’m looking for— goat or deer, sheep or cow skin with a particular quality of transparency. They are able to choose for me skins that retain the markings of the life of the animal. Including that physical evidence of the lifestory of the animal – the branding on a cow’s flank, the scars where a deer gouged its leg in a fall –is important to me.

Indy: Speaking of layering, do you connect the process to the themes in the piece? Did you choose layering for just the visual effect, or for some conceptual elegance?

SB: The layering is really important to me conceptually. My process reenacts the transformations which I’m highlighting.  It starts in the real with a live human body and a semi-live animal skin (though dead, it feels alive when wet and slippery). The next transformation is the video editing and then the next layer is projecting that back onto another type of skin and then going again into photography. The process is a mirror of the ideas I’m working with, and it insists on the fact that everything is always changing.

We don’t think about it in our daily life, but if you just stop for a second and think that when you eat a hamburger, you’re taking a cow into your body and your body is literally changing cow into person, you touch into the sacred.  The cow doesn’t remain a cow in you, it turns into human cells. It becomes your eyes, it becomes your skin, it becomes your stomach, and that’s incredible to me and that’s the story of the incarnation—that matter changes and that the spirit is in all of these things. We walk around and think that our bodies end where our skin ends and that on one side is us and on the other side it’s the world, but it doesn’t work that way. You’ve had the experience of driving past a place where a skunk has released its scent and you smell the skunk, right? We think we’re just passing and smelling a skunk.  We’re here and the skunk was there. But what’s actually happening is cells from the skunk’s body are literally entering your body and merging with your body and becoming you. You’re becoming part skunk.

GRIER STOCKMAN B’14 & CLAUDIA NORTON B’14 are going to County Kerry for SpRiNg BrEaK 2013!