searching for a new land

It was shocking and the last thing I expected to see in a church.

Directly juxtaposed in front of the crucifixion of Christ, she hung naked and obese, crucified on her own flesh: Die Christin (The Christian Woman) an installation by German artist Beatrix von Bock.

die christin- beatrix von bock

The artist had built the 2 metre figure out of shattered glass, painstakingly reconstructing it into a mosaic of pink flesh – a woman hiding inside her own grotesque body yet also unbearably put on view.  There was shame in the turn of the woman’s head, as if she wanted to avoid not only the appalled gaze of the viewer, but also catching sight of her own intolerable flesh.

Beatrix von Bock at work on Die Christin

Perhaps what I found so disturbing was that just the previous day I had visited Aachen’s wonderful hot spring spa and seen variations of women’s naked bodies which did not look so very different.  These were women who had bodies that were other than mine only by degree; but I was uncomfortably aware that what I most wanted to avoid was seeing any similarities. Likewise, this hanging woman had surely nothing to do with me.  There was a shrinking pathos in the nakedness of the figure, as if she wanted to disappear into her own massive bulk.  And yet this artwork was unavoidable, it could not be unseen.

Inspired by an obese woman she had seen at a church function, Beatrix von Bock had observed how this woman’s work went unnoticed, how not only was she reduced to her outward appearance, she was also made invisible by it.  Despite the robustness of the woman’s huge dimensions, what the artist saw was her inner fragility, her breakability; which she expressed so perfectly in her use of broken glass. This is where the artist catches us in her mirror. In looking at this naked woman, if we can tear our attention away for just a moment from the outward grossness of her flesh, we will glimpse her inner vulnerability – and see ourselves.

In the accompanying written piece, she describes how it is ordinary women who create and uphold the community life of the church, through their tireless work in church bazaars, arranging flowers, preparing food, organising events.  Yet they remain in the background inconspicuous and well-behaved, unwanted in the forefront of the church, unable to claim a place.

Die Christin was part of a 5-woman art exhibition held in the Aachen City Church.  The theme was Neulandsuche (In search of a new land) and was part of the Aachen Heligtumsfahrt (holy pilgrimage) celebrated in June this year.  At the exhibition event, the artist was inundated by eager people 3 deep wanting to discuss her work, intrigued by its provocativeness in the context of the church.  But it’s a piece that’s not easy to like.  When I spoke to her, Beatrix admitted that when she first conceived the idea for this work she was nervous about whether the church would find it acceptable.

I wondered whether a different statement would have been made if the naked woman had been young, shapely and sexually appealing.  Would that have made it less or more acceptable in a church? Perhaps beautiful women are equally crucified by their own desirability, pinned into place by how the viewer interprets their flesh.

die Christin Citykirche Beatrix von Bock

When I asked Beatrix what would become of her new work after the exhibition. She shrugged and then smiled ruefully.

“I don’t know.  I mean, this isn’t exactly the kind of art someone would want to buy to  hang in their home!  I would like to hope I’ll be invited to show it at another exhibition.”*

It requires a brave work of art such as this to get our attention, to make visible what we don’t want to know, forcing us to see parallels and connections when we’d prefer separation and distance.  But the best place to view this particular work is in the context of a church where it can break new ground.  It belongs there, awkward and difficult though it may be, just like the women it speaks for. Giving them space.

*Note: as it happens, once the exhibition was over, Beatrix von Bock was asked to leave her installation in place for an indefinite time. She says that having the work displayed on its own makes for an even more powerful impact.

Venus in Japan

There is nothing quite like getting naked with a stranger.

Which is what I’m about to do in Sky Town, the heart of Nagoya Centrair Airport although I don’t know it yet.  I’ve arrived in Japan to join a small group travelling round rural Japan and we are meeting for the first time.  Our group leader, Andy has decided that our first introduction to Japanese culture will be the Miya-No-Yu Sento (Japanese public baths) overlooking the airport runway. The baths are segregated and the two men in our group have already disappeared through the blue noren whilst we three woman are to enter through the red noren. We have no idea what to expect.

Our instructions are uncompromising: having removed our shoes at the entrance of the baths,  we are told to undress fully and place our clothing in the lockers provided. We are then each given an extremely small towel,  what it is to be used for is not clear (it’s certainly not modesty; you can either cover your breasts or choose some other body part but not both at once) and told to proceed through to the bathing areas. There we are to wash ourselves thoroughly with the soap and shampoo provided at the seated shower stalls and only then are we permitted to submerge ourselves in the steaming hot waters.

In the locker room are several Japanese women of varying ages from teens to their seventies, walking around completely nude and I am impressed with the open artlessness with which they carry themselves. We three new companions eye each other reluctantly.

“Well come on girls, there’s nothing we haven’t seen before.” mutters the young American woman Anne as she begins to strip energetically.  These words turn out to be not quite true.

Feeling bold, I undress quickly too. The third woman in our group just can’t quite bring herself to join in and pleading a sudden migraine brought on by culture shock disappears to wait for us outside. I try to emulate the composure of the Japanese women around me.  Walking the distance from the locker room through to the bathing area is an exercise in faking a dignity I do not feel.   And washing myself in full view of the 50 or so other naked strangers – normally a relatively private ritual for me (let’s not count lovers or the kids) – takes even more of an effort in maintaining an air of cosmopolitan poise. I’m aware that unlike my very close Japanese neighbours who are vigorously scrubbing their backs, brushing teeth, shaving their legs and washing their every bodily crevice with meticulous care, I’m hardly doing a thorough job and hope there is no watching Sento wardress waiting to chastise me for inadequate hygiene practices. Finally I enter the bathing pools.

There are a variety of options to choose from; invigorating icy-cold baths, pools with jacuzzi spa-jets to loosen travel-tense muscles, even a pool zapping out electrical currents adding a mildly shocking zing to the heated water. The scenic bath is large and overlooks the airport runways where we can watch planes soar into the sky and disappear into the horizon.

Once our bodies are safely submerged under water, our initial shyness floats away and Anne and I discover how much easier it seems to share your life story with a stranger when you’re both stark naked in a hot water bath pretending not to study the other person’s body from the corner of your eye.  Scrutiny is slanted sideways.  Skinship is the apt term given to the cameraderie of communal bathing where the Japanese can shed the professional facades of hierachy which normally divides management from workers for a few hours.  In the warm fog of the spa-bath  there’s so much less to separate us from each other.

Anne is in her mid-30’s, pretty and fresh-faced and had been conventionally dressed in t-shirt and jeans. Now naked, it’s hard not to be surprised by the unsuspected nipple-ring and two tattoos – one an ominous looking skull on her shoulder, the other a Japanese kanji motif on her ankle.  And it isn’t long either, before we are noticed by the fully clothed Sento attendant who descends upon us with discreet haste bearing an official looking waterproofed notice.

“Please. You read.”  She says to us in halting English.

The notice informs us that tattoos are strictly forbidden in the public baths. Embarrassed,  we begin to make ready to leave. However, to save us the indignity of being evicted from the baths, the attendant now offers Anne thick plasters which bemuse us until we realise through her gestures, that she means her to cover over the offending tattoos. Later we find out that the ban against tattoos is due to the strong association with the Japanese Yakuza – the underworld gangs who declare their allegiances through heavy tattoos.

We’ve observed that it’s expected to keep the small white towels we’ve been given on our person. Literally. They are used for mopping one’s face and neck in the heat and later for drying oneself, but in the meantime, leaving them on the side of whichever pool one happens to be in is hazardous – for of course they are all identical.  We watch with covert amusement as a pair of Japanese matrons conduct a conversation whilst lolling decorously in the hot water, towels neatly folded and carefully balanced on their heads.  Until we notice that every woman is bearing a white folded square of towel on her head.  A simple and ingenious way to avoid misplacing your towel.  We follow suit and after a time somehow manage to stop looking ridiculous to each other;  but not before  we both have to submerge ourselves, snorting with laughter underwater as we clutch our towels above our heads.

I am struck by the lack of inhibition in the baths.  As much as the Japanese value privacy and seem so formal and reserved when meeting them in everyday life, here they display a carefree ease with nakedness I don’t see in the eye-averting  self-consciousness of South African changing rooms.

No matter what their age or shape, these women are completely at home in the aesthetic of their bodies in a way Western women are not. This is not the flaunting pride of believing yourself to have a perfectly shaped body.   This is something altogether different – a natural self-acceptance not bought by comparing yourself favourably with some magazine model.

In the hazy mist I see so many curves and forms, some solidly sensual, others elegant and angular, some voluptuously rounded and smooth, others delicately boned and fragile.  And all beautiful.  A woman sinks slowly down deeper into liquid warmth, eyes closing with contentment, another surfaces, then bends gracefully to scoop up cool water over her body.   So many Venuses rising from the steamy waters.