28.05.06 'You Know Who You Are', review of 'Replicas' by Nada Serafimovski, David Gleeson

The wealth of stories about cosmetic surgery, dramatic and lurid footnotes to the glamorous lifestyles of the rich and famous, prove to be the subject of a healthy terrain for contemporary cultural discourse. Whether it is Stevie Nicks’ rebuilt septum, Michael Jackson’s mutating nose, or Liberace’s reluctance to remove his wig when submitting to the scalpel, we have all heard, and are fascinated by, such intriguing and grisly gossip. As a measure of the zeitgeist, it says much about us and our times.

For every brochure from a private clinic that offers cheap surgical procedures, there are sensational stories in the pop-ular press about plastic surgery disasters. Likewise, for every noisy celebrity who candidly reveals all about their nips and tucks, there are silent others whose bloated, botoxed features quietly betray them.

The phenomenon of surgical transformation may seem a recent innovation, but the aspirations that drive it are as old as time. The desire to assume other characteristics and become something or someone else is manifest in ancient art: inspect any major museum and the Egyptian and Assyrian god-kings, or perfect Greek and Roman physiques are all beyond the reach of the most accomplished surgeon. But their divine and superhuman characteristics embody the human desire for transformation. On a more humble scale, a recent CAT-scan of the Greco-Roman mummy of Artemidorus in the British Museum revealed his portrait to be a fanciful improvement on the dead man’s actual features.

Nowadays, modern consumer advertising replaces religious iconography as our most common imagery. Commuters in big cities see an estimated several thousand pictures each day. Few consciously make the connection that this multitude of images have undergone transformative processes to airbrush away mundane reality, manipulating them into idealised visions of perfection. To get in that hoarding, front cover or window display means the model has had assumed imperfections removed, complexions coloured, legs lengthened, features retouched, muscles toned and any digital tweaks deemed necessary. No matter how much we ignore these images, their very ubiquity normalises their contrived perfection. Subconsciously, the unattainable beauty represented becomes our own yardstick of self-estimation.

Given that advertising exists to persuade us to buy products, the curious result of mass-market saturation is a society whose individuals generally accept that beauty is something possessed by others which they personally have yet to attain (considering oneself beautiful is comparatively rare). And, of course, the easiest and quickest way to make one’s face fit an acceptable model is surgery.

During Pete Burns’ recent appearance in Celebrity Big Brother, a friend was attempting to tell me how his appearance had changed since Dead or Alive were making hit records twenty years ago. She described his eyes, lips and bone structure with a tone of detached amazement, and where I expected a final condemnation, she simply said: “He’s beautiful. In a very sculpted way.” When I saw him for myself, I had to agree. He is not typically physically beautiful (which is to be expected, given the amount of surgery he has invested in to develop that particular look), but rather has turned his face into a stylised, sculptural object, strongly reminiscent of something, but I could not think what.

Seeing Nada Serafimovski’s Mr Pete Burns reminded me. The Egyptian collection of the Altes Museum in Berlin has some of the finest portrait sculpture to survive from ancient Egypt, including a selection of Amarna heads made around 1350 BC. That the artist renders only the face of her subjects, the site of cosmetic surgery, makes the comparison with classical Egyptian portraiture all the more stark. Not that I presume Pete Burns is undergoing multiple surgical procedures in order to look like ancient royalty, but the reconstruction of his original features is resulting in a type rather than an individual.

Mrs Buzz, a portrait of a prosperous American woman with enough money to fund a cosmetic surgery ‘habit’, is an example of the individual choice to go under the knife revealing a surprising conformity. In this case, there seems to be no specific or remarkable features, but only the slightly tense public smile of a minor celebrity expecting, or hoping for, the affirming flash of paparazzi cameras. In fairness to the subject, the artist was most likely working from magazine pictures for which Mrs Buzz would naturally be mugging. However, it eerily gives the impression that she is not merely changing her face to more closely resemble the processed perfection of some media model, but also adapting her personality to match. Imprisoned in her vitrine, she plays the role so well that it is ironic how the splashes of pig fat that make up the portrait give her face the look of a melting mask. Worse, when viewed from the back, her features coalesce into a death’s head, a reminder of the futility of any cosmetic process.

Farrah Fawcett-Majors may have been one of the defining icons of female beauty in the 1970s, but the post-cosmetic surgery portrait Mrs Farrah bears more than a passing resemblance to comedienne Phyllis Diller (who, before her death, famously spent a lot of time with her own plastic surgeon).

I am aware that my tone has become that of the disapprov-ing columnist, which is misleading, as I have no resentment towards people who surgically control their appearance.

As I said earlier, I am every bit as fascinated by tales of celebrity excess as the average Hello! reader (I think), and would be annoyed if anyone saw fit to criticise my personal hobbies. I remember a conversation with a rock musician a few years ago who, when asked by me about the mythical wig his disgraced ex-band member was rumoured to wear, con-firmed said rumour with: “Well, much as I hate him, what can you do when you’re in the public eye? We often don’t have choices about how we’re supposed to look.” With no discernible traces of surgical intervention on his own, late middle-aged complexion, this man eloquently and empathetically conveyed the paranoia and self-doubt that seems to affect anyone tainted by celebrity, trying to cope with their own, suddenly very public, ageing.

So am I sympathetic? Looking at the faces in Nada Serafimovski’s paintings made me think more about ‘unnecessary’ surgical procedures, and why people have them. The need to control one’s looks, whether to remain as young and pretty as Lulu, or to become as exotically grotesque as Orlan, belies a fundamental dissatisfaction with oneself and the inevitability of life. Both of which are common if not sometimes essential elements of the human condition. But going under the scalpel in response implies an aspirational model, able to be carved out of facial tissue in the same way as a statue emerges from stone. Which is an extreme way of conforming. And I am sympathetic to anyone who falls for the imposed idea that beauty is everywhere but their own face. That so many can afford to surgically conform to this spurious marketing hype is indeed a sign of our times.

I have already commented on how the reverse of Mrs Buzz loudly proclaims her mortality: by coincidence, the method of making these portraits reveals just as much. To use the Egyptian metaphor again, when viewed from behind, each one takes on the appearance of a mummy with the wraps off, the decomposition arrested and desiccated into a mask that clings onto a skull. The artist has created contemporary mementos mori that acknowledge the frailty of all human aspiration.