Out of Meat District
Showroom MAMA Rotterdam
A change of body state is also something of a theme in the work of the Dutch artist Desiree Palmen. However, this is not so much a concern with a change in the flesh itself - we literally do not often see a body- but in the state of detection of the whole physical being of a person. The overriding concern in Desiree Palmen's work is the nature of the public and the private; where we are and are not detected and, of course, by implication all the various meanings connected to being visible and invisible to others; social, personal and political. Camouflage in its rich and varied forms is a key motif in her work through which she explores the notions of where we, in our bodies, are seen or no longer seen.
Camouflage is an interesting phenomenon in that it implicitly requires a body, a physical being, to have any purpose. Without our physical bodies, the use of such elaborate conceits to disappear from view would literally make no sense whatsoever. This does not, however, mean that Palmen's work is only concerned with the physical body. On the contrary, she often appears to be using the implicit understanding that camouflage's only real purpose is to cloak the physical being to draw our attention to other ways in which not being detected might be important to the individual; to retain the privacy of our less tangible character, political identities or personal space.
The limits of camouflage are intentionally used, for example, in the collage-like works where people are painted dressed in military camouflage that offer them no reduction in visibility in the environments in which they are located such as domestic settings or urban environments. The immediate effect in the image is the opposite of camouflage: the apparently ludicrous juxtaposition makes us focus more, not less, on the appearance of these individuals within their depicted environments. And, of course, that is the purpose of the mechanism in these images. It prompts us to ask what the camouflage might mean in these contexts. What would these people want to hide, for positive or negative reasons? And it is in considering such questions that we start to think about why a fifteen year old girl might want to hide her actual identity whilst lurking on the internet or why individuals navigating an American city might want to keep things about themselves private. Here, as in much of Palmen's work, camouflage becomes a metaphor for raising questions about the relationship between the individual and the environments in which they exist; physical, social and political.
In Palmen's work, the political is always present. Whether fairly clearly outlined or, like her camouflaged bodies, present with varying degrees of detection to the viewer. In a series of more recent performance-based video and photographic works, her process has been to literally try and make the body disappear in public spaces. Wearing carefully constructed costumes, the artist has recorded herself at various locations in Jerusalem as detected from the vantage points of various apparatus used to detect and record the presence of humans; a tourist camera or a surveillance camera. At first glance, these works are about simple and clever conceits, performances in a tradition of trompe l'oeil in which we smile at the convincing nature of the constructions. But, of course, these public spaces are loaded with meaning, existing as they do in a society that most of us know to be troubled and in political crisis. Beneath the layer of simple trick, we are drawn to thinking about the nature of visibility and invisibility in such urban settings. We are challenged to think about the structures that would want to detect the presence of specific physical bodies and to what end.
Here, as with much of her other work, the physical body itself seems to be a secondary factor in the overall thrust of the work. And yet, it is an implicit contemplation on which many of these questions hinge. In locating and controlling our physical bodies, do political structures succeed in locating and controlling our total being? Though not evident at first glance, there is a level on which Palmen's work brings us back to age-old considerations about the nature of the mind-body split, existential philosophies on what it means to be a living, thinking, feeling person.
By acknowledging that these questions cannot be answered without linking the person to their immediate environment, Palmen, like many others, links knowingly or unknowingly back to old Netherlandish painting traditions. In such traditions, we saw the emergence of a recognition of the relationship between the body - the physical manifest being- and its environment in a rather new way. Taking on a difference from preceding developments, many Netherlandish painting traditions saw works in which the image gave a heightened importance to the physical environment in which individuals lived their daily lives. No longer merely decorative backgrounds or symbolic ciphers, a new realism about where human beings lived -actually or metaphorically- emerged. And in this sense, the work of a number of contemporary artists who address the human body with all of its potentials for action and experiences, positive, negative or ambivalent, remain connected to these traditions even where their practices or resulting works appear to have no conscious consideration for a Brueghelian world in which the manifest flesh is the vessel through which everything is communicated.
Ken Pratt, January 2007