Human Surfaces

Dagmar Burkhart

In an age which celebrates skin-beauty in the sense of a smooth, hairless and spotless surface, Hans has recourse to the artistic resource of “making strange” that was demanded by the Russian Formalist Viktor Schklowski in 1916 in order to de-automate perception and steer it towards the essential. By bringing out the skin’s surface with every pigment spot, every wrinkle or bulge-like unevenness, with thickets of hair or shaved stubble as pointillist skin-rasterization, Hans compels the beholder into genuine seeing, as though the phenomenon were stepping before his eyes for the first time. Thus, in the found object SKIN (“objet trouvé” in the sense of object art) he allows a kind of landscape to arise, which calls on the beholder to reflect on beauty – or ugliness – in its relation to the natural, but also on the condition humaine in general. Odo Hans artistically enigmatic segment-photographs of furrowed, bulging, hairy or shaved human skin, scattered with pigmentation, show elements of Abstract Expressionism and thus generate a new kind of access to the body, including its grotesque dimensions with the likes of Mikhail Bakhtin in mind.

As Hans designs the shots – as John Coplans designs his photos of naked old men’s bodies, or Robert Gober his partly hairy wax sculptures5 – while omitting the head, he deliberately frees the body and its shell of every mark of individuality, of class and cultural features. To that extent, his almost neutral, anonymous skin topographies are no character portraits, but generalized, artistic depictions of man’s materiality. Through his skin-photos devised in confrontational visual language, he thematizes the “poor material of the flesh, no longer propped by any cultural prosthesis, affronting good taste”. Hans hyper-real skin-photographs cannot be received merely as dermal studies. In their visual effect enhanced through alienation, they are successful metaphors of the organic and all-round aesthetic compositions simultaneously. According to Susan Sontag, taking photographs means “archiving mortality”. Although Odo Hans is also aware of this, photographs, to him, are moreover a means of celebrating liveliness. He does this by emphasizing the vitality and profundity of the fragile, and only apparently superficial, life-material SKIN. At the same time, through his dermal photo-topographies he succeeds in problematizing categories such as beauty and ugliness artistically. For he knows that beauty is often not true, and that the truth is often not beautiful. Or, as Nietzsche radically put it: “The truth is ugly: we have art so that we do not perish by the truth”.