by Sia Lingxin
Fashion and pornography have brought us a world of underclad flesh, but we are still bashful at stripping our bodies bare. Does the taboo of being in one’s birthday suit stem from an old-time modesty? Or is it fear of how the body will be seen by others?
Paul Kooiker, an artist based in Amsterdam, forces us to ponder if what shocks is the perfection demanded of it rather than the body itself. His series of photographs explores this, and was published last year in an innocuous photo book. This is not Kooiker’s first foray into print—in fact, it follows formats of earlier photo books such as Room Service and Showground, which are all fetishistic.
Titled Sunday, the series depicts a generously-sized lady lounging on a cushioned surface. Her face, turned away from the camera, is a mystery. Her legs are splayed awkwardly; their curves and folds are accentuated by the stark tonal contrast between the flowery prints in the backdrop and her pale skin. One notices not her nudity, but flesh that bulges, sags and folds into itself.
In the 1860s, Manet scandalised France with a painting of a nude woman confronting her audience with a stare (Olympia, 1863). A hundred years later, American Diane Arbus made a name for herself by immortalizing deviants such as giants and transgenders in her black-and-white square prints. In the late 1970s, Kohei Yoshiyuki elicited controversy with Kóen—images of couples and their sexual romps snapped secretly in the shadows of Tokyo parks.
With Kooiker, we return to the basic human form. Yet, how we cringe at being presented with a less than svelte figure.
Kooiker delves into nudity without the shock factor of any anomalies. The lady in his photographs could be anyone walking down the street—yet we are transfixed, confounded by her ability to preen and pose that ample body. Sunday forces us to confront our own fascination with what we deem acceptable, and what we are morbidly fascinated with because of its unusual, excessive nature.
"Sunday forces us to confront our own fascination with what we deem acceptable, and what we are morbidly fascinated with because of its unusual, excessive nature."
There is no telltale hunch of the shoulders or tense muscles of the self-conscious in Sunday—despite her being someone who would easily be labeled “fat”. The flesh in large quantities; the confidence she exudes even when her face is hidden. Her contour is a strong, bright tone against a feminine backdrop that simply cannot compete for attention. High heels swing lazily, almost clumsily, from her feet. The sense of her putting on a show heightens the viewer’s uneasiness.
We are past the age where grotesque means bodies contorted by sex or deformed from birth. They are now a rarity. However society’s preoccupation with size, despite its tired ubiquity, is one that is not going to wane anytime soon. Kooiker, through his unnerving prints that evoke the insecurities within each of us, hits the spot with his interpretation of voyeurism.