Membranes & Morsels

The human anatomy is amusing; with skin as an enveloping membrane, it is a constantly mutating exterior with a relatively constant, organic interior. Our exterior is shaped by the forces and gradations of esteem, prejudice, reflection and absorption, and our personhood is often transposed to objects external to our bodies. Our feelings and desires are mapped across a topography of nature and digital interface; blooming creepers, swelling ponds, the moon, flowers and emoticons become metaphors in covert acknowledgment of the same.

I have always wondered what is so enticing about fruits being photographed in flattering angles on social media, or their obsessive renditions as still lives before the advent of photography. Have you looked at fruits closely; the silhouette of the composition, their tumescent or decaying constitution, or their suggestive proximity and permeability? The enticement (besides/through the technical study of falling light on material surfaces) perhaps lies in the artist’s (and viewer’s) projection. In the history of visual arts, fruits have been seen as anthropomorphic and by extension, sexualised to represent human body parts that carry the weight of sexual function (and suggestion). The penis becomes an eggplant in text messages today, while advertisements and slapstick content do not hold back from substituting breasts with melons and tomatoes (both literally and figuratively). Such aggressive sexualisation of body parts in isolation from subjectivity registers as objectification, where the medium in question divests the body of agency in its representative form and value. In response, we reject or appropriate the erasures and mutations through words and acts of reclamation.

But the politics of these sexual organs, their biological designation to a body, the desire or disgust that foments on understanding them or how they are mobilized against the grain of normative ideas of sexuality run deeper. The curiosity is cultivated either in isolation or support, as the body attempts to understand its ontology, purpose, form, function or non-function. Actant Paromita Vohra has created widescreen animations of a foliage, where the fruits, vegetables and elements are coded to unfold poems (in the form of auditory narrations in a variety of voices and intonations) on the click of a mouse by the seated viewer. The audience listens to the poem in the privacy of a dimly-lit closed space, as the auditory text offers a sensorial experience of eroticism, intimacy and pleasure. There’s often a blush or a smile to the self in response to the text; the poems titillate as they lay bare a matrix of sexual desires, jealousy, teasing and pining. These fruits are not unlike our own bodies; when provoked, they break through their exteriors and release a secret. The body is reclaimed from a culture of objective hypervisibility and mystified in its banalities.

Fruits are ubiquitous; they pervade both interior spaces and public areas like mandis in abundance. There’s a quiet agency in being a source of nourishment. The edible heterogeneity of Vohra’s forest spans all kinds of sexuality in textual suggestions- an emphatic assertion of how no orientation is technically ever ‘against nature’; desire precedes form. All our bodies are fluid wholes, says Paromita. I think of water then, and how it seeps through membranes; it encourages a porosity of beings in the way it rejects shape as definition. Our embodiment could also be watery; our fluids, desires and thoughts merge in an abandon of direction, in a pool of oceanic eddies.

But water also reflects. Water is a surface, whose depth is irrelevant to the image it arrests. How do you imagine yourself when you’re not looking at the mirror—an optic device conceived in a more solid simulation of water? I experience a dissonance sometimes when I stare at myself against this reflective surface. At least I did when I sat in the same room as Avril, who had imposed a character on me through an improvisatory script. I had to respond accordingly, with only myself and Avril as audience to my flights of fancy with the character assigned. Through the course of the exchange, I kept glancing at myself in the mirror which was conspicuous in its presence in the room in terms of scale. I couldn’t introspect or go any deeper at the moment beyond simply experiencing an alienation with what I was looking at, the gnawing feeling later materializing as discomfort with a possible fissure between my image on the mirror and my image in my head. The cognitive dissonance had resulted from the use of the mirror as a medium for the interaction. Avril, in her assumed character, never looked at or conversed with me, but my image on the mirror.

The mirror is where the theatre of the conversation played out while two bodies engaged in a negotiation of fictive details, as words and gestures got imbued with class, caste, gender and associated crossovers of hierarchies. The intent behind these one-on-one performances (spanning almost an entire day) was to enable an identification with bodies that do not resemble that of the immediate participant. Avril plays with popular tropes of vulnerable bodies- the fat adolescent, the transgender woman who has just had her transitional surgery, the recently-recruited prostitute awkwardly negotiating with her pimp, the racist landlady- amplifying them to evoke reactions from her respondents. Some play along, others shy away, while some are viscerally provoked at the verbally coarse exchange. The mirror doesn’t make it any easier by throwing my reactions back at me, and I stand revealed in my biases, apathy, amusement or confusion.

The stereotypes hit in their aggressive potential to Otherise when they are used with conscious intention to trigger; privilege is questioned and extant binaries are foregrounded in their expulsion of possibilities for inter-corporeal empathy. If we are watery beings, we carry this Otherness within us already. Water embodies the desire to morph and shape-shift, while persistently resisting attempt at absolute capture; just as we float through life, desiring and consuming other bodies in reflection or rejection of our own images. It is an ocular-centric culture, and the mirror acts as a constant reminder. Could we dissipate into vapour and escape the gaze? Perhaps not. There is more probability we’ll turn into jackfruits and become perishable poets.

Neimanis, Astrida. ‘Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water’, Undutiful Daughters: Mobilizing Future Concepts, Bodies and Subjectivities in Feminist Thought and Practice, eds. Henriette Gunkel, Chrysanthi Nigianni and Fanny Söderbäck. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

All Images Courtesy: Annette Jacob
Inset 1: A still from Actant Paromita Vohra’s interactive installation, Love Latika
Inset 2: Stills from Actant Avril Stormy Unger’s interaction with participants as part of the performance, Private Parts

*You can follow the Actants on Instagram @thestormfactory and @bombay.rosie

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