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As academia pays little to no attention to the fleeting beauty in pop culture, societies obsess over aesthetic standards, with artists delving into the depths of the surface.
When one googles mei (“beauty”) in Chinese, the results present a combination of companies and venues with the word in their names, demarcating a semiotic landscape of the commendatory term whose meanings stem from the Chinese ideograms yang (“lamb”) and da (“big”). Googling “beauty” in English, meanwhile, one finds a staple of information about beauty industries—spas, cosmetics, skincare, fashion magazines—and commercial activities based on widespread aesthetic standards. Tellingly, however, search results for images of “beauty” in both languages are extremely similar. The realm of visual beauty, it would seem, is largely about beauties: women with alluring smiles, radiant skin and charming body figures. Beauty, then, is a pendulum swinging between relativisms: it is, on the one hand, about personal taste, a quality which lies in the eye of the beholder; at the same time, it is a cultural construct—or, in the opinion of comparative studies professor Ackbar Abbas, a cultural obsession, one that has to do with what is agreeable and tolerable, with discrepancies arising when encountering geopolitical boundaries.
Beauty is not a synonym of simple pleasure. Marie Rainer Rilke’s popular quote, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure” (Duino Elegies), reflects the complicated affinity between beauty and horror—two enemies growing into each other’s bodies. Rilke’s comment on beauty serves as an explicit diagnosis on how aesthetic standards are superimposed on human bodies, with foot binding as only one “outstanding” example. Theodore Adorno proposed a similar notion of beauty, close to Rilke’s beauty-terror recipe, in which beauty is a sublimation of ugliness that is “historically old”—an aesthetic representation of fear. Jean-Luc Nancy’s beauty transcends personal taste, inducing desires overriding the object of beauty, with Caravaggio’s Narcissus offered as a case in point. In the painting, the mythical character stares at his own reflection on the surface of the dark water. It is common knowledge that he is going to pay for his self-obsession: His own gaze pulls himself down into the depths beyond his image, depths reminiscent of Graham Harman’s notions of “allure”—an intermittent separation revealing a gap between and beyond an object’s qualities and itself.
The realm of visual beauty, it would seem, is largely about beauties: women with alluring smiles, radiant skin and charming body figures.
Philosophical investigations of beauty—whose inherent, intimate connection with art is the reason behind this text—are elevated to an ontological occupation, a pursuit of the transcendental and the sublime outside of time (or at least the time scale of human lives, as epitomized by the enduring images of the Mona Lisa, the rainbow or the Great Sphinx of Giza), with little attention paid to the fleeting and changing beauty in pop culture, relegated to the definition of “pretty.” Just as philosophers are less concerned with beings than with “Being,” academic notions of beauty make strong distinctions between the quality itself and the objects said to embody it. The intermittent gap between the objects and its qualities (including functionality) is not “deep” enough in this kind of beauty, but this “superficial” gap still provides a space to delve in, like Paul Valery’s praise of the depth of skin. Similar thoughts are not uncommon in the art world, whose metabolic cycle is longer than fashion’s, leaving artists to look at an eternal present. Huang Ran, for example, works closely with fashionable elegance without being devoured by the commercial disposition of the industry. Huang collaborated with his wife Lucia Liu, a renowned Chinese fashion stylist, on his film Administration of Glory, which was nominated for Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2014. An eerie elegance is also seen in his early work Blithe Tragedy (2010), a short film whose non-linear narrative features only an intense, silent exchange between two characters with heavy makeup on their faces.
The concept of beauty in Asian societies (as represented by pop cultures) largely conforms to the agreeable/difference dialectic. Pale skin has long been a mainstream pursuit in the region’s history, especially in East Asia, although the shades of white are not always same: Ancient Japanese of the Heian period praised powdery, snowy white faces (one can still get the idea through the Noh masks), while in the Tang dynasty of China, the beauty standard was faces whitened by lead or rice powder and then loaded with heavy blush on chubby checks. Recent definitions of beauty in Asia seem to be homogenized for men and women alike: in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand alike, we see faces geared with Caucasianized double eyelids, thick eyelashes, pointy chins, large irises adorned by dazzling color contacts, straight celestial noses, colorful, curly hair and overly plump aegyo-sai (“eye smiles,” a type of eye bag believed to signify youthfulness and sex appeal in Chinese physiognomy). Most of these facial features are uncommon to Asian faces, but may be found on Asian-Caucasian mix, or even manga characters. Still, these aesthetics are effectively disseminated by the mass media and made achievable by the advancement in cosmetic surgery and easy access to Photoshop; jokes about indiscernible Miss Korea candidates went viral on the Internet, and the prosopagnosia quickly spread to other Asian countries. Shared facial features based on an imaginary mixture of different races are the knots in an imagined network constructed by similar faces from disparate bloodlines. Even though the invention of filler injection (like hyaluronic acid) makes the path to beauty less thorny, cosmetic transformation through plastic surgery is no fairy tale. Ji Yeo’s “Recovery Room” is a photographic series documenting women experiencing recovery from plastic surgery in Korea—a country with the highest rate of such medical procedures per capita. The women are half-naked and bandaged, some of them are in pressure suit, some of them are hooked to drainage tubes. They seem emotionless, yet the blood stains are there to remind viewers the pain.
Rhytidectomies (or “facelifts”), another radical means of corporeal transformation, involve a logic of subtraction, surgically reducing aging signs and sagging skin dragged by time and gravity force through a process not unlike mounting canvas onto frame. But professional makeup sometimes saves people a bloody trip. Singaporean cosmetic artist Zing is famous not only for collaborating with Asian divas like Faye Wong, but also for renewing makeup as a concept. Instead of “perfecting” the skin condition or facial features of his clients, Zing treats the face as a canvas and membrane to contemplate the relationship between the artist and his subject. Painting is built on a physical flatness linked to a multitude of depths—from illusory space based on linear perspectives to the psychological profoundness under the “tautness of feelings,” as David Joselit (via Greenberg) once suggested. Painterly surfaces are seen as tabula rasa, homogeneous planes in which their objecthood is deprived. Zing paints faces as painterly surfaces with contours and a sign of absolute alterity. He loves to use his cosmetic airbrush to investigate the possible landscape of the face, and has even thrown pigments, Action Painting-style, onto models’ facades—a method of facial “mapping” with minimal contact.
Korean artist Hein-Kuhn Oh’s photographic series “Cosmetic Girls” is comprised of portraits of teenage girls wearing their own makeup. On flat, monochrome backdrops reminiscent of Elad Lassry, the frontal shots look like yearbook portraits of poker-faced girls. Oh’s other pictorial series “Ajumma” delineates another Korean female community in black and white: Ajumma is a term used to address mid-aged women in Korea, preserving stereotypes based on a perceived lack of sex appeal; they are even referred to as a “third sex” in the country. Oh’s images integrate and analyze the “standards” of outer appearance assigned to certain communities and the social values behind them.
Dominant aesthetics are effectively disseminated by the mass media and made achievable by the advancement in cosmetic surgeryand easy access to Photoshop.
Compared to plastic surgery, manicure is a lightweight version of bodily transformation, but the past millennia have seen significant efforts towards achieving human pseudo-claws. In photos of Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing dynasty, for instance, one finds long decorative nail guards made of precious metals and stones. Manicures used to be a symbol of class, a luxury enjoyed by people who were able to stay away from labor and chores. Today, of course, it is a pleasure available to different classes; according to The New York Times (Sarah Maslin Nir, “The Price of Nice Nails,” 10 May 2015), there are more nail salons than Starbucks in the Upper East Side. Indeed, in the United States, nail salons are a common option for unskilled Asian immigrants—which is not to say the work is easy: while polishing and filing nails may not sound strenuous, it is a repetitive, thankless occupation, especially when one considers the ubiquity of labor exploitation and diseases due to prolonged exposure to chemicals. Chinese artist Ye Funa’s ongoing project “Curated Nails” calls for manicure proposals by (mostly) artists and curators like Chen Tianzhuo and Ju Baiyu. Hinting at the similarities between the rapid metabolism of manicure and art exhibitions, the project is similar to Ed Fornieles’ manicure booth at Frieze London 2014, but the element of Chinese kitsch spices it up. It remains a central concern in her practice: the artist regularly updates the project on her “Curated Nails” Facebook page and has pursued collaborations with the likes of Helijia, an app/company that provides affordable manicure service to your door.
Beauty is a utopia, and like all utopias, survives at a distance from reality. Sometimes that distance is so great that it exists in another dimension entirely. Alternative dimensions are at the core of early Japanese ACG (Anime-Comics-Games): “two-dimensional” is a term used by the Japanese to describe a group of people overly obsessed with the manga world and mentally detached from the reality. UterusMan, whose name recalls the classic Tonkusatsu character Ultraman, is a manga hero and a half-open-source project designed by Chinese artist Lu Yang, reminiscent of Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno’s Ann Lee. It takes the forms of videos, comics, computer games (created in collaboration with the students at Kyushu University), installation and cosplay. In the male-dominated world of superheroes, a character based on the shape of a female genital may ignite a mental knee-jerk: is this a Kristeva-inspired feminist artwork in which the phallus—a landmark in the cartography of psychoanalysis—is replaced by the womb? Lu’s answer is no, confirming her skepticism towards the expected sexuality schema: indeed, in her efforts to add corporeal volume to the project’s design, she worked with Mao Sugiyama, a Japanese “asexual” man who had his/her genitals and nipples removed.
Beauty is a utopia, and like all utopias, survives at a distance from reality.
Superheroes and manga may be too flat an aesthetic system for some, but idealized faces can be equally flat in person. Recently, facial mapping expert Chris Soloman constructed “the most beautiful” male and female face with the EFIT-V PhotoFit software. The “most beautiful” faces are surprisingly average: they look pretty and approachable but not intolerably beautiful. They look, in other words, like stock photos—versatile and accessible, an empty shell waiting to be filled with different contents and situations. In Timur Si-Qin’s “Stock Photography as Evolutionary Attractor,” developed for DIS Images, one of the images is a virtual female face with gratifying traits: clear skin, heart-shaped visage, arched eyebrows, almond-shaped green eyes, thin nose, moist pink lips. Like the criteria of the “most beautiful female,” it was created by the facial composite system used by witnesses to reconstruct the faces of criminals. The states involved in this process reflect Si-Qin’s interest in evolution—a process geared not towards a supposed ideal but rather based on random conditions and events. Evolution simply happens: It is a machine without a goal, a means without an end. Beauty, in the end, may be said to emerge through a similar mechanism: After all, in Levi Bryant’s pan-mechanism everything is a machine, one with “heterogenous consistency.”
Venus Lau is Editor-at-Large of Kaleidoscope Asia. Currently, she serves as consulting curator at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing.
Hein-kuhn, Cosmetic Girl (Da-wong Kang, age 19, August 14, 2007), Courtesy of the artist and Kukje Gallery, Seoul
Huang Ran, Blithe Tragedy, 2010, Courtesy of the artist; Long March Space, Beijing; and Simon Lee Gallery, London/Hong Kong
Ji Yeo, Beauty Recovery Room, 2012, Courtesy of the artist
Li Yang, UterusMan Cosplay, 2013, Courtesy of the artist
Timur Si-Qin Attractors (Neutral Female), Courtesy of the artist and DISimage
Ye Funa, Curated Nail Residency in collaboration with MM Nails