We begin our discussion of the Lace Exoskeleton ~ the shifting, shimmering, mercurial identity that humans construct, destroy, create, perform, edit, layer and re-envision continuously, through various conscious and unconscious modes of representation. Each person’s “lace exoskeleton” evokes a delicately interwoven set of sensual
experiences (i.e., perceptions: sight, sound, taste, touch and scent that contain covert or hidden meaning). Below the surface of perception, messages, signifiers, and stimuli arouse sensual interpretation, which metamorphoses into a subtle cultural text wherein narratives of identity, self, and persona lie hidden, awaiting a competent reader who understands their implicit meaning. Through the art of suggestion, innuendo, and implication, these encoded impressions often lie just beyond the fringes of verbal representation. As a more intimate, raw, ambiguous communication of identity, the “lace exoskeleton” remains encrypted within a realm of abstraction, behind a locked door which remains impervious to most attempts to define, label, capture, and preserve its inner meaning. In other words, much like awakening from a dream, the lace exoskeleton resists linguistic representation, often changing, fading, or evading our attempts to classify, understand, trace or rekindle its original glow, despite the embers almost always remaining lit.
Let us begin with the sensual experience of smell, and through it perhaps we might understand a small shard of this puzzle which only shatters upon closer inspection.
To understand this, I will provide the example most close to my heart, involving the rituals of bathing in expensive bath products and layering scent after scent onto my body before a burlesque performance.
LUSH creates handmade bath products like those pictured above. As part of my performance ritual, these strangely addictive little “bath ballistics” are a multi-layered sensual experience in and of themselves ~ bursting, fizzing, crackling, and bubbling fervently, releasing streams of color, confetti, sparkles, and glamorous surprises like rose petals, paper hearts, or gold lustre dust.
Why do I include my LUSH collection as part of my performance art portfolio? Essentially it is about the concept of constructed identity, which begins, even before clothing, with layers of scent. The spiritual nature of bathing, beautification, and applying makeup, perfume and skin products has a meditative quality unlike anything else.
Historically, women would engage in these activities communally, much like they do before a wedding or special event (as would men in some cultures). Unfortunately, the sacred qualities of these moments have been overshadowed by misguided confusion between vanity and the rituals of feminine body modification. For me, LUSH is particularly loaded with transcendent value because it fills the room with sensual (that is, related to the senses, rather than related to sensuality, which is another thing all together – the sense of smell, olfactory stimulus) context, much like an incense burner fills a church or temple with a sacred aroma, intended to induce various states of relaxation and religious or spiritual receptivity. Essential oils have a lot of value as ways of inducing relaxation, calm, and infusing the pre-performance moments with ritualistic meaning.
This is essentially in homage to the fact that ritual has many forms, and spirituality likewise assumes many disguises, both recognized and hidden. Although identity changes visually when a person assumes or removes various disguises, the traces of other “applied” identities remain – scents, like perfumes, soap or shampoo, the “stain” or powdery film of lipstick, eyeshadow, mascara and lipstick – as well as more permanent versions of bodily decoration that “cover” what is underneath naturally, although we do not consider them valid coverings. For example, even when makeup, perfume and clothing are removed, piercings, tattoos, hair-dyes, nail-polish, prosthetics, implants, scars, scratches, and many other forgotten “imprints,” remain as evidence of identity, illustrating how much humanity relies upon these imprints to construct meaning, and suggesting that they function beyond the mere realm of frivolous vanity or narcissistic obsession.
And even without the obvious imprints, early humans – without ample covering naturally – relied upon these covering to ensure survival. Although it seems very far removed, identity construction – the human exoskeleton is very much the same – a layered, multi-faceted, shifting “collage” of appropriated material, without a truly “natural state” existing underneath. The natural state of all life involves imprints, and whether we don mud, fig leaves, coach purses, mink, dreadlocks, torn denim, or our underlying skin, all of our states of veiling, unveiling – and everything in between – remain uniquely inherent to the human experience of self.
Thus, the point is that there is no “natural state” for a human. All states are imprints – of culture, of climate, of sexual attraction, motherhood, protection, beauty, symbolic communication, group membership, mood and rich meaning. To refer to any state as” natural” (or more “real” or “true”) denies the fact that humans by nature may be predisposed to develop an identity, but do not do so when deprived of a culture, or role-models, to imitate, mirror, emulate, rebel from, and in general to react to via identity formation. “Natural” means that it fits pleasantly between personal desire and social rules, selfish whims and selfless compromise, such that external environment and internal subjectivity align with as little friction as possible.
In short, it is not natural for a human – with critical thinking and problem solving skills – to walk around naked in sub-zero weather (unless it is for some strange cultural ritual – The Polar Bears in Wisconsin for example), or to refuse to bathe or brush his/her hair when it is obvious that hygiene corresponds with health (unless this choice is due to cultural rebellion, or aesthetic preference for the “messy” style, and intended to communicate a sense of cultural alienation/challenge or a different interpretation of beauty ideals – I like my fiance Roger as a dirty hippy, but certainly would not dress this way myself!), or to assume that any racial features (which were developed as lovely adaptations for specific contexts, just like different clothing styles reflect climate – though skin color is a much slower and more genetically permanent version of the “fashions” we use to protect ourselves, communicate, convey group identity, attract others, repel or scare enemies, and celebrate identity and human gifts from a collective, divine, or spiritual shared existence) are more natural, superior or advanced than others.
Change and innovation are only successful if there is a need for change – the human phenotype changed until we learned to change it ourselves via clothing and other inventions that negate the need for many of these slow genetic shifts. Though of course, these genetic changes still occur in a gradual manner. Just because one phenotype is first, it does not make it superior, nor does a later version with updates denote progress; the phenotype is only as good as the context, environment, culture and reality that surround it allow – and at any moment, any one of the many variations of human forms might become more resilient to a disease or more susceptible to another, more prone to a particular illness or more resistant to another. But together we can cooperatively resist disease and ensure health if only we allow ourselves to see past the many veils of deceptive difference that constitute the human exoskeleton ~ the interwoven, fluid figurative “skin” we call THE LACE EXOSKELETON.