The Body and Flesh exhibition presents the distinctive body of work of an artist who, over the past 25 years, has relentlessly explored themes of fragility and ephemerality of the human body, and ultimately the body at its utmost end–physical death. In his early career Goran Bertok produced staged photographs displaying scenes of violated bodies and unconventional sexual practices, while in the past decade he has been exploring the phenomena of death and decaying bodies.
Goran Bertok is an artist and photographer profoundly obsessed with violence and its consequences on the human body. Some might call it dark or sinister, however it is nothing but the public display of images that most people do not want to see or acknowledge. His inclination has always been to depict and document the margins of society, phenomena that are often prohibited and certainly socially unacceptable. In past decade, western society has indiscriminately averted its gaze away from the sick, old, abused, or violated body and most definitely away from the corpse. Bertok’s photographs, as naturalist and explicit as they are, are therefore too disturbing for today’s tastes and for the mainstream perception of human body and sexuality. Our society is bombarded with images of young, healthy, smooth, shiny and highly objectified bodies in popular culture. Conversely, Bertok’s images of bodies are rough, unembellished, unapologetically realistic and graphic. The human body, which is the sole subject of his work, becomes a surface upon which the traces of life are carved and engraved. The geography of body containing imprints from the past relates powerfully something of the human condition of his models, be they practitioners of unconventional sexual practices, prisoners, former inmates of concentration camps, or anonymous decomposing corpses. He is attracted to extreme violence and death. But who of us, consumers of modern popular culture, is not? Death and violence sell.
Bertok’s early work is distinctive for its dark imagery, resembling diverse mythological scenes based on ancient or Christian art, or even science fiction. These photographs, with their fictionalised narratives, merge the notion of history with the future, mythology with imagination. The models are placed within the infinite emptiness of a studio environment, devoid of any additional context. What remains are pure visual sensation and metaphor. Whatever is to be seen or sensed in these gloomy photographs, it is only a reflection of things unspoken and unseen; a dreamy glimpse into the realms of our conscious or unconscious, our desires, and fears.
His earliest works, the Animal series, were entirely staged in a studio with the bodies of models serving as elements in highly symbolic compositions. This symbolism soon transgressed into pure naturalism with motifs of unconventional carnal sexual pleasure on display, namely sadomasochistic and fetishist rituals of (self)injury, performed by real practitioners. Despite being staged, the artist grew close to his models and performers and managed to closely observe their behaviour and practices. The photographs are therefore extremely raw and eager to show the vulnerability of the human body as well as the ambivalence between pleasure and pain.
For Bertok the body is a topographic manifestation of life that begins as a tabula rasa and later becomes increasingly marked with traces of life experiences. Like the iconic photograph of Richard Avedon from 1963 showing the piercing gaze of William Casby, an elderly man who had been born a slave, it recounts untold stories of his long life. His face arouses thoughts inevitably related to the general facts and established notions about social conditions of that period. Avedon exposed and emphasised the profound strength of human face and body in his photographs. They are the blueprint for how bodies are depicted in Bertok’s photographs, with all their fragility and vulnerability on show, as well as traces of past violence. The surfaces of bodies are coarse, fissured and degraded, especially in his later works when he became increasingly obsessed with the physicality of death. Here the ambivalence has gone. Death is undoubtedly all about pain, agony, and suffering. There is no dignified or heroic death, only the human body becoming a rotting piece of flesh and vanishing before our eyes.
It is universally acknowledged that death has become taboo nowadays. Yet at the same time, the media challenges this belief by making the reporting of death very much an everyday part of our daily reality. In fact, this opposition only establishes death as problematic and raises further questions. As sociologist Tony Walter warns, we’re left questioning whether death truly is a taboo, what kind of a taboo it is and for whom, what kind of death or which part of it is considered taboo: our own death or the death of a loved one; dying as a ‘process’ or death as a ‘state’; the idea of inexistence or the idea of existing as a decomposing body? Different contexts allow for different perceptions of death and this makes our experience of it typically fragmentary, hence (post)modern.
Modern society has left public interpretation of death and the ritual of death in the hands of the media’s more or less sensationalist reporting, medicine, and popular culture, all of which often render a distorted image of the death and dying. At the same time, associating death with unrestrained consumption has now reached its peak. The entertainment industry promises to indulge our darkest fantasies, combining death, sexuality, and violence. It is constantly pushing the boundaries of acceptable relations between the living and the dead. Thus, the corpse is becoming a stage for a modern techno-utopia onto which fantasies about perfect control (over the body), eternal youth, and longevity – ideals the Western world so desperately desires – are being projected. Public discourse reinforces the idea that death is just a temporary state maintaining that the ability to avoid or cure it, like any other disease, is only a matter of time. This renders individual response to death impersonal and strengthens what sociologist Laurel Hilliker calls our “death-denying cultural identity”.
The question that arises when we are looking at Bertok’s post-mortem photographs is what is it that we are actually looking at. To say that it is dead body/corpse is to fall short of the social implication and the social dimension of the photograph. By focusing on the dead body/corpse as a motif Bertok questions the socially (un)acceptable notions surrounding the meanings and representations of death; of what is allowed, decent and appropriate to be observed, and how. In this sense, Bertok is similar to other contemporary photographers who likewise depict death and the dead/dying body such as Jeffrey Silverthorne, Rudolf Schäfer, Andres Serrano, Joel-Peter Witkin. The artist enables his audience to see not only what is concealed, but considering one’s own death, also what is impossible. Graphic detail of faces and other frozen body parts of elderly people, partly showing signs of decomposition and decay, as in the series Post Mortem (2007-2010); a dead baby floating in formaldehyde in Red (2009), a series that reminds of a cabinet of curiosities; or bodies burning while being cremated in the series Visitors (2004-2010).
For Bertok death is mostly violent and occasionally depicted in a crude, naturalistic way. According to the artist, the corpse is “the best evidence of death as violence against humans; we may reconcile ourselves to death, but this does not deny the violence against humans – the ultimate victory over life, ultimate destruction”. His photographs reflect the notion of death as something impersonal, nameless, and alienated, merely as inevitable decay of dead matter and its inevitable annihilation. The audience is faced with the question of what meaning to give to this phantasmal counterpart, who looks like us but is, at the same time, the ultimate other? Death and the dead body/corpse are not identical, even if the latter is recognised as a visible sign of the former. Even though human beings are capable of self-reflection and are aware of our own mortality, we have no access to the experience of death except as the death of another person. For individuals, unable to imagine our own death, the sight of a dead body, even if conveyed through photography, is an insoluble paradox. It triggers the sense of ambivalence Freud called das Unheimliche, ‘the uncanny’; “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar”. The corpse is frightening because it raises doubts as to whether a seemingly living creature is truly dead, and vice-versa, whether an inanimate object is perhaps alive after all. And whether gazing into Bertok’s post-mortem close-up of a frozen eye, the dead body is, in fact, looking back at us.
Miha Colner & Jasna Jernejšek