Working with Doug, I perform a close scrutiny of his body surface – the skin. The use of narrow viewports provide a voyeuristic intimacy similar to the contact of the Fly on the model’s skin in Yoko Ono’s film of the same name. 

Just as a surgeon operates within a defined and controlled portal into the body, here each viewport forces the viewer to examine that area as it slowly scrolls through. Resembling rolling mills used in the manufacture of textiles, paper, sheet steel – this constant rotation evokes an industrial imagery recurring in David Lynch’s films.

This further alludes to a future when skin may be manufactured and ordered to specification; like a bespoke wallpaper chosen for its decorative (design and texture) appeal – a suggestion in the recent Altered Carbon series.

The vertical rollers in Totem echo the prayer wheels of Tibet. Their traditional leather rotating drums are instead replaced with the inked skin of Doug; his tattoos allude to the chants written on the prayer wheels. These chants may include Devi Kavacham (armour of the goddess), requesting the goddess’s  protection for each part of the body.

The rhythmic nature of the rotating drums with the entwined skin constantly threading through, creates a ritualistic engagement with Totem. As the sections of skin rub past each other, it increases their perceived sense of tactility and engenders a somatic response in the viewer. The feeling of what it would be like to have touch contact with that person’s skin much in the same way that Mona Hatoum’s Corps Etranger (Foreign Body), induces the sense of touching the internal parts of her body “surveillanced” by the endoscope. 

Didier Anzieu talks about the eight functions of the “skin ego”, which include maintaining, containing and protecting the psychic body, and the anxieties we all face when these are disrupted. Totem ritualistically machines the skin and so disrupts these functions causing anxiety in the viewer. The oscillating sound could suggest the fluorescent lighting in an embalming room and the grey vertical lines perhaps hint at the stainless steel of the mortician’s table.

In spite of these discomforts, whilst the troubled viewer is examining the skin’s individuation, the intimate proximity of rubbing action also infuses a sense of sexual excitation and libidinal recharging.

We are a society obsessed with pursuit of perfect skin covering ideal physiques. Just as Iggy Pop posed for Jeremy Deller’s life class, here we are asked to scrutinise the body of a 60 year old whose skin has witnessed and recorded his life. We can revel in the marks, colours and textures, scars from non-melanoma removal and from body enhancement surgery, plus self-designed total body ink – all such inscription signifies Doug for the individual he is – and yet becomes a Totem for his tribe.


Soundscape: Gara Note and Tape Chants 02 I-IV by Gregg Kowalsky

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This film is constructed as three 4K HD films to be projected in combination onto a large surface. Alternatively this can be provided as one 4K HD film for viewing on a LED screen with headphones. The version on Vimeo is 1920×1080 for ease of streaming.

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