In an ongoing collaborative project between the artists Jonathan Armour and Richard Sawdon Smith their first public output is the work Infinite Surface. This centres on The Anatomical Man photography project in which Sawdon Smith had part of the circulatory system, veins and arteries, tattooed onto his body. Since being diagnosed HIV+ in 1994, he has visually documented repetitive trips to the clinic for blood tests that screen for levels of ill-health. Playing with layers of the real, memories, fiction and the imagined, tattooing, a process using needles to puncture the skin like the blood tests, highlights the medical procedures of illness, making visible the behind-the-scenes routines, referencing not only pain and the rupturing of the body’s surface but the repetition and banalities of life under the clinical gaze.
Referencing Mary Richards’ (2000) writing about Ron Athey’s performance work, which includes body modification and bloodletting in relation to his tattooed HIV+ body, she implies that for a new subjectivity to become possible, the old must be fragmented, abandoned. In order to survive as a subject in a fractured body, one must destroy the boundaries of one’s own subjectivity not just through pain but by externalizing the internal
as well. Recurring themes in Armour’s work echo Anzieu’s ideas of the “skin-ego” as an interface between inside and outside, between the person and the world, with the skin-ego’s associated functions of containing and protecting the psychic apparatus much as the skin contains the body. Via the projects with Sawdon Smith, Armour is challenging his own response to anxieties of rupturing the container and penetrating the protective shell, as well as exploring the individuation resulting from the needle work on the skin.
The tattooing indicates a medical history drawn onto the surface of the skin of Sawdon Smith. A marker of what could be an invisible history, of living with HIV, made visible and available for others to read and reflect as they witness his body. Armour and Sawdon Smith have created a digital 3D version of the tattooed self, a virtual body that an audience will eventually be able to interact with while viewing the tattooed veins and arteries. Currently the film of the inside of the 3D model, which, at the same time reveals the tattoos on the skin, allows the audience to travel internally and externally through the infected body.
In the digital body the skin is the container, the shell. We are seeing the inside and the outside at the same time, they are one plane. Conceptually this echoes the unique property of the Moebius band – such parallels between the body and the Moebius band are discussed by Lygia Clark in “Nostalgia of the body”. Lyotard’s description of “Opening the Libidinal Surface” seems to predict a body constituted from digital material:
…spread out the immense membrane of the libidinal body, which is … made from the most heterogeneous textures, bone, sheets to write on, charged atmospheres, swords, glass cases, peoples, grasses, canvasses to paint…All these zones are joined end to end in a band which has no back to it, a Moebius Band which interests us not because it is
closed, but because it is one-sided,…a Moebian skin which rather than being smooth, is on the contrary covered with roughness, corners, creases, cavities… The interminable band with variable geometry (…) has not got two sides, but only one, and therefore is neither exterior nor interior.
Anzieu, D. 1989. The Skin Ego: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Self.
Trans. Turner, C. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Clark, L. and Bois, Y-A. 1994. Nostalgia of the body. October. 69
(summer 1994), pp. 85-109.
Lyotard, J-F. 2004. Libidinal Economy. Trans. Grant, I.H. London: Continuum.
Richards, M. ‘Ron Athey, AIDS and the Politics of Pain’. Body, Space
and Technology [Online] 2000. Volume 3, Number 2.
An additional contextual video (Blood Test 2010) is also available at: