Television review

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Beauty" and "interest" are the two great alibis of contemporary art, values that can be invoked to defend the most bizarre aesthetic excursions. So someone might mount an exhibition of platinum print photographs of dog faeces and say, "Well, there is a kind of overlooked beauty in there, you know" (and given photography's power to sanitize and beautify they could be right). Asked to explain what had drawn them to this unusual subject, they might reply that "they were interested in rehabilitating a despised substance" or that they were "really interested in the contingent sculpture of the streets".

All three artists in Vile Bodies (Channel 4) used both these terms as they talked about their work - a series of photographic projects which, at one level or another, were conceived as resistant to the conventional commercial images of the body that assault us every day. And in all three cases they provided reassuring credentials for activities that might have appeared perverse or self-indulgent in any other context: Jenny Savile, a painter of vast fleshy canvases, was filmed squashing her own voluptuous body to a glass surface while a photographic accomplice took pictures from underneath; John Coplans posed naked while an attractive young assistant took meticulous photographs of his ageing body; Joel Peter-Witkin produced fetishistic tableaux vivants, using amputees and androgynes.

Of course, just because an alibi has been abused in the past doesn't mean it can't ever be true. The results of Jenny Savile's blushless writhings on the plate glass were genuinely interesting, partly because they confronted you with the extraordinary fleshiness of flesh, something most of our clothes and cosmetics strive to conceal. Smeared and distorted by friction and pressure and her own wrenching hands, she had turned herself into a Francis Bacon, though one without the distancing veils of paint or brushstrokes (that they were photographs insisted on the fact that these mannerisms of colour and texture were an effect of the body, not art). She made a right exhibition of herself, in short, but the results were well worth looking at.

The other two artists were less convincing - John Coplans because what he had to say about his warts-and-all portraits ran out well before his contribution did, and Joel-Peter Witkin because his curriculum vitae seemed almost comically tailored for a creator of disturbing images - "In the morning I would smell her gangrenous leg," he said, recalling childhood memories of his grandmother, before confessing that his first sexual encounter had been at a carnival freak-show with a "pre-op transsexual".

His eerie collages of real people and a clutter of mythical and artistic props were more dubious too in the way that they enlisted individuals for what seemed a distinctly individual need. "I'm really photographing myself," he said at one point, after the camera had shown him manipulating a model in one of his sessions. Oh no he wasn't, and that's why the risks he takes with the image are somehow less respectable than those in Jenny Savile's pictures.

Vile Bodies struck off some unexpected echoes with To The Ends of the Earth (Channel 4), a documentary about the mummies of the Takla Makan desert in China, which had been shown earlier in the evening. Indeed the title of the later programme pretty much summed up the attitude of the Chinese government to this inconvenient archaeological discovery - a group of perfectly preserved bodies which showed several signs of being European in descent and culture.

Because national identity is a volatile matter in this region the Chinese were discouraging further investigation, but what had emerged so far was striking. The echoes came from the pictures of the mummies themselves - occasionally distorted by their millennial rest in just the way that Savile's flesh appeared in her photographs - and also from the tender remark of a local archaeologist, who described one dessicated corpse as "the most beautiful woman on earth". He would have understood what Savile meant when she argued, an hour or two later, that "we have to work at making ideas of beauty more complex".

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