Visual Arts: Vile bodies?

Sick sensationalism or life as art? Ann Treneman finds that new interpretations of the human form are challenging some deeply-rooted social taboos

SUE FOX has taken some 1,500 photographs of dead bodies she has met in a Manchester morgue but hardly anyone has seen them. And for a good reason. "I did a couple of exhibitions and left a comments book and got loads of abuse. Things like 'you're sick' and 'your life must be very scary' and 'you've got problems, you must come to the Lord.' I found it quite funny actually. I just reckon that a lot of people have got a lot of fear around death."

She would reckon right. Now, as part of Channel 4's Vile Bodies series, many more people will see the photographs and be shocked in spite of themselves. They say we live in an age without taboos, but they are wrong. All you need to do to prove that to yourself is to open the book that goes with the series on the bus or the train and watch people flee. I mention this to series producer Adam Barker and he is not surprised. "Many of the photographs deal with real taboos. We are looking at how artists push the boundaries of areas that are normally repressed. Our buttons will get pushed at some point. Everyone has different fears."

There are three programmes in the series around the themes of nakedness, children and death. "We did not start out thinking how can we upset people. After all, that is fairly easy to do," said Barker. Instead he started out wanting to show the work of several artists. These include the likes of Nick Waplington, who re-stages suicides and Sally Mann, who photographed her own children to great controversy. The series took two years of thinking time and nine months to film. "As a society we have such rigid and defined ideas of what is a normal body," says Barker, "and about what is seen as abnormal and normal. All of these photographers are questioning what that is."

Jenny Saville had a friend at art school who used to draw on her leg where she wanted her body to end. "Of course it was completely futile because the line kept moving," says Saville. The diet may have been a failure but the idea was not. "It stuck in my head and began a ball rolling. I started to question how we approach the female body in media and magazines," she says.

She wanted images of larger bodies but found that she had to go to porn and medicine to find them. Then Saville - now best known for her larger- than-life paintings of the female body - became interested in plastic surgery and how we choose to change our bodies. She was in New York observing plastic surgery when she met fashion photographer Glenn Luchford, when he came over to photograph her for a magazine article. Both of them had hangovers, so they went to lunch instead. Jenny had already started experimenting with photographing her own naked body pressed against glass but was having trouble with reflection. She asked Glenn's advice. He gave it and they decided to collaborate.

"I wanted to make a smear of the body. I was interested in disrupting it. We are so used to seeing one kind of image. The tummy button is always in the same place and the breasts on either side. I wanted to disrupt that," she says. She succeeded. The images were achieved by Saville lying on an inch-thick platform of Perspex directly over Luchford with his camera. "The first time I think he was quite apprehensive. He's used to fashion models whose bodies are frail and small. I'm not ashamed of my nakedness and just told him what to do."

They did six shoots of three or four days each (Saville's body got too bruised and sore to do any more). They used Polaroids at first. All in all there are 3,000 images, but only 17 have been made into huge prints. The ones of her head are the most recent shots and the scale of the prints is huge, with each of her teeth being about a foot tall. Does she think the images are disturbing? "Some people say they find them strangely beautiful. I don't usually think about what somebody else thinks is acceptable or not, though."

Jouko Lehtola is a 34-year-old Finnish photographer, who used to photograph bands until he realised he was more interested in the audience and innocence lost. "I got interested in what happens before teenagers came to the concert, outside the hall, in the parking places. There are rites. Girls do make- up and they listen to music and drink beer, waiting for the evening."

Over the years he has taken thousands of photographs of teens between the ages of 15 and 25. He goes to the places he went to as a teenager in Helsinki, on the beach, in bars and also to the midsummer festivals held in the middle of forests, hundreds of miles from parents. "They are doing the same rituals that their parents have done. They have kissed for the first time in those places and drank their first drink. Summer is short here and so it is the only time when you can actually feel freedom. I learned much more there than at school. About what? About life, about girls, just experiences."

The photographs show kids snogging, with neckfuls of love-bites, drunk and disorderly (with the black eyes to prove it). "They are not ashamed. No, they are not!" he says. "I try to be at the same level as them. I try to respect them. When I go into these situations I laugh and I cry with them. The camera is like my eye. They can see that. The key is to be very very open."

He spotted the couple with the blue and yellow hair at a midsummer festival where 13-year-olds run wild on home-brew. "They were sitting there kissing and I asked if I could take their photo. They kissed for three frames. I mainly just take one or two shots of each and not more because otherwise they start to pose too much. I am trying to capture the feeling when I saw them.

"They are not posing in that moment. I have to go up to them and have a short conversation. If they trust me in that short moment, then it works. Otherwise it doesn't and I can see that the photographs have been taken by an outsider."

Sue Fox says she has always been interested in the unusual. She remembers one school project on religion, for instance, where everyone was doing weddings and births. Except for Sue. She was doing funerals. Then in the Eighties she became a Buddhist and her interest in death grew. "I really wanted to get into a mortuary and face my own fear of death. I have had a lot of moments where I have been afraid, but I like facing my demons." It took eight years of trying but finally, in 1993, she was given access.

"My first body was a Turkish lorry driver who had drowned. I was shocked. I wasn't sick or anything. I observed as much as possible and took some photos and went home and reflected." She has been back at least 80 times and says that every corpse has shocked her in some way. Sometimes she is "shit-scared", sometimes she cries. "I didn't become anaesthetised. Basically I am capturing something that is going to happen to everybody. Most people have post mortems done to them." Every body is remembered in detail. The one in our photograph, which is being cut up and cleaned by a mortician, belonged to an emaciated man who may have been an alcoholic. "I just sort of empathised and wondered what his last few years were like," says Fox. We talk about another of her photographs, of a black man who was only discovered after he'd been dead for several days. The photograph shows little bits of paper all round him. "Those little things are actually shredded tax forms that are put in the body cavities to soak up the blood. He was very swollen because he had a lot of gas in him. So they just popped him and all the gas came out. You can see that his skin is peeling away. You think that people of other races have quite a layer of coloured skin but it literally tissue thin."

The Vile Bodies programmes Kids and The Dead will be shown on 30 March and 6 April on Channel 4. The book Vile Bodies: Photography and the Crisis of Looking by Chris Townsend is published by Prestel at pounds 24.95.

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