We are pleased with our ability to mutate human bodies from weak to strong, from ugly to beautiful, from aroused to slackened, from fat to lean. We build chambers for these tasks and we fit them with machinery and apparatus and paraphernalia and equipment and gear. A child is born, a carnal need is assuaged, a sagging breast is lifted, a man dies. We stand ready, 24/7, our polished tools poised. We are like medieval alchemists working on our opus magnum, converting blemished mortals into immaculate angels, our brightly lit laboratories humming silently, awaiting the next transmutation. Standing in such rooms, I try to push my gaze beneath the stainless-steel surfaces to find some answers despite the glare of fluorescent lamps. How human, I ask myself, is a silicon breast presented on a frosted glass stand in the immaculately furnished office of a plastic surgeon? Is it human to be beautiful or is it human to be ugly? How human is a perfectly proportioned and idealized body, sculpted by a scalpel? How human is a brothel laid out like an ancient Egyptian temple? And how human, then, is the prostitutes’ locker room in another brothel, an ordered array of high heels sitting on top of each locker?
I have been exploring the topography of the corporeal existence in Switzerland for eleven years searching for and finding establishments devoted to the care of the human body. This quest has been a unique experience for me as a human being and as a photographer. I was forced to develop strategies to gain access to these premises. I had to explain myself and my motivations to every establishment and the brothel proprietors, surgeons and hospital administrators eventually trusted me because I was able to show steadfastness.
These Body Shops, each of them, whether it is a maternity ward, beauty parlor or a crematorium, have a front desk, reception area or a mourning room for the general public and for the customers. They also have the back rooms where the work on the bodies gets done: the operating theater, the beauty machines, the ovens. We, run-of-the-mill humans, are not supposed to linger in the back rooms; we immediately slip into the role of unwanted witnesses, onlookers and voyeurs. However, I became one of the backroom boys, going in and out, busied with my equipment, leading long conversations with the prostitutes, technicians and cleaners and adopting the air of an old hand.
An additional ethnographical dimension started to become visible in the course of my work. Looking at the images I started to discern aspects of the Swiss national character encoded in these facilities. The isolation of the underlying features of the national character of the Swiss has evolved into one of my strongest motivations in photography in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that I am actually a stranger in this country.
My photographs seem to fortify every cliché about the Swiss and then some. Swiss brothels and crematoriums, beauty parlors and maternity wards are meticulously clean, they are spotless, they are immaculate. This is an important part of the Swiss professional pride in general, accentuated by the hygiene fetishism and the legitimate need for cleanliness in such facilities in particular. A strong example is the image of the uniforms in the civil defense shelter silently awaiting their deployment, the broom the only weapon in sight. Isn’t the floor polished, isn’t it gleaming? But is this immaculateness an overkill, is it oppressive and is it thus inhuman? The answer, I hope, lies in the images.
All images 2009 and text © Juraj Lipscher
By Juraj Lipscher
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