“I’m very interested in the historical periods of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment when artistic and scientific interest turned toward the understanding and exploring of our physical being and the nature of its malaise.
It seems to me that at a personal level we all have to retrace this path of discovery about the physical, marveling about the wonders of our bodies and making peace with the fallibility of it.”
Timea Tihanyi is an artist and educator based in Seattle, Washington. She teaches art at the University of Washington, and is especially interested in the body as subject matter. When I was a graduate student at UW, she was an invaluable member of my MFA Thesis Committee. With her encouragement, I pursued my exploration of dermatographia as art, and we had many fascinating conversations about skin. As a young artist, it was so helpful to have people on my side who supported and encouraged me to push the work further. Stepping just outside my comfort zone has led to some amazing discoveries.
When I first started photographing my dermatographic drawings I thought nobody would be interested in them, or find them totally gross. But with Timea’s support, I found the courage to make these photographs that expose my vulnerability. She helped me focus on what I want to do with dermatographia–make it beautiful–and what I want to do with skin–bring awareness to it. By staying confident in these goals, it enabled me to push past the fear I felt by exposing something so intimate and personal.
I’m grateful to have Timea on my side–because she is not only an inspiring artist and awesome educator, but also a really nice, generous human being.
Since Timea makes art about the body, and her materials often reference skin and tissue, I thought she would be the perfect fit for Skin Tome.
Skin Tome (ST): How has skin been an inspiration for you in your work?
Timea Tihanyi (TT): Thinking about the skin in the sense of being a boundary has always been part of my work. Over the years, the skin as a theme and as an inspiration has gone from the obvious presence towards a more abstract consideration. There are two completely different events in my life that had lead me to considering the idea of the skin as a border: The first is 1989, the coming down of the Berlin Wall. At that time, I was living in Hungary; thrilled to witness the events and their consequences. For us, Eastern-Europeans, the Wall represented not only a physical boundary, but also an existential awareness between “us” and “them”, inside and outside. The second connection to the skin happened in medical school: In the medical practice I became keenly aware of the living body being kind of a black box: no matter how much we learn about it, there are still many things that cannot be known or shared about one’s inner state (mind or body). So, as a physician, the skin was kind of an obstacle, but also an amazingly versatile vessel. In my current work I still deal with these dichotomies of inside and outside. And, since I do sculpture, the tactile experiential world of materials has always been very important to me.
(ST): Do you have any skin conditions or skin issues?
(TT): My mom has the most perfect skin, not a freckle, or ever a blemish on her face. I always envied her skin, especially when, as adolescent, acne started taking showing up on mine. When I was a kid I had atopic dermatitis (eczema) for many years, which is a very common condition in children. I think at that time I thought I would always have to have those hateful itchy spots on my wrists and behind my knees… Funny how fast I’ve forgotten about them after they were gone.
And there used to be a large mole on my thigh that was taken out as a precaution (had many of the signs of a melanoma). I felt really odd about losing it because it was very much part of my body (or, better to say, part of my idea of my body) and also because that was pretty much the only way I could tell my right leg from the left.
(ST): What do you dislike about your skin?
(TT): The fact that it ages. It becomes a completely different material over time. More reluctant to heal, losing its elasticity, getting thinner, less supple and less forgiving. It’s still a wonderful material though.
(ST): What do you love about your skin?
(TT): It sounds corny but I love the fact that it is alive. It’s our biggest organ. It’s amazingly simple (5 layers of epidermis + 2 layers of the dermis) and wonderfully complicated: just think of what happens when you cut yourself, or when you touch something. The fact that it is part of the nervous system and that it is permeable yet it contains us.
I teach an undergraduate interdisciplinary seminar on the cultural history of the skin through the ages and we work our way through various skin metaphors: container, veil, armor, house, canvas, milieu. There are lots of interesting tangents to these: we read, for example, about the Jewish ghetto in Venice, taboos related to tattooing women’s bodies in Western cultures, Renaissance anatomical theaters and the practice of dissection as a form of ultimate punishment, and 18th and 19th century practices for hygienic and cosmetics. The students come up with amazing research for their final paper: The topics are usually wide ranging, it could be anything from analyzing super hero costumes as a form of second skin, carefully considering social and psychological issues related to self-cutting, to uncovering the history of beauty spots, and doing field research in the local tattoo shops. That class is always fun to teach. I feel that I learn as much or more from the students as they learn from me.
*Update: Jen Graves, writer for The Stranger, wrote a great review of Timea’s show in Seattle, and mentioned our interview here on Skin Tome. There’s a couple photographs of the show too.
Images courtesy of Timea Tihanyi
(top image) Fragile from Protect/Prevent series
sewn and cut felt, latex foam
(lower image) Lovelabor
installation, slipcast vitreous ceramics with glaze