Art of the Orifice: Adamo Macri’s Verboten

by Kenneth Radu


The human body has always been the source of pleasure and revulsion, at once the embodiment of ecstasy and excrement, delight and disgust, beauty and brutality, dream and nightmare. In his great satire Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift depends upon such antithesis in his portrayal of the admirable Houyhnhnms and Gulliver’s ensuing misanthropy. After experiencing the social harmony and sense of rational creatures, he is critical of human standards and behaviours, just as he elsewhere is revolted by the physical body itself whose imperfections are magnified in the land of the giant Brobdingnags. 

Adamo Macri is no disillusioned Gulliver when it comes to the human body, nor does he recoil from its most intimate parts. Like Swift he magnifies, not necessarily the pores and blemishes, but the secret and forbidden interiors, rarely seen in works of art, or outside of a hospital operating room or dentist’s office. In fact, one has to admire the dexterity and aesthetic complexity of his photographs of human orifices in a stunning montage entitled Verboten. If this work unlike Swift’s lacks a political and social context, it is nonetheless rich with erotic and psychological implications which viewers who study the pictures apprehend and may explore, once they overcome initial titillation or shock.

A special quality of Macri’s oeuvre here is that he renders the potentially shocking, revolting, lascivious or shameful into a thing of seductive beauty. The method involves exposure of physiological essentials, the openings at either end of the body, through intent, hue, magnification, texture, explicitness, suggestiveness, and amoral distancing. The latter is itself a kind of objectivity allowing the artist to show the inside of the open mouth, the vulva, and ultimately the anus without Gulliver’s disillusionment, disgust and reprobation. Perhaps objectivity is incorrect. The orifices, those apertures by which we absorb and expel, demonstrate Macri’s unflinching acceptance of and fascination with unseen characteristics of the top and the bottom of the torso. He invites a viewer’s admiration or rejection, delight or distaste, erotic reverie or recoil, or a combination of all contradictory responses.

Human portraiture understandably pays attention to the face, as Macri himself does in his series of self-portraits on Facebook, or on the external body, including genitalia. Rarely does it focus so pointedly and penetrate the most hidden and most potentially disturbing parts of the human form: the inner recesses of the mouth, the vulva beyond the labia, and the open and closed anus. His eye delves into the secret nature and depths of the orifices like a diver plunging underwater to discover the brilliant coloration and complex structure of coral and shells and exotic organisms not visible on the surface. 

Consisting of six photographs in three rows, Verboten as a title is ironic. As we all know, it’s the German word often used in English to denote the off-limits and forbidden, as if the sound itself were a gunshot warning us to stay away from what should be properly hidden or exclusively private. I say ironic because anything labelled verboten immediately entices one to enter, to transgress, to see what one is not supposed to see, to violate the taboo, and break boundaries. In their response to this series, viewers have occasionally read verbatim for verboten. If I may allude to Freud, his theory of parapraxis argues that a minor slip of the tongue, or confusion of words, supposedly reveals a hitherto unrecognized, unconscious truth. 

In Macri’s Verboten the truth is the implicit connection this innovative, multi-media artist makes between word and image, and literal representation and poetic transformation. The images are of the inward, physical nature of orifices, ordinarily verboten to public view. The montage imbues them with multiple meanings or possibilities originating not only in the artist’s own conception, but also in a viewer’s complex and perhaps contradictory responses. These can lead to slips of the tongue in more ways than one, given the subject matter of the photographs, and one doesn’t really have to accept Freudian theory, although it is convenient here. To the artist we grant the right to explore everything that is hidden, nothing is forbidden, nor has it ever been, moral or political censorship notwithstanding, if we look at the history of art in all its manifestations. 

Intentionally or not, Macri encourages any viewer’s confusion of the two words in these simultaneously attractive and repellent photographs. If we only praise or censure the photographs for their explicitness, perhaps we are being literal-minded, trapped by exactitude, the verbatim. Macri depicts this same exactitude visually and in so doing ironically liberates the hidden parts from physiological fact. The slip of the tongue may well indicate a conflict of our perception. We actually see the facts of the orifices, as it were, but we may also be seeing what the artist suspects we will see: that is to say, our own overt or unconscious feelings and/or desires about them. An artist of wide-ranging intelligence, Adamo Macri understands how the visually verboten has the inestimable power to break the chains of the factual or verbatim.

Verboten

The photographs also give voice to other forbidden words which still bring a blush to the modest or puritan cheek. True, what once were forbidden words have lost their ability to shock because of overuse, just as the body risks becoming banal because of over-exposure. I commend the tact and control by which Macri exposes the loveliness of the hidden. His method of artistic exactitude saves the orifices from banality and boredom as the pictures so clearly enter the realm of the transfigured and paradoxically edifying. 

The first image, top left of the montage, is black and white. It shows the interior of a wide-open mouth, and one can see teeth. It appears forbidding or ominous, as if it is more warning than entrance, almost serving the function of a guillotine, one threatening to clamp down and decapitate intruders. Perhaps it’s Macri’s Italian ancestry or admittedly my own literary predilections, but while studying this particular picture, a line from Dante came to me unbidden from my university days: Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate. Unlike the poet confronting the gates of Hell in The Divine Comedy, we dare to enter the forbidden, the verboten, not abandoning all hope, but challenging our own inhibitions. The reward is neither sin nor hell, but wonder at Macri’s artistic purpose and vision.  
              
Once we get past the brutal exactness of the first black and white photograph, in the second frame we proceed further into the mouth, to the uvula, and discover the inner nature of things, the beginning of descent or exploration of the unperceived depths. Our eyes are ablaze with brilliant colour of the uvula and opening to the throat, a striking contrast with the first image of the open mouth, the external gate or guard. 

In the second row of six photographs depicting the vulva, some of the images reflect Macri’s endless fascination with cellular structures, the potential and process of the building blocks and energies of organic life. They also show his ability to create images that stimulate other images pre-existent in the viewer’s mind. We make analogies to explain what we see, analogies arising from what knowledge we already possess. It could be a honeycomb to describe the structure presented in the last picture of this row. The lacy fringes of a gown, or an elaborately embroidered fan, or even a segment of living coral comes to mind when I view the fifth picture. Another photograph has similarities to a stained-glass rose window in a Gothic cathedral; one or two remind me of the delicate tissue inside a clam. We all seek comparisons. The pictures entice one to feel, for most seem soft and tactile, pliant to the touch and enfolding. 

The pictures may intermingle with our private thoughts, if we do not turn away. It remains for us to enter the openings how we will, and to feel what we feel, as we dare to sink into further depths of the hidden. Our own erotic fantasies are stimulated by the photographs, and we project on to them what we wish to imagine. Macri’s art is always interesting in that regard. What he leaves out in a particular series is often as compelling as what he depicts. To some degree, the erotic in art is not so much what artists show in a work, as it is what dreams viewers dream into them. Or not, as the case may be. Some viewers look away in dismay or shock or distaste, rather than entertain and immerse themselves in the implications. Or, more likely, they return after the first experience to re-examine, compelled by the fascination of the unfamiliar which everyone possesses.

The tension between acceptance and revulsion, therefore, is often present in Macri’s work, sometimes the line so fine it’s difficult to perceive, except one feels that it is so. Many experience this conflict or contradiction, for example, when viewing his pink tongue-like structure in a series known as Still Life. Accept or invite what? Macri does not portray what can penetrate the human apertures, except in one stunning image in the bottom row of the montage. It is a photograph of a large black dildo inserted in the anus, or attempting to enter, its passage seemingly forbidden. Its presence is so startling that one is compelled to consider that however much it opens, a human orifice can also close and prevent access. The gates may be shut against unwanted access or trespassers, the teeth may bite down, and it is up to the sexual imagination of viewers to complete the narrative. 

The first and rather humorous photograph of the anus in the bottom row looks like a pillow with a button sewn in the centre. The intensity of the images increases, becoming more provocative and evocative. The montage ends on a note of negation. Just as the first black and white picture of the mouth has a forbidding quality, so the last image, the sixth, extreme right of the third row, instils the same negative feelings, primarily because we have gone from the open to the sealed, from inclusion to exclusion. It is a blatant black and white, accurate photograph of a closed anus, the bottom of the torso, the aperture of expulsion, not a shred of romance or idealization about it. 

Between the opening of the mouth in the first photograph and the closing of the anus in the last, however, the striking emphasis on the colour pink in the pictures softens the visual and/or rhetorical blow of Verboten. Pink hues elevate the clinical or literal verbatim to the level of aesthetic excitement and erotic fantasy of the verboten. Hence, Macri liberates the orifices from mere clinical physiology, prurience or pornography. Pink is the colour of warmth and innocence and new life. Moreover, pink underlines Macri’s sense of humour, for he is an artist who, showing hidden body parts, often has his tongue in cheek. His art can be serious and satirical at the same time. There’s a spirit of joie de vivre in the pink or, to use Bakhtin’s famous concept, a carnivalesque subversion of standard narratives, whereby Macri daringly intermingles the sacred and the profane, the clinical and the aesthetic, upsetting preconceptions and seducing the imagination. 

After all, the social function of carnival, the public festival of intimate audacity, is to turn things upside down, to liberate repressed feelings, and sabotage the entire notion of the verboten. In these pictures the colour pink, however clinically true to the viscera or inner parts of the human, also romanticizes or idealizes the orifices, their hidden depths, and even their narrow physiological function, to a degree. Despite the final black and white photograph of anal closure, Macri’s photographic montage Verboten is not a portfolio of Swiftian disgust. In these pictures of the inside of our complex orifices, he subtly photographs the dynamic between acceptance and denial, fascination and revulsion, reality and fantasy, the conscious and unconscious. Above all Macri transforms our complex and sensual orifices into an art of erotic suggestiveness and sensuous beauty.


Kenneth Radu has published books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including The Cost of Living, shortlisted for the Governor General's Award. His collection of stories A Private Performance and his first novel Distant Relations both received the Quebec Writers' Federation Award for best English-language fiction. He is also the author of the novel Flesh and Blood (HarperCollins Canada), Sex in Russia: New & Selected Stories, and Earthbound (DC Books Canada). He is currently working on a collection of new stories.


Art of the Orifice: Adamo Macri’s Verboten
Essay by Kenneth RaduNovember 2012