Annelies Slabbynck: Exploring the imperfect mutability of the female body

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Can we start with some background? Did you have formal training in art?

ANNELIES SLABBYNCK: At the age of 17, I started art school, studying first Ornamental Arts and Crafts during 2 years in secondary education. It was an art training with a quite diverse program with crafts such as ceramics, sculpture, stained glass, drawing classes. After finishing these studies, I choose to specialise fully in Ceramics in higher education.

SI: What made you combine Art and Science?

AS: While I was in elementary school, I already preferred sitting in the dentist seat at the hospital (teeth are often artefacts in my work) above sitting at my desk in school. I still feel very comfortable – almost at home in a hospital environment. Unfortunately, at a certain point in my life, I was confronted with medical issues and was often committed to hospital.

My early interest in the medical world and especially my own medical conditions and challenges shaped the foundation of making art work related to science, in my case medical science.

SI: Another big influence on you seems to be your time spent in China. Can you discuss how it affected your work?

AS: At the beginning of my stay in Shanghai, utility objects, domestic textiles made from natural materials, and daily life in China — in all its aspects — caught my attention and offered me a lot of inspiration. Craftspeople, for example the tailors, who work along the sides of roads and in the many tiny shops full of treasures, made me curious and eager to learn and experiment with new materials and techniques.
On the other hand, I enjoyed discovering more about Chinese traditional medicine and its related tools and herbs, which became artefacts in my art concept and visualisation. China’s cultural heritage and it’s dynamic atmosphere of today undoubtedly influenced my art and broadened my view on the world.

SI: Can you describe your early attempts at mixing Science and Art? What was the process like?

AS: Mainly due my personal medical issues, I began a more profound investigation of the human body. I started collecting old and new medical tools as well antique medical science books with stunning old anatomical drawings, themes of gynaecology and birth defects, skin diseases etc.

The deeper I went into my research, the more interested I grew in expressing and translating certain bodily themes into my art work.

Living in Shanghai gave me the opportunity to access specialised and professional medical shops which was a real treat for me.

During the following years, working with clay as an art medium became only one of the raw materials to express my great interest in the human body. I started using other resources such as wax, which forms a perfect medium to portray bodily phenomena. At the same time, I started to collect antique fabrics and garments. I love the history behind old textiles.

When you study and dissect a garment, it closely correlates with the human architecture. Ruptures in old textile pieces resemble scars and show the fragility of a body. Tissue and fabrics, especially the old pieces, combined with clay and wax act as a second skin.

SI: What are the major themes and questions you explore in your work?

AS: The visualisation of physical as well as mental diseases, injuries and body deformities are important elements in my art work. Themes such as loss, sickness and death are discreetly weaved into intimate layers which are omnipresent in my artistic journey.

My artwork explores the female body and its related body issues. The social position of a woman or young girl in society is often strongly portrayed in my oeuvre. Integrating traditional crafts such as sewing and embroidery are a crucial part of my work process and execution.

SI: The mutability of the human body appears prominently in your work. Teratomas involve runaway cells, dividing beyond the norm, and taking bulbous form. Skin rash involves runaway immune cells that result in the formation of a rash that, taken individually are almost timorous in form. Can you discuss the Teratology and Skin Rash series?

AS: The medical term teratology, ‘the scientific study of congenital abnormalities and abnormal formations’, corresponds with my work method. I am fascinated by the examination of the imperfect body regarding abnormalities by birth and how a healthy body (physically and psychological) can become modified into a sick or damaged body by something like disease.

The art pieces of the ‘Teratology Studies’ are a translation of this process, focussing in this case on disfigured hands. The showcases of wet specimens with deformed human body parts in medical history museums inspired me to place some of the ‘teratology hands’ isolated with antique garment accessories, creating a more informal domestic atmosphere in old glass bells.

‘The Skin Rash Series’ comes from 3 enlarged old passport pictures with images of Chinese women which accompany 3 Chinese ceramic pots. Each woman appears serene, their faces’ look flawless but are interrupted by a certain type of facial skin rash (portrayed by the use of red embroidery thread and water paint covered with a thin layer of wax).

As for the ceramic pots, the perfect glazed exterior is disrupted with small lumps (clay slip), red spots (red water paint), covered with wax which creates an uneven surface.
The 3 pots are an extension of the woman’s existence and are changed from lifeless objects into living bodies.

The ‘Skin Rash’ on the human faces and on the ceramic surfaces should not be interpreted as imperfections but rather characterizations of the aesthetics of human existence.

SI: The notion of something being contained also appears in your work. First in terms of frames and most recently in boxes. What is it that you are exploring there?

AS: During my art career, I aim to document the internal and external parts of the human body. I want to create a ‘body map’ which illustrates the connections between the interior and external mechanisms, components of the body which perform in a mutual relation to other body parts. In my work I collect and bring these crucial parts together or carefully examine these elements individually.

‘Boxes of the HumanKind’ (ongoing project) exists out of a collection of several old boxes filled with all sorts of different parts of a human body. Boxes with human hair, skin (shaped by the use of dried tofu sheets), gypsum teeth, in wax and embedded human tissue in wax cubs, etc.

SI: What is next for you?

AS: I’ll continue to explore and study the fragility of the human anatomy and identity.
As an artist, nothing is more beautiful and satisfying than when the public remains intrigued and emotionally awakened by your work.

I am very fortunate for the people who crossed my path, who expressed interest in my artwork.

I am currently preparing for upcoming shows this year in Belgium and abroad and will continue making new art pieces focused on my passion for the medical science world.

For more information about Annelies Slabbynck, visit her website or MEDinART page.

IMAGE SOURCE: Annelies Slabbynck

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