By Rose Aidin
FT.com site; Mar 28, 2003
"Divine decadence darling," explained Liza Minelli's character Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Her time was pre-war Berlin and her subject, her lurid green nail polish, but the moment for up-front self-expression through body adornment is here again – only now it includes tattoos, piercings and performance art.
This month Tate Modern is mounting a four-day programme of non-stop performance art. And throughout May, Selfridges will be exploring the body in almost fetishistic detail with its Body Craze promotion, intended to examine every possible aspect of body adornment, improvement and stimulation. "We want to entertain people, but also to challenge them, explains Suzanne Tide-Frater, head of creative direction at Selfridges. "All the elements of Body Craze come back to the idea that the body is the vehicle that expresses what we are inside."
So Body Craze will include performance art, fashion, face and body make-up, tattooing, body adornment, piercing and even an aphrodisiac food bar. The basement over-18s area will push boundaries further with Betony Vernon’s erotic jewellery, feathers and leather belts that hang from the neck, and Sh!, the Hoxton-based women’s erotic emporium.
A craze that started five years ago with Madonna’s Mehndi henna-painted hands, body art has evolved from spiritual (a testament to the star’s newfound love of yoga) to shocking.
"There’s a decadence to body adornment," admits J Maskrey, whose long-lasting skin jewellery has embellished the flesh of the bling-bling set, including P Diddy, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and Kylie Minogue. Maskrey started her career as a make-up artist and was at the forefront of skin jewellery when she launched her range five years ago. Now she’s moved on from small tattoo-like designs to more outrageous creations such as nipple covers. “You can place body jewellery anywhere and be secretive,” she says.
"In the last few years people have emphasised accessories and body adornment is a logical extension of that. It’s about exploring a silhouette and looking back to the effort people used to make with their total look," continues Maskrey. "It’s like wearing a hat or a pair of high-heeled shoes."
Eighties performance artist Leigh Bowery was master of the silhouette. He used his costume, padding, artifice and force of personality to transform his body, and remains an inspiration to fashion designers such as John Galliano, who based his spring/summer collection on Bowery’s look and reign over the infamous London night-club Taboo.
Boudicca designer Zowie Broach acknowledged the same influence when she covered the necks, arms, backs and even faces of her models at London Fashion Week this year with massed Swarovski crystals. "We painted with crystals like you’d spray perfume on your body," she explains. In an almost entirely black show, the result was bedazzling. "We used the crystals like huge pieces of jewellery because they combine the couture and street end of fashion, yet allow individuals to customise their own look."
Other designers are at it too. Philip Treacy, showed eye pieces and stick-on butterflies for the face as part of his recent Warhol collection. At Garrard, Jade Jagger’s jewellery range has incorporated high-end versions of body art staples such as the navel ring. And Swarovksi have their own range of successful crystal tattoos. But are tattoos a way of making art with the body, or a form of body adornment?
To Lois Keidan of the Live Art Development Agency, and co-curator of Tate Modern’s Live Culture event, the two are closely related. "Both embody this belief that the body is not a sacred space and the person it belongs to can do as they like,” she argues. “We have a broader understanding of what beauty can be."
Whether you use your body as a canvas for art or a simply a way to adorn, it makes a statement with no need for actions or words. The rest, as Sally Bowles might have said, is conversation.