Tattoos without ink: This Montreal artist's work is her own body

On every full moon for a year, Michelle Lacombe had bloodlines etched into her legs in an exploration of "feminine transcendence."

On every full moon for a year, Michelle Lacombe had bloodlines etched into her legs

Michelle Lacombe ( Sara A Tremblay)

When your own body is your art practice, using primary documentation would be an easy way to translate your oeuvre for a gallery setting. But for Michelle Lacombe — a Montreal-based artist whose artistic methodology is a radical body-based feminist practice — traditional documentation techniques are not the way to access her work.

Lacombe created her first major work dealing with using her body as core material, The Venus Landscape, in 2010 — a series of tattooed lines that, if aligned just right, place the artist in the same pose as Giorgione's iconic "Sleeping Venus" painting, the first reclining nude in the Western canon. In 2012, she exhibited Portrait of a Self Memorial and an Anonymous Aesthetic Beheading, a scar on her upper torso that delineates the measurements of the classical sculptural bust.

For Lacombe, these abstracted gestures mark her body in a way that recognizes her relationship to those histories while also critiquing them. "These representations shift or fail when they're incorporated by a real body," she says. "That's why it's very important for me to locate my work not only in the body, but my body."

Her latest exhibition, Of All the Watery Bodies, I Only Know My Own, stems from actions she performed between July 2013 to July 2014. On every full moon for a year, Lacombe had bloodlines — tattoos without ink — etched into her legs. In making these same lines thirteen times (there's always one month with two full moons), scars began to form around the artist's calves.

Michelle Lacombe, Moon (April 15, 2014) (Michelle Lacombe)

Lacombe explains the significance of the bloodlines' placement: "I calculated how much blood is in my body," she says. "If I was an empty vessel — something women's bodies are so often portrayed to be — and my blood stopped circulating and pooled in my legs, that's where the lines are." On her walk home from each session with Montreal tattoo artist Azl Golanski, Lacombe would photograph the full moon.

"I tend to do work about things that as a feminist artist, I say I'll never touch. The project centres on the idea of fertility. The marks last four weeks, and the body can heal in that time. By doing this over and over again, my body reached a saturation point of not being able to heal. It scarred. I saw links to the tide eroding rock and this connection in French between la mer and la mère (the sea)."

Of All the Watery Bodies invites audiences to consider the concepts that germinate from the bloodlines, while eschewing a simple retelling of the process or a one-to-one documentarian approach. Though there is a photograph of Lacombe being tattooed beneath a full moon, the image is a posed portrait, the lunar glow casting ominous shadows along the rooftops that frame the action.

"I thought the work was going to be about running naked in the ocean, the archetype of the goddess, but it ended up being about death and erosion. I thought this ritual, for lack of a better word, around the moon and fertility would lead to beautiful, poetic themes, but it turned towards the archetype of the witch, of the lunatic, who is barren. We place these really intense dichotomies on women's bodies. The witch/lunatic is an inversion of the goddess; she's a threat to society."

I thought the work was going to be about running naked in the ocean, the archetype of the goddess, but it ended up being about death and erosion. I thought this ritual, for lack of a better word, around the moon and fertility would lead to beautiful, poetic themes, but it turned towards the archetype of the witch, of the lunatic, who is barren.- Michelle Lacombe

Further distilling themes of surface, water and blood, salt stains spread across the gallery floor. In preparing for Of All the Watery Bodies, Lacombe used thirteen buckets of water — which matched the volume and salinity of her blood — to generate amorphous traces that are at once delicate and expansive. This crystalline evidence of a physical transformation points to another of Lacombe's thematic concerns.

"I was thinking about practices of feminine transcendence, this embodied experience that connects you to something larger, whether that is nature or celestial bodies; feminine transcendence is what bridges both archetypes," she says. "I don't think these archetypes — especially the goddess — have reached their full potential. People have turned their backs on them as tasteless, but I think there's still more to scratch away at, to question."

The exhibit also features thirteen physically-doctored photos of all the full moons that span the performance; instead of being mere representations of the lunar cycle, these pieces draw the audience back to the act of cutting and ideas of absence or impermanence.

"A distinction needs to be made between the body work, which is the core, and the exhibition, which is secondary," Lacombe says. "The gallery space becomes an entry point into a work that is inaccessible because it is on me. The work on my body continues to exist even when the show is over."

Of All the Watery Bodies, I Only Know My Own. Featuring Michelle Lacombe. September 8-October 15 at Centre CLARK, Montreal. www.centrelark.com

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