Paula Muhr & Michael Salu – Sleeping Beauty
Like many, I have mixed feelings about my job. I guess maybe its less job and more obligation. Obligation of circumstance. Obligation of matter even. Yet it appears to be a destiny I cannot sidestep. Maybe I’ve been entrusted with the delicate edge of humanity’s frailty, but maybe I shouldn’t be. Maybe I’m a protector. Actually, maybe I’m a director. A carbon steel director of dreams. You see I’m not even sure. I hold so much power. So much power over her, yet its a power I cannot wield alone, which is actually something I am grateful for. It is a power that unnerves me, when the weight of this responsibility floods to the front of my mind in between procedures. She will need my pressure to relieve her own. I saw her through the reflected CCTV footage on the stainless steel surface of the bowl we use to dispose of the redundant flesh I’ve culled. I knew her even when she entered the waiting room and tentatively approached the front desk for her first consultation. I could see her furrowed brow of disconsolation as she listlessly flipped through pages of glossy perfection. Occasionally, she paused on a page, peering more closely at the bronzed, 300dpi lips pursed and shimmering condescendingly. I wondered if she had been peering at her own reflection in the glossy paper. Could she see her own face awkwardly superimposed on that of her two dimensional nemesis?
I can’t see everything from where I Iay, but I’m always at hand to provide my contribution to her happiness.
She arrived in an optimistic yellow summer dress, hair tied unobtrusively aloft, leaving a vulnerably unmade face exposed. She was asked to take a seat and wait for the consultant to arrive. She tried to suppress her caffeinated nervousness by sitting in a starched upright manner with her legs crossed. This time the magazines stayed where they were. She glanced around the room furtively, eventually catching eye contact with me via the CCTV. Our gaze held for a moment, and I could see her mind expansively exploring fear and excitement of who she will be next and I felt good. No, great in fact! I anticipated the softness of her skin, obediently giving way to my precise acts of valour. I waited patiently, drifting away into my thoughts about which direction we will take and the gentle increments of pressure – and for me I guess pleasure – we will implement as we begin to craft her desire. On screen two I could see the nurse approaching the waiting room swinging her clipboard nonchalantly [as she has done countless times], striding the sterile hallway, its walls lined with an opaque commissioned series of photographs that seem to be a contemporary restaging of the famous modernist alphabet by Czech designer Karel Teige. Except in this alphabet, the dancer is naked and solemn. I wondered if this was a conscious inversion of the original works, or just a subconscious complicity to a system we know and I have even helped to build.
The young lady appeared to be settling a little, stilled for a moment by something on her smartphone screen. The nurse offered her a professionally benevolent smile and instructed her softly to follow. She picked up her brown leather overnight bag and followed the nurse back through the hallway on to screen two, then three and beyond my gaze. For a moment.
I waited patiently as she is prepped. Whenever we begin the anesthetic treatment, I whisper across the room to her that it’ll all be ok. Apart from our hardened regulars, I more than not see the lines of worry when we discuss the different forms of anesthesia, but we always tell them it is best to let go. We are in control anyway, let us shape your destiny. Relax. Slowly she began to drift off. Her palegreen surgery gown that draped her body, rose and fell with the lightest of touch against her skin as she began to breathe calmly and slowly as her eyes swam into darkness.
Soon my time would arrive, so I watched patiently nearby as the work began with the marker pen. A slim one with a small nib. The ink is water soluble, it is designed specifically for use on the skin. The pen’s responsibility is to mark out the contours of her dreams, which I will then implement. We often start with drawing lines from just above the hairline around the temple, snaking gently down around the ear and then gradually up and round back into the scalp. We repeat the same markings on the other side of her face, looking for natural skin creases to help disguise any markings we might leave (though I pride myself on my immaculate precision). These markings begin to resemble the key lined drawings in the colouring books I caught sight of once in the separate waiting room for patients with children. I guess in a way, the canvas is the same but in our case it is imperative we do not colour over the lines!
I’m hot. The closer I get to my task, the more time chooses to mock me. I watch as the surgeon slowly and methodically changes his latex gloves, pulling each malleable finger sheath at an exasperatingly languorous pace. He then feels his way slowly across her face towards the markings, pulling back her skin deftly with both hands, his assistant ready poised with the kinetic energy of the hind legs of a cat coiled for attack. The assistant positions the sutures, a temporary alteration to her landscape allowing me to get to work.
Here again, no matter how many times I have done this, I’m breathless with excitement. The latexed grip lowers me at an angle towards the skin below her jaw, we move steadily in unison hovering for a moment, above the centre of the thin black mark. I can feel the contrasting warmth of her flesh against my sliver of clinical coldness. We reach the skin. She’s just returned from holiday. Surely that isn’t advisable I think to myself. Her heat intensifies the closer I get, her skin is yet to tan. It is pink, releasing waves of the sun throwing my concentration a little. Oh, but we are there, I feel her skin against the tip of my cold narrow blade, we cut in, ever so slowly. I feel her outer epidermis give way, moving swiftly through its obliging softness. The tip of my blade moves further through and I feel a charge, a liquid wash of heat and yet even after countless times with the same role in this play, the feeling is everything. An immediate, suffocating ecstasy that gushes away as quickly as it is felt.
All photographs, titled She Who Mirrors Herself, Sees Well, courtesy of Paula Muhr
A Few Palm Trees is an ongoing experiment in photography and literature, edited by Joanna L. Cresswell for Paper Journal.
Each month, a collector is invited to select a set of images for a writer to respond to.
Michael Salu is a creative director, art editor and writer. His fiction, non fiction and art have appeared in a range of publications including, The Short Anthology, Grey, Under the Influence, granta.com and most recently A Tale of two Cities, published by OR Books.
Paula Muhr is a Serbian-born Berlin-based visual artist. Through her research-based artistic practice she investigates arbitrary concepts related to various historical and contemporary notions of normality and reveals the mechanisms of their construction. She is especially interested in the mediation of various visualising technologies in the creation of social norms. Her installations combine staged photography with found visual materials, texts, moving images and sound. Simultaneously, she approaches the topic of normality from an additional perspective by conducting academic research on hysteria and brain imaging as part of her doctoral thesis at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
Published 14 August 2014