Scaffolding of the Bone House

An interview with installation artist Alistair Raphael
By Sonali Fernando

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Alistair Raphael's photographic installation, Invasive Procedures, maps biology onto buildings to revise age-old metaphysics—ideas of the infinite reproduction of the human body in macrocosm and microcosm, of skin and institutions as bulwarks of means of access—but with a new history and a different consciousness. Excavating the vocabulary and imagery surrounding AIDS as a source material for work that considers surveillance, freedom, invasion and privacy, he asks us to take full stock of an old puzzle, "Where does my skin end and yours begin?"

Sonali: In Invasive Procedures, you hang massively inflated photographs of blood cells in the ground-floor windows of a building; inside, rows upon rows of microscope slides printed with words like 'lnnocent,' 'General Population,' 'Risk Group' stick out from the walls; why did you make these images and objects part of the building, rather than just exhibiting them conventionally, as in a gallery?

Alistair: I wanted to do it in a double kind of way: to use the format of photography to create a window display and at the same time allude to the whole building having some kind of fungus—or virus; physically representing the institution as diseased. The word 'diseased' interested me, and who names whom as 'diseased'. I was very much thinking about who commissions images and the repercussions of this—you can flip through Cosmopolitan or Elle and come across pictures of the virus but on further investigation you'll find that the magazine doesn't engage with any other aspects—just dissects an element and prints it. It's about the way institutions condition information.

Sonali: The blood 'window display' refers to an institutional trafficking in AIDS that disowns responsibility and disacknowledges the subjectivity of its values in the act of defining. In a similar way, the slides inside, pre-prepared with words instead of blood, seem to refer to an 'objective,' scopic process of 'scientific' investigation. The scientist who has given us these loaded concepts remains absent and anonymous. What happens to the shopper who is enticed in by the window display?

Alistair: I wanted people to be conscious of entering in a penetrative way, on a conceptual level. I printed words on the slides to implicate viewers more fully in the phyisicality of the process of using language. I wanted to sensitize them, make it a 'risky' practice, in a sense, to be involved in the use of words an images. Once they have entered that building, they've entered an institution, and they have to form some relation to it—they could be alien in somebody else's space or they could join in. I wanted people to be aware of the glass slides themselves in relation to their bodies—there is the constant risk of grazing yourself on these sharp glass lines. You become aware of the vulnerability of the skin, the edges of your own body, and where those remain edges, as opposed to breaking and flooding.

Sonali: Boundary and invasion, barrier and flooding: your imagery bears traces of other metaphors of deluge, of Asians flooding the country (the UK), 'rivers of blood' and invasion by a 'gay plague'—and yet you've reversed the positions, pivoted these images on themselves. Now it's the body being invaded by the institution. And it's the 'outsider's body'—because the virus is now indelibly codified in the West as 'gay' and 'male', despite lame after-the-event protestations that the 'virus has no prejudice'—being invaded by the 'insiders'.

Alistair: And there's this whole idea of 'carriers', as in the context of drug-trafficking stereotypes and the idea of an 'alien', the virus as alien: it's been transported and infiltrated the system. All the same metaphors are there when you talk about race.

Sonali: Did you intend to produce fear in people? The idea of entering a bloodstream could be terrifying.

Alistair: No, not necessarily fear I wanted to convey an obsession I had with 'edges', which would seep into every aspect of my life. The edges of my body, my thoughts, my identity —be that as a gay man or as a (South) Asian person—and also with my sex life and sexuality: where do you allow the edges still to remain drawn? I wanted to examine where that obsession had come from, and how I had aligned myself to these ideas. Through photography and through works one constructs oneself, yet the vocabulary that had been selected for me as a gay man had become specific. Let us look at the question of invisibility because of being 'other': once there's a reason for the power structures to make you visible, you're made visible within a very particular context, and over the last ten to fifteen years, there's been almost a repeat performance of what happened at the turn of the century. Gay men's bodies have been returned to the medical gaze, but this time they're being examined for signs of physical deformity, malfunctions if you like, innate signs of something that marks them as 'other,' on a microscopic level. Whereas before they were looked at for signs of mental illness and so on that would mark them as 'different,' What has been identical both times has been this absolute right over the gay male body, for the sake of the 'general population,' 'humanity'or whatever In that process a modern idea of the homosexual has been constructed. And because it has been constructed by a disease and by a medicine, not only has it taken on that medical vocabulary, it has also taken on a kind of austerity, and the fear that hospitals generate. You become the patient on a conceptual level as well as potentially on a physical level. It's as if that's the price of visibility, which begs the question of who has the power to 'make visible'?

Sonali: It's as though your cells are turned inside out by the scientific/media gaze, as if your cellular privacy has been invaded in a particular way, for particular ends. But do you feel, on the other hand, that in some way this introduction of a public discourse related to gay men has given you a conceptual language in which to speak about the body?

Alistair: Yes, in a way. I don't think there's been a school of thought that's geared to men having knowledge about their bodies, either on a physical level, or in terms of how their bodies have become not-their-bodies and been overruled. It's made me really aware of how those edges of the body have been penetrated: it has, in a sense, given me a metaphor of invasion that I can use in other scenarios.

Sonali: What I find interesting in the whole network of visual metaphors about 'penetration', for instance, is a photographic image of a drill with fire and sparks coming from it which burns into another space. The notion of penetration is associated with danger and violation. Do you feel this rendering of institutional violence in a physical, bodily way overlaps with women's experience in feminist art?

Alistair I think there's a danger in finding too many similarities between women's experiences and gay men's. But a lot of the awareness of this politic around the body has come from feminist critique over the past fifteen years, the same fifteen years that I'm talking about. I have had criticism because of the nature of the work that I make. is only by acknowledging the levels at which you are invaded that you know where privacy starts.

Sonali: From women?

Alistair: There have been many allusions to an 'appropriation' of women's language in the visual arts. I find it problematic, though I acknowledge where it comes from: I'm not willing to give it up. People can get too precious about it being their language. I like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger's work which looks at vocabulary and text as actuality. And Helen Chadwick. But languages don't exist in sealed containers for preordained user-groups.They feed into each other and we inhabit many different ones.

Sonali: How does your notion of 'penetration' contest or reinforce all the edicts around now for gay men about not penetrating, about maintaining an invisible zone or barrier around the body, about celibacy?

Alistair: It's tricky when you have the state telling gay men not to penetrate each other. I think when I'm using the word, even in terms of 'a penetrative gaze' or in the imagery, I'm referring to the idea of the state, the designer, the power structure. Yet at the same time we all have the potential to penetrate and be penetrated. The work comes round full circle: a lot of the imagery is based on blueprints and architect's plans, suggesting that everything has been thought of. It's in the way that our whole society is constructed: different buildings are designed for different reasons. You couldn't live a domestic life in an office. We are designed, the way we socialise is designed, with 'reasons' for those designs. I'm using that as quite a crude starting point, but going further: not only do we design the buildings for our bodies to enter, we actually design our bodies. If you take the human body as the nought line on a graph and extend outwards, you go through plumbing systems, sewage systems, electrical systems, ventilation systems, rooms, buildings, big architecture, there's the body reproduced in macro, and then going down from nought into the body, you find this exact mirror When you start to look at it in terms of disease, when you do things that weren't 'designed' to be done (according to this normalising opinion), use buildings in the ways they weren't meant to be used, buildings fall down. The same is being inferred in terms of what happens within the body as well, in terms of 'unnatural practices', My main interest is this idea of looking inside the body at the same time as being the body inside another Russian dolls.

Sonali: How do you refer to this construction of 'unnatural practices' without censoring them yourself?

Alistair: With the No Entry image, it's a complete play on works and images, a manhole cover, man-hole, the underground network of fluid-transporting pipes, the No Entry sign made with a superimposed image of HIV. Medical examination has involved all these sorties actually into the body, all this equipment that can actually photograph you inside.

Sonali: How do you personally participate in or resist that as a photographer with your own scopic project?

Alistair: The work has to be photographic, but I find taking photographs problematic: a lot of my images are actually other people's —borrowed from hospitals, manuals, textbooks, anatomy books, data and so on— familiar images. It's almost as if they have a function before they become my function. It's as though these images were the fall-out, already part of a familiar vocabulary.

Sonali: Mainstream imagery 'about' gay men seems to be sharply polarised between, on the one hand, enlarged 'scientific' photos of the virus and, on the other, eugenic body-photographs. How do you site yourself between those?

Alistair: I ask why these two? Why such a small selection of images, so polarised in their content? I think it's very important to look at that: it doesn't take much imagination to see the connection between the two, because there's a conception of'other' sexual beings as Bodies. By isolating, photographing and publishing this viral image you have a very dangerous situation where you have something that people think they can recognise: then you start to ask questions like, "What is the purpose of having images everywhere of this virus that you can only see though a microscope if it's enlarged at a certain point in its life-cycle by several billion times?" It relates to an obsession with 'identifiable' visual signifiers—the KS scars, weight loss, the hair loss—almost like the Handbookto Depravity. The moment it is photographed it is no longer a microscopic virus: it becomes ideas, it becomes technology, fodder to be used in a very particular way. In the installation Strike gently away from the body, a huge 25' x 12" photopositive is laid over the slanting glass roof of a studio. The image is of lungs taken from an anatomy book, with key numbers on it labelling different parts, but without giving the viewer the key to access the information it is obviously collecting; these numbers appear again at ground level, burnt into the floorboards.

Sonali: Why lungs?

Alistair: It was a little bit of romanticism— breathing, primal things—and it connects with the ventilation system in the building, which I noticed afterwards and quite liked!

Sonali: What reactions did you get to the work?

Alistair: To see that image you had to penetrate the building. The act became charged. The room not only had images grafted on, there was also an excavation of the floor. I'd scraped off twenty years of paint and routed a grid structure across the floor into which I'd lain tubing. People had to enter the whole work, and were 'scooped up' by these grids. I wanted them to be aware of the building as something that was carrying fluids around, sewage, electricity, that had internal membranes, and structure, brickwork and glass clad on top of each other. And by juxtaposing that with a human image that had gone through a process of exfoliation to the point where its internal muscles were visible, like being shown on an x-ray box, connections were made. Many people wanted to find a corner of the room from which they weren't viewed but could look...interesting in terms of scopophilia.

Sonali: Is your work pessimistic in asserting that there is no privacy, no place in which we can be free of being looked at and encoded?

Alistair: I see it more in the sense of exposing something, in the photographic sense as well, of acknowledging something that does go on, and it is only by acknowledging the levels at which you are invaded that you know where privacy starts. Where you can start constructing relationships which aren't subject to that same kind of gaze.

Sonali: What's interesting is that it's not emotionalized in any way. The power of it lies in the way you make conceptual and structural oppression physical. The numbers on the glass, anatomical key to the lungs, brand the skin with shadow, just as you have charred their shapes into the floorboards.

Alistair: One of the most important things for me when I make work is that there should never be any signs of making, that there should be no sign of my humanity in the work. It comes not from this cold pessimism but from wanting to use the materials that I perceive being used in certain ways socially, against themselves, wanting to steal the signifiers and re-juxtapose them, changing very little in fact. We face these impressive, huge photos everyday on billboards, yet are visually complacent when we see them in advertising or social publicity.

Sonali: Could you tell me what thoughts of containment and invasion brought about the other part of the Invasive Procedures installation, where a transparent rubber strip-curtain containing an image of a building site divides a room?

Alistair: It's to do with isolation in medical terms: in hospitals that are different areas where things happen differently, as if in different spaces there were different atmospheric pressures and different temperatures.The rubber doors are used in factory warehouses that forklifts can drive though, but you also see them in hospitals. I was struck by how much they were like skin, but an industrialised skin, the building's skin, and they're also this demarcation of space which is penetrable by specific personnel only. They acknowledge their accessibility but at the same time they're quite clear about it being a boundary. It was interesting, in the case of hospitals, in terms of contamination, quarantine, isolation. I wanted to return to the idea that a building is designed, and to make people really aware that they were inside this building, by creating another structure inside the first, a skeletal building in the process of construction, which involved scaffolding, and raw materials. There are quite positive things about penetration, the building is made to be entered after all—but I want to talk about taking responsibility for the act of going inside a space. And how that changes in different contexts: if you walk through those rubber doors in the hospital you're aware of what you're doing. You think, "Should I have a mask on? Should I be in here? Am I in danger?"

Sonali: You say that acknowledging the possibility of invasion is also recognising that one needn't invade or be invaded: so in the very same moment of challenging enforced quarantine, the piece maps a radical claim to privacy.

Alistair: And in this piece you can choose not to enter it.The space was divided cleanly in half and a lot of people didn't choose to go through this gap that was accessible. What I like is the idea that you do have the choice.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Alistair Raphael
Alistair Raphael is a London based artist whose work has been exhibited throughout Europe.
Sonali Fernando
Sonali Fernando is a writer and filmmaker.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre