The beauty myth has gone full circle and imperfection has never been so hot.
While recently lunching at a local bistro I was witness to a sight that confirmed my belief: if you aim for perfection you’ll only discover it’s a moving target. A woman at a neighbouring table was struggling to find the opening in her Botox-frozen, collagen-plumped face through which she could feed a morsel of fish. Watching the hit and miss charade was one wine-soaked diner who, to the amusement of his friends yelled, “Garcon, there’s something wrong with the trout at the next table. You’d better take the fish and lips off the menu”.
After the room-wide snickering abated, I and my lunch partner, both of whom make a living feeding the media with idealisations of beauty, smugly postured over a society whose preoccupation with perfection was increasingly crossing over into pathology. “Ugly is so hot right now,” said friend mimicking Ben Stiller’s character in the model industry send-up film Zoolander.
Days later, those words reverberated when, thumbing through a recent issue of Italian Vogue, I came across photographer Steven Meisel’s smack-in-the-face take on cutting-edge fashion. In his 80-page ‘mockumentary’ entitled ‘Makeover Madness’, Meisel has imagined the world’s most beautiful models as anticipants/recipients of the plastic surgeon’s makeover. It features the likes of Linda Evangelista, ensconced in five-star sanatorium luxury, posing post-operatively in ball-gowns and blood-soaked bandages.
This prompted The New York Times to designate that it's “a moment for holding a more sceptical mirror to the artificial standards of beauty”. But these unrealistic standards haven’t just been set for face and figure. The media has mercilessly hounded us into believing that success, love and increased self-esteem will be born of constantly making over our homes. Here the quest for prescribed perfection is also resulting in a bizarre dysmorphia. We are disproportionately super-sizing domestic fixtures and fittings to indecent levels of obesity. In our commitment to so-called ‘individualism’, interiors are bingeing on a smorgasbord of cross-cultural, cross-historical, sugar-coated excess. Makeover madness has mucked with all notions of appropriateness to the point that perfection looks pug ugly and the defect-ridden is now looking damned sexy.
And if you don’t think beauty’s stock is slipping, then just look to some of the bizarre offerings coming out of the world’s best design laboratories and schools. Maarten Baas, star attraction of the 2005 Milan Furniture Fair, first made a name for himself by taking jerry can and blow torch to the iconic likes of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House Chair, Rietveld’s Zig Zag Chair and Isamu Noguchi’s Coffee Table – all of which have had their charred remains sealed in clear epoxy before being sold to galleries.
“I was thinking about beauty and perfection,” Maarten Baas explained. “When we talk about perfection we normally think about things that are smooth and symmetrical ... There is so much ornament on a baroque chair that is not necessary. Is that ornament less beautiful when half of it has burnt away, or is it more beautiful?” The same questioning of ‘faultlessness as beauty’ is being articulated in the designs of Dutch ceramic artist Hella Jongerius, who has been tagged the ‘wilful champion of imperfection’. Her B-set dinner service is made up of pieces with a deliberately ‘sub-standard’ appearance that apparently takes months of technical experimentation to achieve. Similarly Kjell Rylander, a Swede also working in ceramics, has perfected a laborious technique of breaking cups and plates then gluing them back together.
One of the most talked about displays at last year’s Milan Fair was ‘This Must Be Designed By Idiots’, an exhibition of creepily beautiful objects by Dutch artist Afke Golsteijn, who likes to pair taxidermy with finely wrought details. Her Australian equivalent is Julia deVille who makes ‘dead gorgeous’ jewellery out of stillborn mice and kittens. Maybe their elevation of death to art is an attempt to expunge it of its fearful hold over us?
Whatever the intent, in this imperfect age where terror is faceless, nameless and lurking around every corner, it seems the only thing left in our control is self.
And herein lies the joke: as affordable technologies make it possible for most of us to be freed of all flaws, beauty is losing its genetically exclusive allure. The defect-ridden has become a desirable point of difference and imperfection has been made ‘hot’. Yep, you read it here first: ugly is the new black.