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What This Artist Does with Scars Is Beautiful

Hélène Gugenheim makes vulnerability—and healing—her canvas.

If bodies tell stories, scars are their words. Reading my own, I see a 2.5 inch-long healed gash above my right shoulder blade that tells the story of a regrettable tattoo, now removed, gotten in Amsterdam with a boyfriend past. A circular white dot on my right forearm tells the story of drunken 16-year-old me idly pressing a lit cigarette into my arm. We live in one skin our whole lives; we cannot take it off or trade it for another. Scars are the marks of a life in-process.

About a year and a half ago, artist Hélène Gugenheim met Marie. The two women were getting changed near one another, and Hélène caught sight of Marie’s mastectomy scar: where Marie’s left breast should be, scar tissue dashes across her chest. Upon seeing it, Hélène immediately thought, “I have to put gold on it.”

And so the Paris-based artist’s project Mes cicatrices, Je suis entièrment tissé (My scars, of them I am fully woven) was born. The project uses photo and video to document the ritual application of gold leaf onto scars, in a custom protocol the artist has developed.

Example of a Kintsugi technique bowl, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Gugenheim is a graduate of the École du Louvre—whose alumni includes the likes of Louise Bourgeois and Agnès Varda— and holds degrees in art history and contemporary art (1999) and museology (2000). After graduating, she worked for years as a journalist at the French magazine Crafts, learning about different craftsmen’s methods, materials, and histories. This is how she discovered kintsugi.

Kintsugi, or kintsukoroi, is a Japanese method of mending broken pottery, and literally means “golden joinery” or “to patch with gold.” A mixture of gold with lacquer or epoxy is poured into an item’s broken crevices, rejoining the fragments. The busted object is transformed, functional once again and with its fractures exalted in gold. Visual tribute is paid to the break as well as the repair, as flaws become virtues.

Marie’s scar painting in process, May 13, 2015. Photo: Aurélien Mole. Gilding: Manuela Paul-Cavallier

Already familiar with and personally inspired by kintsugi method, Gugenheim knew exactly what to do when she saw Marie’s scar. Via Skype, the artist divulges, “When I saw Marie’s scar, I saw a mix of strength and fragility. It was amazing. I saw not only the injury, but the healing. At one point or another, you’re hurt: in your skin, in your heart, sometimes. You have to go on with that. And you can’t go on exactly the same way you were used to: you have to create a new way to go on.” The project’s title comes from a sentence in Gugenheim’s poetry-novel Nights, the Night Gaspard Editions, published in 2014. She claims she had never thought of doing a project like this about scars when she first penned the line; the concept was yet lying dormant within her.

Gugenheim developed a special protocol for the ritual application of gold to scars. Since the gold cannot remain on one’s body forever, the ritual involves the application and removal of gold from skin. The protocol entails a participant entering Gugenheim’s studio, undressing fully, and allowing a “gilder” to apply gold leaf to his or her scar(s). Once the gold has been applied, the gilder recedes into the background. Hélène asks the participant to rest and breathe, to take a moment to do whatever she wants: “sleep, cry, sing, do nothing, for however long.” When she’s ready, the participant gives a signal to the gilder to come remove the gold. The participant re-dresses, and Hélène and the gilder scrape the gold off and into a vial scrawled with the participant’s name and the date on the outside. The participant receives the vial of gold, and the entire protocol is documented with film and video.

Hélène Gugenheim, "Mes cicatrices Je suis d’elles, entièrement tissé.", Olivier, September 15, 2015. Photo: Florent Mulot. Gilding: Louise Dumont

Gugenheim stresses, “The important part is when I hand her the vial, so she can see the scar is a precious thing because of the healing.” After Gugenheim released the video of the first performance with Marie, the artist began receiving emails from people she didn’t know, telling her about their scars, asking to participate. She was touched. This led to her linking with the project’s second participant, Olivier, an individual who was born with a severe hemangioma across his face that has necessitated multiple skin grafts.

Every element of Mes cicatrices, Je suis entièrment tissé is chosen carefully, personally. Gilders are hand-selected to complement the participant coming in. The studio space where the performances occur used to be a stained glass craftsman’s workshop about 30 years or so ago, in Paris’s 6th arrondissement. This site-specificity adds to the layered notions of transformation present in the work. The protocol itself draws heavily from Japanese Zen Buddhist philosophy and the structure of Japanese tea ceremonies, placing special emphasis on spatial emptiness and ritualized behavior.

Olivier, September 15, 2015. Photo: Florent Mulot. Gilding: Louise Dumont

Gugenheim plans for the project to culminate in about ten documented performances. She half-whispers to me, “the goal is that people who are looking at the photos and videos see into them like a mirror. You ask yourself, where are my scars? How am I rebuilding myself, inside and out?”

The artist is now seeking partners and sponsors to help realize and exhibit My scars, of them I am fully woven, which hinges on the participation of many individuals—filmmakers, photographers, gilders, etc.—and takes time due to its highly personalized nature. Gugenheim is open to developing her ideas collaboratively with interested performers and aims to have each performance turned into a short film. Anyone interested in participating is encouraged to contact the artist via via email.

Our conversation concludes with Gugenheim acknowledging, “Everyone has a body, everyone gets injured, and everyone heals. The scar is the mark of our humanity.” Vulnerable and poetic, her project serves as a reminder that we all must go on with our wounds—emotional or physical—and find ways to reinvent, to regenerate, to heal.  

Olivier, September 15, 2015. Photo: Florent Mulot. Gilding: Louise Dumont

Olivier undressing in the studio. September 15, 2015. Photo: Florent Mulot. Gilding: Louise Dumont

Olivier, September 15, 2015. Photo: Florent Mulot. Gilding: Louise Dumont

Mes cicatrices Je suis d'elles, entièrement tissé - Marie from Hélène Gugenheim on Vimeo.

For Olivier’s protocol, click here. To learn more about the artist, click here

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