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Frieze Week New York 2024

Why Do We Seem to Care So Much about Skincare?

Marina Abramović’s face lotion is the latest development in the history of performance art’s engagement with the beauty industry

BY Matthew McLean in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 30 APR 24

The dialogue between avant-garde art and the beauty industry is not a new one. In an influential 1983 paper, the art historian Jean Clay made the intriguing suggestion that Édouard Manet drew inspiration from the way that contemporary cosmetics (which Manet’s great champion, Charles Baudelaire, wrote an essay in praise of in 1863) re-contoured Parisian women’s faces: Manet, in turn, tried to paint “the way these women are painted. Not faces, but that which, on these faces, is painting: make-up.” Still, eyebrows were raised in January when the iconic performance artist Marina Abramović released the Marina Abramović Longevity Method—a “wellness” range so far comprising three dietary supplements and a lotion promising “a refreshed and balanced complexion.” Over the decades, performance artists have examined what Naomi Wolf in 1990 termed “The Beauty Myth” with a more sideways glance: Abramović among them. In her 1975 work Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, Abramović is positioned in front of a camera, hypnotically repeating the work’s title aloud while incessantly brushing her hair with building intensity: as if she is not so much grooming as trying to scalp herself. The work suggests the violence lurking in ideals of self-perfectionism, speaking equally to the kind of self-flagellating discipline that can inhere in artistic ambition, as well as cultural expectations on women’s appearance.

Martha rosler
Martha Rosler. Martha Rosler Reads 'Vogue', 1982, video still. MACBA Collection. Barcelona City Council long-term loan. Courtesy: © Martha Rosler; photograph: MACBA

In 1982, Martha Rosler’s performance Martha Rosler Reads Vogue was first broadcast on public-access television. In the work, Rosler runs her hands over the glossy pages of an issue of the magazine, as if tracing an invisible code, all the while intoning a long, trance-like monologue that describes the issue’s contents, quoting from its articles and adverts, and adding her own, gnomic attempts to name the magazine’s game. “What is Vogue? It’s the look, the pose, the skin of luxury ... the new face under the old, bad face ...” In one memorable section, Rosler reflects on “the power of the phallus to transform and fascinate ... in lieu of real wealth, power and prestige ...” over a slideshow of adverts for lipsticks. At the end of the piece, Rosler applies foundation, blusher, mascara, pencil et al. to just one half of her face: when complete, she stares ahead, looking less primped than punched.

Janine Antoni
Janine Antoni, Loving Care, 1993. Courtesy: online Gallery 98

For the performance Loving Care (1993) at Anthony D’Offay, the artist Janine Antoni soaked her hair in a metal bucket of the eponymous hair dye. Crouched on the ground, she swept her dripping tresses across the gallery’s floor, covering it in huge, expressive strokes. Making her hair into a paintbrush, Antoni could be understood to have reclaimed the masculine bravado of “action painting” practiced by Jackson Pollock and others. But another aspect of the performance was its aggression: as the amount of unpainted floorspace diminished, visitors were steadily driven out of the gallery; hair dye—a tool of concession to ageist and gendered cultural expectations—was instead used for a display of resistance. (In her autobiographical 2011 stagework The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, Abramović recounts smearing boot polish on the walls of her childhood bedroom so that her mother would find it too abhorrent to enter.)

The shade of dye Antoni used—“Natural Black”—was that which her Trinidadian mother used to color her hair. By evoking maternal biography in her gesture, Antoni perhaps also alludes to other forms of caregiving and “women’s work”—the regular acts of domestic duty which can be delivered tenderly (or begrudgingly). Such chores remind me of skincare practices, which, whether a simple, flannel-and-soap affair or a 14-step ritual, are also often a private, highly gendered act of maintenance.

Janine Antoni
Janine Antoni, Loving Care, 1993. Courtesy: online Gallery 98 

Skincare is a markedly growing component of the global beauty industry. A recent McKinsey report found skincare sales have risen steadily year on year since 2015, and are projected to continue, while fragrance and cosmetics segments remain relatively static. The report estimates that the skincare segment alone accounts for almost $200 billion of beauty’s overall $430-billion retail valuation.

I wonder how much of this surge is accounted for by the psychic work performed by that word, “care.” Who, in 2024, can resist the invitation to care: for their skin, for their self? (Hasn’t L’Oréal told us for 50 years that “we’re worth it”?) If make-up and scent are tainted with vanity, skincare is simply a business of looking after ourselves, as we deserve to. (“If we human beings don’t embrace simplicity in our lives, we will be lost,” reads a statement from Abramović on the Longevity Method website.) From this standpoint, caring for ourselves—in wellness, at the gym—are morally unimpeachable, and if such devotion improves health, longevity, state of mind and sexual currency: well, who’s to criticize? To adapt RuPaul’s dictum: If you can’t care for yourself, how in the hell you gonna care for someone else?

One doesn’t have to be Simone Weil to consider another understanding of care, which is rooted not in entitlement but need: others’ need. Indeed, when the great Audre Lorde wrote about caring for herself as “an act of political warfare” in her essay-memoir of cancer treatment, “A Burst of Light” (1988), it was not only rooted in her belief that her cancer was “physiologically engendered despair,” but in her awareness of the need to continue living to struggle for a better communal future. “Believing, working for what has not yet been while living fully in the present now.” “Self-care” keeps its value because it enables the self to give care away.

Performing Skin, Sergiy Berchuk
Photograph: Sergiy Barchuk

In a recent Instagram post, Pope Francis stated that: “There is no care without relationship, proximity and tenderness, at every level.” In recent months, made daily aware of suffering at home and across the globe, and seemingly unable to do anything, directly, to alleviate it—many find themselves in a position of caring about others without being able to care for them. In what feels like an increasingly atomized, distal and callous time to be alive, no wonder we cherish those moments when care can be practiced, and felt: hand to face, at the bathroom sink.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week New York 2024 under the title “Skin Deep.

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Main image: Photograph: Sergiy Barchuk

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.