Taking a Scalpel to Plastic Surgery

"Body Buy Back: A Temporary Installation Reflecting on the Practice and Social Dimensions of Cosmetic Surgery"

If you're looking for provocative art this season, look no further than the Boca Raton campus of Florida Atlantic University (FAU), where the Schmidt Center Gallery is hosting an unsettling site-specific installation with the unwieldy title "Body Buy Back: A Temporary Installation Reflecting on the Practice and Social Dimensions of Cosmetic Surgery."

That moniker sounds like a topic for a thesis or dissertation, and indeed, artist Peggy Diggs did considerable research for the piece while she was in residence at FAU's University Galleries. She interviewed South Florida plastic and reconstructive surgeons, and she compiled statistics and other information on such surgery.

Technically, "Body Buy Back" isn't actually in the Schmidt Center Gallery, but rather on the walls of the hallway and foyer leading to the gallery. Diggs has painted pretty much the entire area with bright red paint that has been applied in crude smears and dribbles. Clearly, she's out to suggest the bloodiness of the operating room.

For much of the display space, this expanse of messy red provides a backdrop for Diggs to superimpose both words and images onto the walls. The bottom third or so of the wall to the left as you enter the Schmidt Center, by contrast, serves as a sort of introduction to the installation. Here Diggs has applied an uneven wash of pale red, onto which she has put a variety of factual information culled from brochures produced by the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons.

Big, bold letters inform us, for example, that "Cosmetic surgery procedures have increased 152 percent since 1992." A few feet further: "There were nearly 2.8 million cosmetic surgical and non-surgical procedures performed in 1998. Ninety percent of those procedures were performed on females."

Elsewhere along this wall are large words and phrases -- IMAGE, SELF-ESTEEM, IDEAL, REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS, PSYCHOLOGICALLY STABLE -- scattered among definitions of various cosmetic surgical procedures, some of which are not for the squeamish, to say the least. We learn that a procedure called botox injection consists of "injections of Botulinum Toxin made in small amounts to decrease muscular activity associated with causing forehead wrinkles and frown lines." In other words, you can maintain a smooth complexion by using a poisonous substance to induce a sort of facial paralysis.

Next to such a drastic measure, the collagen injection procedure sounds like a picnic: "The injection of bovine (cow) protein into desired areas to achieve fuller lips as well as to fill wrinkles and scars."

Although we've already been informed that cosmetic surgery is overwhelmingly a female phenomenon, Diggs throws in an operation for the guys: "Phalloplasty -- Penile shaft enhancement procedure that is designed to increase both length and circumference of the penile shaft with the use of lasers."

Having staked out her territory, Diggs proceeds beyond the physical and into the psychological. On the wall to the right, across from the informational wall, are five large diagram-style panels painted onto the bloody-red background, topped with the heading "HARMONIOUS PROPORTIONS OF THE BODY: HEIGHT=X." Alongside these panels are formulas for calculating "ideal" proportions of various parts of the anatomy. The circumference of the waist, for instance, is figured by multiplying the subject's height in inches by a range of 0.38 to 0.40.

Here, as elsewhere throughout the installation, Diggs has inserted questions that raise philosophical issues about a culture that tolerates, even promotes, surgical alteration of the body. "Whose physical ideals are the standards for cosmetic surgery alterations?" (Having raised the question, however, she declines to provide even a hint of an answer.)

In the middle of this wall are five large white X marks, each with an irregular, lumpy, three-dimensional center. Diggs leaves these open to interpretation. They could be construed as bandages over unappealing body parts, or perhaps bandages that are the aftermath of a cosmetic surgery.

Beneath the Xs are three dozen or so stencilings of stylized human bodies, in black, white, yellow, and green. They're roughly a foot and a half tall each, some male, some female, usually presented in pairs that show both front and back views.

Most of these stencilings, which are identical in shape and size, have various words, phrases, and sentences scribbled on them in chalk. The commentary runs the gamut from negative to positive: "Beer Belly," "I Hate My Ass Cheeks," "Perfect 10," "It's what's inside that counts." One female figure has had a shocked expression crudely sketched onto her head, along with a breakdown of her consumption written on her body: "Metabolife," "Slim Fast," "Ice Cream," "Dunkin Donuts," "Taco Bell," "Cake," "Cookies," and -- the clincher -- "A Reese's Peanut Butter Cup could end your social life."

Interestingly Diggs has not applied a fixative to these chalked-in comments. Many of them are smudged. Did the artist alter them herself, perhaps to suggest varying degrees of ambivalence, or did she leave them for viewers to reach out and touch, thus adding their indirect opinions to the mix?

Diggs' most pointed musings are deep within the foyer, stretching across the wall in large type, with such painted images as surgical tools, stacks of money, and stylized renderings of various surgical procedures scattered around the words. Some are short and to the point: "What parts of your body bother you, and why?" "Have you found a mentor for how to age well?"

Others are more complicated: "How did you become discontented with your body? We interfere with our 'natural' body all the time, through wearing clothing, using socially accepted behavior, etc. So where do you draw the line between acceptable alterations of the body's 'natural' appearance and unacceptable, 'unnatural' ones?" "Do you want the wisdom, tranquility, confidence, and sense of accomplishment that comes with aging, but not the aging body?"

A few of the questions bring what's obviously Diggs' feminist slant into sharper focus: "Cosmetic surgery often amplifies sexual differences. What kind of freedoms do you imagine achieving by having your sexual characteristics enhanced surgically? On the other hand, how might enhanced sexuality be a kind of bondage?" "Do you think cosmetic surgery helps to maintain the social inequality that exists between the sexes?"

It's fairly clear from the cumulative tone of the installation that Diggs is highly critical of what she refers to at one point as "aesthetic surgery." Fine. Many of the questions she raises are certainly worth contemplating, and at her best she stimulates such contemplation.

But what of other perspectives? Diggs seems blind to any possible good that might come of cosmetic surgery. The complicated experiences of women who undergo reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy, for example, are dismissed with an incredulous "Can you imagine why a woman might want to do this?" There seems to be an underlying assumption here that cosmetic surgery is invariably a matter of vanity.

Has Diggs stacked the deck? Of course she has, and as an artist that's her prerogative. But in a piece that's so reliant on text, Diggs has also left herself open. By emphasizing words, sometimes at the expense of imagery, she has set her work up for debate and then failed to follow through on that debate. And it's not for lack of space -- there are big stretches of wall that are empty except for the smears of red pigment.

Maybe I'm expecting too much from a single art installation, or maybe Diggs wants to provoke a degree of skepticism, the better to throw her points into harsher relief. Or maybe "Body Buy Back" just hits a little too close to home for someone who has always wondered how he might look with a different nose.

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