An Interview with Phillip Toledano


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For A New Kind of Beauty, Phillip Toledano (1968, United Kingdom) portrayed men and women who had exposed themselves to a very unusual and provocative form of body modification that inevitably prompts questions on the dynamic human notion of aesthetics.

Each of the subjects has undergone a number of procedures, including nose jobs, eyelid lifts, breast or pectoral implants, and collagen injections. The transformative procedures make them look nearly alien, and yet the portraits suggest a new frontier for the human ideal of beauty, perhaps one that is still evolving.

To start with the most obvious question, why do people decide to modify their bodies like this?

The point of making this series was to illustrate my own hypothesis on the ideas of beauty, mortality and human- induced evolution. Although this makes me sound like a heartless bastard, I didn't really probe deeply into the 'why' when I was shooting my subjects. I can say that for the most part, everyone just wanted to look better, or different. It's not a very satisfying answer, I know. I do think that it's probably quite a natural instinct within all of us, however, the desire to cheat death, in some way.

So, what was it that triggered your special interest in this matter?

Well, there are several ways to answer this. I started this project when I was taking care of my father, in the years before he died. He was in his mid-nineties so, of course, I was thinking about death and mortality constantly. Then a magazine sent me to shoot a portrait of a person that had had extensive plastic surgery and I was immediately struck by his features. It occurred to me: what is plastic surgery, if not the denial of death and aging? As I progressed into the heart of the idea, I became interested in other thoughts, too: What choices do we make when we re-create ourselves?

Rather than appearing sensational or abnormal, however, the models appear proud and determined. Why is that, do you think?

I firmly believe that in thirty or forty years' time, looking human might mean something quite different from what it means now. In the same way that twenty years ago, the idea of tattoos or piercings was radical, and now it's mainstream, so too will the idea of human-induced evolution - at least, that's my hypothesis! Today, the methods are crude, and the technology primitive, but I think that is only because we're at the beginning of the post-human age. Eventually, isn't that something that we, as a species, have always dreamed of?

Will these technological possibilities lead us to a better place?

I can't really answer those questions, because I don't know. I think that most of the people I photographed felt better having changed themselves.

On another note: What do you think has been, or is, the influence of media on the perception of beauty? And, how do you see the responsibility for photographers and artists in relation to that?

Of course, the media play a very large role in what we think is beautiful. I suppose one could say the same thing about painting, several hundred years ago. I don't see artists as having responsibility for anything. I believe that the role of artists is, in some way, to behave as children: to say the things that adults normally cannot say, or will not speak about, in the fear of possible consequences. I have always considered that the point of art is to push the boundaries of culture and society outwards; to make us think. I, as an artist, feel the urge to speak inappropriately, and you can't do that if you're worried about being responsible.

But do you think that alterations of the body are specifically interesting to document in the medium of photography?

Well, it was for me! I make work that's interesting to me. Ideas have a gravitational pull. I'm drawn to them. Personally, I think that people should be free to do whatever they'd like to do, as long as it doesn't harm others. And it might be very interesting if we were able to change ourselves any way we saw fit. If beauty was cheap and easy to attain, then it would no longer have value; imagine how that would change society...

In another series, 'Kim Jong Phil', you take iconic paintings, propaganda posters and sculptures representing dictators, and modify them to your persona. What's your fascination with modification?

There are several themes that interest me; in particular, the idea of delusion, be it moral, ethical, or political. I'm just fascinated by the ways in which we lie to ourselves. Then of course, because I'm a narcissist, I am also very much interested in talking about my own experiences; how I feel, stages that I'm going through. Ever since I was a child, I felt that the point of art must be to push the human race forward. So, if anything that I do as an artist accomplishes that goal in a way, I would be very happy. I also think that art should be like an algebraic equation: The artist provides one half, and the viewer provides the other half. That way there's mental engagement on the part of the viewer. They are not spoon-fed amoebas but active participants.

So how does all this reflect in your projects?

'Days With My Father' was a project about my father's mortality, 'A New Kind of Beauty' was about a more general, social notion of mortality, and on this new project that I am currently working, I try to focus on my own mortality. Essentially, while I was taking care of my dad, I became fascinated by the possibilities of my own future. How would MY life be in the next forty or so years? Which way would it turn? What possibilities are awaiting me?

What are you working on at the moment?

Photography is always about the past - the moment you take a photo, it's a moment gone. But the project I am working on now is about the future. How do you research the future? So, I took a DNA test that told me what illnesses I'm likely to get, I went to see multiple fortune-tellers, and then, based on all this information, I've been making photos of all the possible ways my life might be. I work with a prosthetics special effect person, so it takes four or five hours to get into make-up, and become a version of Future Phil: old, sick, healthy, rich, poor, fat, thin, single, divorced, happily married, etcetera. The project is photography and video. I'm also working on another project that is about how politics and religion reshape our reality into an alternative form of the 'real'. This work is found art and sculpture. But I can't, or wish not to, speak too much about that at this stage.

Want to see more work by Phillip Toledano? Here's our online portfolio.

A New Kind Of Beauty has been published by Dewi Lewis Publishing in 2010.

The author Maria Teresa Salvati is the Director of Slideluck Potshow London.


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