If we consider head hair as a psychic displacement of pubic hair (see Charles Berg’s The Unconscious Meaning of Hair), a broad panoply of sexual references is displayed according to the type of cut, tonsure, length, curl, color … leading to simplistic equations as shaved=celibacy or castration; long and red-haired=hot pussy.
The history of art follows these symbolic displacements by immortalizing them in icons, such as the perfidious Lilith combing her red hair (Rossetti’s oil), a voyeuristic theme par excellence of the woman in the boudoir, which from Giovanni Bellini or Tiziano to Degas describes the evolution of headdresses as emblems of modesty, purity or coquetry in each case.
Marina Abramovic, with her action Art must be beautiful, emphasizing the intrinsic aggression in the gesture of combing, freeds somehow all these narcissist women from the compulsive repetition of a gesture to which the male paint brush had condemned them.
In Loving Care (1994), Janine Antoni took the transgression further by using her own hair as a brush, soaking it in dye to cover gray hair, mobbing the floor to ridicule while the manhood of Pollock and the women-brush of Yves Klein. While emphasizing the alienating aspect of the rituals of beauty and household care pointed to the androcentrism that governs modern art.
But the founding act of rebellion can be found several centuries ago: in the legend of Santa Librada, that young woman who convinced God to turn her into a repulsive being in order to be rejected by the suitor with whom her family wanted to marry her. Hairy woman as a matter of conviction and martyred for it, turned today into a queer icon, spiritual mother of persons who deny gender binarism.
Female hirsutism or male depilation can be used to subvert inherited patterns, and acquire different meanings ranging from illusory to magical, from parody to morbidity: Ana Mendieta compared her Fail hair transplant (1972) with the Duchampian gesture of putting beard and mustache to the Mona Lisa; Vito Acconci in Conversions (1970) burned his chest hairs with candles lit while hiding his genitals in the crotch as part of a process in which the body tries to be a malleable canvas (I wanted to be an engine doing what I can’t do); Itziar Okariz said that her prostheses in body building (1992) had to be understood in a similar way to the false beard that the pharaohs were put to incarnate Osiris.
The beard is an attribute of patriarchal power also when Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen is reincarnated into an Afghan warlord (in Afghan Hound, 2011). But in this same performance the hair also metamorphoses her body and function as a burka and a kaftan; hair as a marker of gender, ethnicity, status or social stigma: girls forced to grow up as boys, children forced to prostitute themselves as lady boys… Hair as a sign of sexual restrictions or enforced transgender identities.
The progressive loss of body hair meant for Homo sapiens the entrance into the civilizing process and the estrangement from the animal kingdom. The nostalgia in light of that split, the helplessness for the loss of that hairy element that gave us warmth and force, has been expressed by artists like Okariz, when she sewed hairs in the hand combining feminine sewing, children’s play and rite. Or when Jana Sterbak returned to the clothes our original hairy, protective nature, a second skin that in turn is enriched by a transmutative power: dressing the body of another, man or woman, in an almost eucharistic manner.
In a more (literally) visceral way, Helen Chadwick reminded us our animal nature in Loop my loop, blonde hair braided with porcine intestines; external purity and interior burst, beauty and repulsion.
Hair growth carries with it the passage of time. Cutting it involves getting rid of a part of our story, it can be a deliberate act of forgetting, turn the page. Frida Kalho bequeathed us the best example self-portraying herself in a man’s suit and her newly cut hair, still floating the locks around her, and the scissors in her hand, something like a symbol of martyrdom in this kind of inverted exvoto, since rather tha to thank a favor is a declaration of intent.
The stanza that presides the picture, “Mira que si te quise fue por el pelo; ahora que estás pelona ya no te quiero (look, if I loved you it was for your hair; now that you’re bald I do not love you anymore) permeates with humor her decision (after divorce from Diego Rivera) to be independent of any male imperative, freeing herself from the canons of femininity.
Hair as shared memory, with different rhythms of growth but in lives with the same origin. In Duality (2003), the twin artists of Art al Quadrat unite their hair in a single plait and wear costumes that make them siamese, entangled in choreographies guided by rhythms of dragging and interdependence. The wink to Relation in time (1977) of Abramovic and Ulay is evident but this of the twins is more an exercise of mourning than a resistence test. The colophon is to break the bond to strengthen the root, freeding of family weights. Cutting, pain and regeneration.
Hairs floating in the bathtub and covering the naked bodies worked as a third contact (1994) between freshly shaved head of Zhang Huan and Ma Liuming retaining his long hair and with makeup on his face. Performance photographs document compensatory polarities, the process of completing oneself through the mirror reflection of the other.
There are those who shave their heads to purge a fault, to offer a vow of obedience or chastity… but also can respond to a punk attitude. Okariz’s shaved head with a world map (variations sur la même t’aime) has a controversial attitude while at the same time refers to the role of art as a brain activity, in some way following Duchamp and his tonsure, that mythical photo in which he shows his neck shaved with a star. The game of words, in both cases, adds layers of meaning: etoile, star in French, sounds like “a toile”, “on canvas”. Art reduced to idea, key pinciple Duchampian.
Gabriel Pericàs also likes to play with double meanings, to rationalize the anecdotal and, above all, to reduce images of desire to pure abstraction deprived of sensuality. The trigger of Hair and pubic hair joined by a Hunter knot (2010) was the casual vision of a girl sitting in such a way that her long hair “curled in a very soft ringlet” (…) “went down covering one of her breasts to finish beneath her navel caught between his legs. ” The fetishist attraction is then purified by a minimal equation that seeks to visualize “the union between intellect and sexuality.” The subjective experience, the irrational impulse, comes to be redeemed through the conceptual estrangement led to the absurd.