FunAstrology"The Man Who Sold His Skin" in the cinema:...

"The Man Who Sold His Skin" in the cinema: The devil is an artist

The Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania succeeds in creating a dazzling satire on the art world with The Man Who Sold His Skin.

Hardly any work of art makes itself as noticeable as Wim Delvoye’s sculpture “Cloaca”. The twelve meter long construction made of pipes, hoses, all kinds of vessels and devices simulates the human digestive process using scientific methods. The unmistakable smacking and gargling noises are only overshadowed by the spread of the smell in terms of their effectiveness. At the same time, it is an art machine that produces other works of art itself – precisely those odorous excrements that it practically shapes into cuboids ready for sale and shrink-wraps in plastic. Anyone who was able to admire the Belgian’s work in 2001 at the premiere in the Düsseldorf Kunstpalast wrote it primarily in their olfactory memory.

Wim Delvoye has a supporting role as an art insurer in the satire The Man Who Sold His Skin. In doing so, he also gives his blessing to the appropriation of another of his artistic trademarks by director and writer Kaouther Ben Hania. The linchpin of the story is a work of art on human skin, as Delvoye has been producing for a long time.

When the Syrian refugee Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) is noticed as an uninvited guest at a vernissage, the celebrated artist Jeffrey Godefroi makes him an offer: If he agrees to use the skin of his back as a canvas for one of his works, he doesn’t need to worry about his residency status to worry about making a living. With every sale, he gets a generous one-third share, which can quickly add up to hundreds of thousands. “Do you want to buy my soul?” asks the young man, well aware of the Faustian seduction. “I want your skin,” replies the artist in devilish understatement.

The deal is made quickly, the work soon scratched. However, the design itself, as is sometimes the case with works of conceptual art, does not reveal any dedicated artistic signature. It is an enlarged copy of a Schengen visa. But you don’t have to look at what you’re carrying on your back.

Wim Delvoye’s tattoo artwork TIM, which inspired this film, is on the skin of Swiss Tim Steiner and belongs to German collector Rik Reinking. The purchase price of 150,000 euros went to the human wearer, who freed up a few weeks a year for exhibitions. For the Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania, this border crossing between art and human trafficking is above all a metaphor for the classism of the western world. She chooses Germany as one of the central venues, where the living work of art soon finds itself in the center of a flourishing art scene, but is also co-opted by human rights activists.

Without leaving the light tone of her satire, she not only holds up the mirror to an art world as upper-class amusement. It is also about a late colonialist attitude towards refugees; a society that welcomes them with grand gestures, but without treating them as equals. Before Sam Ali makes his pact with the devil, he hires himself into an unqualified cheap job – on an assembly line he sends chicks to the afterlife.

While the artist character in this film has made cynicism part of his work and is therefore always off the hook, his assistant stands for everyday condescension. Monica Bellucci plays the role of this slick mediator between art and commerce brilliantly.

Of course, the film overdoes it a little, for example when the gallery and museum scene merge seamlessly and there really is no one within the system who strikes a critical note. But it’s not a flat caricature either, and Delvoye’s contribution pays off: the artist’s sculptures in the film are actually his own, which makes the film not only an art satire, but a semi-artist film itself.

It’s a bit daring what the filmmaker pulls together here. She makes it all too easy with the backstory, which introduces the young man and his lover to Syria without delving into the political situation or the dangers of fleeing. She then uses the love story to reflect the topic of human trafficking again: instead of him, the young woman marries a nasty moneybag, which later leads to quite funny and ultimately even romantic complications.

With astonishing consistency, however, she manages to keep the main character, played by Yahya Mahayni, free from any victim perspective. Always an ambivalent, not even a particularly likeable character, he is by far the most complex of the film. His style itself is a little reminiscent of Peter Greenaway’s art-loving comedies from the 1980s, to which Amin Bouhafa’s elegant minimal music also contributes.

The best scene takes the living work of art to the conservational limits of the human medium: an ugly pimple has settled on Sam Ali’s tattooed skin. As a doctor spells it out full-screen, a sign at the museum explains his unfortunate absence: “Closed for Restoration.”

“The Man Who Sold His Skin”. Tunisia, Germany, Belgium 2020. Director: Kaouther Ben Hania. 104 mins

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