Cosmetic surgery is not for the faint of heart. No matter how you slice it, cutting people open to reshape their features is a gory business. Patients are wheeled home bandaged like mummies to start on a recovery that can take weeks. Once the swelling subsides and the scars fade, patients may well be happy with the results, but it’s a grim irony that a procedure to make you more beautiful can leave you looking—on the short term at least—like an extra in a slasher flick.
This awkward interim period, when patients have only just emerged from the operating chamber, is the starting point for Su Yang‘s paintings. Her work portrays in grisly detail the immediate effects of the pursuit of perfection: the bruises, the blood, the gauze, the swelling. She paints in oil and tempera, in garish reds and purples, and her works quite intentionally have something of a horror show about them. Yet the paintings are more than gross-out pics: Yang offers them as a critique of the beauty standards that lead women to submit to traumatizing procedures.
Yang is a scholar and artist from China. She learned to paint and draw from her father, who began instructing her in European techniques at a young age. In college, at Tsinghua University, she continued to paint, and also studied sculpture, lacquer, glass art, and graphic design. While doing a master’s in fine arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo, she discovered an interest in feminism, and since then her art has explored the procedures that women, particularly Chinese women, undergo to make their bodies conform to patriarchal ideas of beauty. She’s now working toward a PhD in visual art at the University of Melbourne, where she uses her art and research to explore the demands women face in the name of beauty.
杨苏是来自中国的一名学者和艺术家。她从小跟着父亲学习绘画，教授她欧洲绘画的技法。在清华大学就读期间，她继续画画，同时学习雕塑、漆器、玻璃艺术，以及平面设计。在纽约州立大学水牛城分校（State University of New York at Buffalo）修读美术硕士学位期间，她渐渐发展了女权主义方面的兴趣。从那时起，她开始通过艺术去探讨女性——尤其是中国女性——为了父权社会的审美观念而整容的议题。现在，她正在墨尔本大学修读视觉艺术的博士学位，用自己的艺术创作和研究，探索那些“以美之名”对女性提出的种种要求。
Are her paintings a condemnation of cosmetic surgery? For Yang, that’s not quite the point. “It’s more that my works emphasize the ideologies that encourage many young Chinese women to become the same single person, without their own features,” she says. In that sense, she views these beauty-enhancement procedures as a symptom of a larger problem: the pressure to conform to uniform, unrealistic standards.
In her academic work, Yang focuses on China, where cosmetic surgery is a booming industry. She notes that the pressures to look pretty are somewhat different in Australia and the US. “The notions of beauty are localized and formed by their own cultural and social histories,” she says. “However, I also see similarities in these standards, which are partly formed by a global consumer culture.” Her subjects are not limited to China but seem to show women of various ages and ethnicities.
She also doesn’t solely paint straightforward post-op portraits. Some of her works use cosmetic procedures as a starting point but take a more fantastic turn, with faces within faces, or people peeling off their skin.
Critiques of cosmetic surgery often poke fun at the dead eyes or frozen smiles of a procedure gone awry. Yang takes a different tack, showing a side of the cosmetic industry that’s seldom seen—the seamy underbelly, as it were, that’s surgically tucked out of sight. For many people, it seems, beauty is a bloody pursuit.