Is there a way of ensuring that a work of art or literature won’t survive? Shelley Jackson thinks there is, and is out to prove it with SKIN, a project she calls A mortal work of art.
In the summer of 2003 Jackson put out a quiet call for volunteers. Each volunteer would agree to have a word from her 2095-word story tattooed somewhere on his or her body. The story is a closely guarded secret and the volunteers are able to read it only after they’ve been inked.
Jackson encourages potential volunteers to read her other works, especially her short stories, but if she has her way, the complete text of SKIN will never be made publicly available, in print or online.
The first tattooed word (SKIN, the story’s title) is on Jackson’s own wrist and subsequent words are slowly being issued in story order, based upon applications Jackson feels speak to her.
Over 10,000 volunteers for her project have poured in from all around the world. Mothers and daughters have requested words together as a bonding experience and groups of friends have asked for words in sequence to form a sentence. Thus far, Jackson has accepted 1875 applications, has received a total of almost 22,000 emails and has proof of 553 inked words.
Once a word has been tattooed, the person then “becomes” the word and Jackson refers to her “words” as someone else might speak of their own children.
Jackson isn’t fussy about the final incarnation of her work. She says if she doesn’t find enough participants, the incomplete version will be considered definitive. If she hadn’t received any volunteers at all, the call itself would have been the work.
To attempt to define exactly what her work is begs some interesting questions. Is it literary? If this story were printed on paper it would certainly be called a literary work and not a work of art, but conversely “words” do not usually have jobs and paint their nails and do the washing up.
From that perspective it’s easy to see a whimsical element of performance art, and it cannot be denied that this project is far more visually interesting than the average novella.
The most fascinating element of SKIN, be it literary or artistic, is its transient nature. The story may never be fully realised, as it seems possible that before the last word has been “born” one of the others may have died.
And the author is quite aware that many of her words could outlive her. But this seems to be part of her grand design, an integral part of her artistic vision: “As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.”