Muscles

 
by Claire Charnley and Lisa Watts
Leeds City Art Gallery 9 April 7 June 1998

This show is sited in an upstairs, top-lit room of Leeds City Art Gallery. The space, which usually houses the maquette of Antony Gormley's brick man that never was, has been given over to an investigation of the body and its manipulation. Unlike the three-dimensional mass of the brick body, Charnley and Watts' work consists of flat photographic images that have been stretched around 16 cylindrical pillars. Consequently the viewer has to walk around each pillar in order to see the entire image, a process which plays with the potential of three-dimensionality. The pillars are about 8 feet high and placed in a regulated grid pattern in the room. The architectural pillars of this late Victorian civic gallery are smooth, polished limestone and classical in style. The stark blackness and form of Muscles' pillars with their straight shafts and box capitals and bases resonate with these surroundings.

The photographs are of a woman dressed in gym gear whose body image has been digitally manipulated on a computer to stretch around the cylinder. In some cases her body parts fold round to meet themselves; arms and legs are elongated giving a sense of beginning and ending becoming melded. In others they are simply stretched to appear grotesque such as in the image entitled Double Breast which was used to advertise the exhibition. The expressions on the woman's face range from a grimace of pain at the exertion to a grin of delight. Based on the artists' experiences in the gym of (in particular women's) bodybuilding, Muscles has itself been formed to 'explore different perspectives on the body.' The manipulations show the process of how shape can be moulded during the body building experience. The spatial regularity of the pillars themselves works well to juxtapose the idea of uniformity with distortion, both features of this process.

The notion of the grotesque, something, which is often attributed to the culture of body building, is referred to in the accompanying text for the exhibition. Bakhtin analysed the Renaissance treatment of the grotesque by the writer Rabelais as 'a bodily and popular corrective to individual idealistic and spiritual pretence'. Muscles has introduced a way of looking at these ideas and involves an element of humorous (self) reflection. Perhaps this can be taken further by working in the realm of collective activity in gyms and witnessing the phenomenon of bodybuilding in its own cultural context. Other places where the grotesque and body manipulation feature can be seen as part of this context. Sky TV's wrestling programmes with its use of people of contrasting body sizes is one. There is a lot of potential within a thematics of body image and manipulation in contemporary art production and performance to look at those instances where the 'body beautiful' meets the 'grotesque'. The whole notion of definition is certainly on the agenda for further investigation and thought in art practice.

Miranda Mason 8 April/ 9 June 1998