The exhibition Supernature: An Exercise in Loads, on view until March 30th at the AMP Gallery, sets itself an arrestingly unusual task: to explore the relations between bodybuilding and art. It is a task that the exhibition, intelligently curated by Rallou Panagiotou and Andreas Melas, explores through works of a surprisingly large array of important and often controversial contemporary artists, which would be reason enough to see the exhibition. The show also plays with the notion of exhibition site by bringing the gym into the gallery and the gallery into the gym. The cavernous gallery space hosts not only the works of the artists on exhibition but also an opening-night show of bodybuilders going through competition poses and hypnotic videos of athletes doing a repetitive series of shoulder presses and cable lifts. These videos in turn capture references to the exhibition, since several works were temporarily placed in the gym during the filming, alongside the photos of the man who decades ago trained in this historic gymnasium, the first in Athens devoted to competitive bodybuilding.
I wish I had seen the opening-night appearance of the bodybuilders. Their own exhibition, so to speak. Although there are arguably elements of performance—the poses they strike seem to require an awful amount of concentration, cramping and squeezing—they seem to be more on exhibit as they pose, exposed to the judges’ and the public’s eye for a scant few minutes, like canines at a best-of-breed show, though unlike Rottweilers and Weimaraners, the men’s bodies are the result not of (others’) breeding decisions across generations but of their individual practice. They are both creator and creation, sculptor and sculpture.
If there is a parallel between the art object and the “new shapes” that the bodybuilder has crafted and exposes to the public it is perhaps the utter lack of utility in both. A bodybuilder’s muscles do not help him throw farther, run faster or jump higher. The bodybuilder’s body is all about mass and definition, proportion and symmetry across sagittal, cornal and transverse planes—all qualities of the object (muscle) itself—and nothing about strength, endurance, flexibility and balance, what the object enables or is used in, the qualities of the object that makes other things in life better, like making love or playing with your child, or heroic and extraordinary, like saving someone from a burning building. Bodybuilding is the quintessential fetish; the hypertrophied muscle serves no other purpose than to exist and be looked at and by some (if only the bodybuilder himself) to be desired.
This absence of utility is dramatically expressed in George Lappas’s Phantom Limb construction: a forgotten toybox (?) or refuse bin overflowing with huge cookie-cutter shapes of sofas and other domestic objects wrapped in a photographic membrane depicting marbled meat, like giant discarded cross-section slabs of muscle tissue taken from some monstrous beast. (I admit this may not be what Lappas had in mind, but in exhibitions like this it is impossible to view the works of art without reference to the theme of the curatorial organizing concept of the show.)
Some of the works on exhibition deal explicitly with the body and notions of transformation, disguise and incorporation. Günter Brus’s Selbstbestimmung, gruesome photographs of a face slathered in some bodily excretion—blood or shit it’s not clear which—sheathed in aluminum foil is one such example, a transmogrification of the flesh that radically undermines one of the core adhesive elements of community: the ability to recognize a face. Brus, like Rudolf Schwarzkogler, one of whose works is also on exhibition, was a member of the short-lived radical Viennese Actionism group whose actions often used the body as a locus for artistic activity or the “picture surface” itself, as Mühl’s 1964 “Material Action Manifesto” puts it. (Schwarzkogler once performed a scene in which he shitted and jerked off while singing the Austrian national anthem, Brus ended a performance by drinking a glass of his own urine).
Linder’s three feminist photomontages are another exemplar of the re-shaping of form, and as such offer another interpretation on the link between bodybuilding and art. In her famous 1977 Pretty Girl series, Linder superimposed cutouts of domestic appliances like an iron or television set or stove on the faces of nude pin-up girls, thus subversively conflating the two images of mother-of-my-children and sexual object which in the traditional patriarchal view of women were mutually exclusive. In the assemblages on exhibition at the amp (All Star Pink and Untitled, 2008) only the mouth has been altered, replaced by a pair of grossly swollen, misshapen and bright magenta lips, as if something had gone terribly wrong with a collagen injection, a comment perhaps on the perversity of cosmetic surgery, in which, as in bodybuilding, bigger is better. Curiously enough, Linder was herself a bodybuilder for a time, and in an interview in TimeOut explicitly drew a parallel between bodybuilding and collage:
It fascinated me what you could do with your body, it was an organic form of montage that changes your shape. So I trained in Manchester’s Moss Side gym with the West Indians who had come to Britain with the dream of being boxers. Changing from the inside out created a profound sense of strength that, as a woman at that time, you often didn’t feel. Now we have liposuction or Botox which is passive and paid for, but I was interested in that gradual, hidden work.
In other works on exhibition the body is discernible only in the traces it has left behind, like the residue of saliva in Dan Colen’s marvelous painting in chewing gum on canvas, The Rolling Stones, 2004: Summer. The small canvas features an archipelago of ridged, textured blobs in bright orange, cerulean, grey and emerald green. It looks like the chloroplasts and mitochondria in a cross-section of a cell. Or the residue of pigments and waxes of lipstick left on the paper of Colen’s Pebbles from the Park (2007). The work is just these lip imprints, but it’s so engaging: dozens of pairs of lips float on the space like mauve chromosomes suspended in a diaphanous medium, some pursed, others flattened, still others wide open, but all seem to be speaking in some inaudible language. But the idea of bodily residue reaches its apogee in the “human remains” conceptually interred in Terence Koh’s Mein Tod, Mein Tod (2005), a wooden tombstone covered in sugar icing (the edition dates from a performance in Berlin in which the artist staged his own death).
The curators make note of the ascesis of building bodies and making art. There is certainly a quasi-spiritual element of self-discipline, single-mindedness and even religious-like abstinence in the world of bodybuilding, as witnessed for example in the discourse about “clean food”. But all of us are bodybuilders in our own way, producing “new shapes”—flaps and swags of flesh, a paunch, a double chin—that are dictated in part by genetics, and in part by routine and a host of daily choices, guided by our industriousness or sloth, and ruled by appetite and gravity.