Taking its name from Barbara Creed’s seminal theory, The Mutinous-Feminine is part gymnastics performance, part examination of the beauty canon; pulling into focus its lack of a muscular female morphology. The frozen, feminine odalisque of art history is set into motion with gymnastics performed in an artist's studio.
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“All architecture functions as a potential stimulus for movement, real or imagined. A building is an incitement to action, a stage for movement and interaction. It is one partner in a dialogue with the body.”
Body Movement of Body, Memory and Architecture
For the installation, built a hanging canvas apparatus to project a double-channel edit of the film onto.
The installation aims to be immersive; I tried to replicate as much of the in-person qualities of a live performance as possible: the true to scale size of my body on the canvases, hung from the same place that the performance took place, the re-purposing of the gymnastics rings for the canvas. However I tried to imbue it with the qualities that a live performance might not offer - a cubist splitting up of perspective and vantage points so that the viewer has the opportunity to scale the studio in a similar way to me, and to see and interact with the white cube space in a radically different way that they would be otherwise unfamiliar with.
Kent C. Bloomer writes:
‘“Centre” is not a concept of geometry but one of the musculature with all its kinaesthetic ramifications, of orientation in response to the pull of gravity, and of a sense or feeling of inside.”
The canvas installation is placed roughly where my centre of gravity is as a performer, directing the viewer’s line of attention here also.
Geoffrey Scott writes:
“Weight, pressure, and resistance are part of our habitual body experience, and our unconscious mimetic instinct impels us to identify ourselves with apparent weight, pressure, and resistance in the forms we see.”
This spatial mimetic mirroring plays out in many ways: how the performer’s body relates to architecture, the installation’s relation to architecture, the viewer’s relation to performer and the viewer’s relation to installation and architecture.
Before filming the performance, different visions of how to paint the wall competed in my mind meaning that I could not commit to what to paint on the studio walls. So I printed out several copies of a picture of me hanging from the rings and experimented painting on them in different styles.
The first was an abstract minimalist design inspired by Marlow Moss. I liked this design because it played off the angularity and geometry of the university, in a similar way to how my performance responded to the university’s architecture.
Constructivism, an adjacent art style, had as its mission statement that art should reflect the modern industrial world:
‘Art must not be consecrated in dead shrines called museums. It must be spread everywhere - on the streets, in the trams, factories, workshops, and in the workers homes.’
- Vladimir Mayakovsky
I also imagined that the lines and rectangles of my Marlow Moss design could become extruded as pieces of fabric to form aerial silk style accoutrements which would feature in the performance (see images below).
However as much as these ideas made sense, I felt as though by making my design ‘fit in’ to the white cube space, it would communicate conformism.
So I then experimented with a kind of minimalist road symbol style of composition. Some using only road signs, some mixed with the clean black lines and rectangles of a Marlow Moss.
I imagined that as a performer I would choreograph my performance to ‘follow’ the road signs, changing the framing of the camera to have different signs in shot as I appear to halt/slow/go up/twist around etc.
However these designs had an unpleasant garishness to them and it was unclear what the meaning of the road signs were in the context of this piece. They occupied too much space to be a casual throwaway aesthetic decision.
So I instead came up with a design inspired by Miro’s Harlequin’s Carnival.
I have had a strong pull to the painting for a while, some kind of personal significance was calling out to me. I realised that something in the weird flatness of the perspective and composition was reminiscent of a child’s eye view - so absorbed in a scene that the foreground is all that exists, the background/rest of the world falls away.
The painting takes me back to when I was a wide-eyed eight year old at a circus skills bootcamp. I was spellbound by a VHS tape played to us of some trapeze artists - under the impression that they were literally flying. You didn’t need Aladdin’s magic carpet, just trapeze swings.
I think that this was indeed the best backdrop for the performance.
The continued ‘circus’ motif, evidenced by the ladder, swing and helter-skelter, thread a string of continuity between Cirque De La Lune, and underscore the idea that is indeed a performance, a parade, I intend to impress.
Over lockdown I was watching a lot of street workout videos and I found myself musing on the elegant simplicity of the athlete’s body suspended from urban fixtures. It occurred to me that this kind of performance, and the broader medium of performance art itself, is the most direct form of expression, making it ideal for an artist under lockdown with compromised access to external facilities.
With performance art there exist the fewest degrees of separation between concept and completion. This makes it unlike painting, music composition or 3D modelling, for example, that require reliance on auxiliary equipment and more premeditated planning.
Although the inclusion of gymnastics performance art in my final year is quite an unprecedented turn, echoes of some of the stylistic formulas and conceptual sentiments in this latest work can also be observed in the rest of my oeuvre.
The body suspended in an abstract, undisclosed liminal space, marked by long stretches of white - mimics the minimal mise en scène of Genesis.
Despite the fact that my current focus neatly subsumes a lot of the concerns of my earlier work, this does not mean that I want to drop the specific style I have developed in oil painting. I do not necessarily see my current focus as my ‘final destination’. I can imagine making fantastical surrealist paintings alongside calisthenics/gymnastics based performance art.
The motif of the circus has been a recurring theme in my own work. In Medusa’s Lair, I paint myself wearing a vaudevillian corset.
Cirque De La Lune, as one might guess, references Cirque Du Soleil. The swapping of the diurnal for the nocturnal in my titling attempts to reconcile introspective, psychological plumbing with the attention-grabbing theatrics of circus performance. Lune/moon here stands in as the twilight zone of the mind. Our subconscious is obscured to us, similar to the moon during most of the lunar cycle.
The film poster references this by subtly incorporating the symbol of the moon. The symbols of my dream life that appear in the film are arranged in a circular fashion around the aerial hoop, referencing Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey is roughly a mythology-based framework for understanding one’s trials in life - the top half of the circle is undertaken in the known, conscious world and the bottom half of the circle is performed in the unknown, unconscious world. The knowing, illuminated crescent face of the moon in the poster is situated in the conscious part of the journey and the obscured part is situated in the unconscious part of the journey.
Drawing back to the circus motif; in a certain light, it may seem imprudent to have used the circus metaphor twice in a row for my last two projects. Especially given that they are the most similar out of all my other pieces of work. However I would hope that viewers would connect them as variations on a theme.
The hidden away location of my student home basement, with all of its implications of interiority and storage, represents the personal and private. The book Body, Memory and Architecture formulates and seeks an embodied, physical language for the study of architecture. It anthropomorphically instantiates the purpose of the basement in the following passage:
“One tell-tale sign remains, in modern America, of a world based not on a Cartesian abstraction, but of our sense of ourselves extended beyond the boundaries of our bodies to the world around: that is the single-family house, free-standing like ourselves, with a face and a back, a hearth (like a heart) and a chimney, an attic full of recollections of up, and a basement harbouring implications of down.”
There is almost a classicist tenor to the static holds that I perform against the backdrop of the roofing, recalling Greco-Roman sculptural architecture where figures are carved into the masonry. Does climbing up onto institutional territory constitute a symbolic toppling of said institution? Or do I become a proud mascot of it, fulfilling a similar function as the stolid Greek caryatids?
The act of scaling public spaces in this way is known as ‘free-climbing’, the most recent and high profile example being George King, who climbed the shard as a teenager and subsequently was jailed for six months. Despite these images effectively being quite similar, they confer vastly different signification: the Greco-Roman engraved icons effect the dignity and gravitas of history, a high point of culture frozen in time for posterity. Whereas George King’s selfies atop a thousand-foot-high crane brings to mind almost the reverse: anarchy, hooliganism, civil disobedience. The line between public safety hazard and public/national treasure is very thin.
We have seen this most recently the with the discourse around the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of colonial statues. Those who take umbrage with the idolatry of heinous colonisers, and want these statues to be replaced by those of philanthropists and activists, are perversely branded as barbaric and violent. The charge of cultural revisionism was posed in order to make these protesters rethink their actions - don’t these statues serve an educational purpose and so by tearing them down you are depriving the public of historical erudition?
However structuralist history has been on shaky ground in the humanities since the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Amelia Jones writes:
“The most productive moment in the history of body art, was a time of great social upheaval. Long-brewing challenges to white imperialist patriarchy - via agitation in black power, gay and lesbian, women’s student’s rights, and new left antiwar movements — came to an explosive head in the United States and Europe…normative subjectivity and its privileges were profoundly and publicly challenged, and, as Russell Ferguson has noted, whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality could “no longer…be taken as the ubiquitous paradigm, simultaneously center and boundary.”
The performed routines in the film represent patterns seen in gymnastics but equally they attempt to echo poses of the Neo - Classical style and French Romantic paintings and sculpture.
The Neo - Classical style has an association with the Institutional architecture of Europe and the school of French Romanticism with revolution. The choice to site this work within the painted wall parameters of circus imagery – as the circus and carnival can be seen as a suspension of conventional regulation as a mechanism of exposing a truth.
The double exposure at the beginning of the film underscores the ability and need to understand history in our own terms -
the changing moulding of figures representing the ongoing construction of a subjectivity, and the static, historicised account represented by the timeline are shown at the same time.
They flit between being foregrounded and cast into the background. When the timeline occupies the centre and the moulding hands occupy the outer frame, it appears to be alluding to the moulding or changing the timeline itself - an uplifting clarion call for the viewer to leave their own mark on history.
With Drawing Restraint, Barney concerns himself with finding and dramatising parallels between the artistic and athletic process.
The title Drawing Restraint comes from the physical imposition of a bungee harness onto his drawing practice. The harness would be anchored to the centre of the room and he would have to climb around the room to draw.
Barney was a gifted athlete in his youth and it still occupied a big part of his way of life when he started making art.
He considered “in order to grow, you must go out of your comfort zone” style platitudes that every artist is familiar with. Perhaps artists hear this advice so much that they take it for granted.
He realised that nowhere is the redeeming truth of these cliches evidenced more than in bodybuilding, where the process of hypertrophy (muscle growth) requires you to expose your body to progressive overload (increasingly heavy/difficult workouts over time).
In the bottom left image, Barney pontificates about the hidden parallels of the athlete and the artist.
An athlete might write a highly systematised training plan to guide their strength building so they can end up with their dream physique, in a similar way that an artist might calculate and measure the perspective of a painting to realise an idealised image that they have in their mind (my conceptual additions to his original line of enquiry).
Cassils heavily draws upon queer gender performativity to revisit a lot of the concerns of 1970s feminist performance art, often naming their pieces directly after them; thereby opening up a visual dialectic between the old and new garde (see Eleanor Antin’s Carving on the far right contrasted with Cassils’ bodybuilding progress pictures on to the immediate right)
I found Cassils work very interesting as they reflected the ambiguity and lack of identification I felt with presentations of the feminine abject body in 1970s feminist performance art; but they still retained the political charge of a gender non-conforming female body that I was not getting from Matthew Barney’s work.
A student-led crit group was set up where my peers discussed Cirque De La Lune, and one of my friends fed back to me that she wasn’t sure what to focus on when watching the film.
The shadow animations on the wall and floor, and my body performing the exercises, end up respectively vying for the audience’s attention.
In certain contexts, a multi channel video installation for example, it is not a bad thing for there to be two points of focus. But since the film is so fast paced it can mean that a lot is lost on the viewer.
So I decided that for the next gymnastics performance film, the focus should be more on my body.
The politics of the gaze was something that was playing on my mind at the beginning of the module.
I was thinking specifically of attempts to re-examine the global art canon’s presentation of the female body, with body-positive pretensions. Watch an example in the video on the right:
To me, this video attempts to reach out to a female viewer, reassuring her that whether she is fat, skinny, somewhere in the middle - she was at some point in history seen as the ideal body type.
But to me this video falls flat for it measures the female body on a simplistic scale of skinny to fat, assuming that women don’t care about being strong. Female muscularity doesn’t really enter the equation. Perhaps it is merely reflecting the bias of history.
I do actually think in recent history there has been good media representation of an athletic female body type - since about the 90s (so for my whole lifetime), perhaps starting with Tomb Raider.
However I feel as though this body type is elided from from binate discourses of female representation; which simply measures the female body according to a slim or fat build. Muscular women seem to be missing in the broader history of representation. Exceptions to this rule flourish notably, and surprisingly - under repressive social mores rather than permissive ones.
The hulking, burly women of Michelangelo’s paintings had their bodies modelled on male sitters because of stringent controls on the nude female body put forth by society. This is at least one theory put forth by Gill Saunders in her 1989 book, The Nude: A New Perspective. She says:
“female nudes in the painting and sculpture of the [renaissance] period were derived from male models … so they appear unconvincing”
I produced a strength training plan in the build up to the video shoot, and it struck me that this was essentially a sculptural process - I was ‘chiselling’ my body. So I decided to give literal form to this idea and see if I could link it to the timeline idea.
The ‘chiselling’ idea evolved into to the clay-moulding timelapse of female beauty icons through history, underscoring how simplistic the changes between the different beauty ideals were - mostly revolving around the addition and subtraction of fat deposits around the breasts and hips.
The last figure that would be moulded would be the muscular torso of a female athlete. A scalpel is used for the first time to carve out hard edges rather than rounded curves.
This same scalpel is also used to symbolically cut the connected gymnastics rope from the timeline, symbolising a break from this old pantheon into something new.
The upward incline of the timeline suggests exponential growth, social progress.
When I told my peers about the female beauty art history timeline idea, they fed back to me that it seemed to disrupt the playful nature of the performance and turn it more into a lecture.
I still felt as though the timeline served a necessary function as a framing device for the portrayal of the female body. Simply performing a string of exercises without any context would seem to lack any conceptual meat, and would end up resembling something out of the TikTok fitness genre.
Further still, perhaps linearity and non-linearity (as modes of thinking and presentation) play off eachother in interesting ways, enhancing one another. So when in the film, the scalpel cuts the end of the timeline, it signifies a break from this linear way of thinking before the freewheeling performance begins.
I did take a pinch of their criticism however, by ditching the typical numerical chronology of timelines in favour of period-themed, visually customised backdrops for each of the female figures.
As can be seen in the picture above, I took out three books from the library which I cross-referenced to come up with the designs.
Similar to the Cirque De La Lune, I made a training plan for all the exercises I wanted to learn. Adding some and discarding others based on what I would realistically be able to achieve in the timeframe.
I went on YouTube for tutorials on how to learn strength conditioning exercises for exercises I hadn’t unlocked yet (progressions).
I had about 2 months ahead of me so I tried to be smart about my training plan.
I charted the exercises on a technique/skill —> strength spectrum. Technique based exercises such as handstand drills you can practice throughout the day, whereas strength based exercises such as the half iron cross you should practice in focused 1 hour sessions.
The final presentation idea that I went with combined several of the presentation ideas already discussed, along with the 601 feedback encouraging me to present the work at a true to life scale.
I had the idea to hang a canvas, then later two canvases, from the support beam that I did the performance from, and project the film onto them.
So it would be shown in the same space where it was performed, using the main prop as an installation feature: the gymnastics rings act as a rivet to hang the canvases from.
I firstly made a jesmonite duplicate of the rings by making a silicone mould in the casting studio.
I then calculated the size that the canvases should be and got some canvas in these sizes. I cut a circle in them for the ring rivets, and then adhered them on either side using wood glue.
As you can see in the third image below, this set up left the unstretched canvas floppy when hung from the beam.
So in order to keep the canvases taut I took them into the metalwork studio and stuck a wooden dow round the top and bottom of them, using double sided tape, staples and some sewn in metal wire.
On site hanging canvas installation sans video projection, daytime view and night time view.
(4 metres tall x 3 metre width x 1.7 metre depth = 12227163 cubic inches)
Acrylic paint on MDF wall and floor
KRK home speakers taped on top of support beam
Hanging canvas installation made of unstretched canvas, dyed black jesmonite cast of gymnastics rings, wooden dows, staples, metal wire