Clare Charnley and Lisa Watts

Review - Artists Newsletter 1998
Leeds City Art Gallery 9 Apr - 7 June 'Bodybuilding can be seen to be about nothing but failure. [Because] Whenever anyone bodybuilds, he or she is always trying to understand and control the physical in the face of death.' Kathy Acker, Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body, in The Last Sex: Feminism and Outlaw Bodies, eds Arthur and Marilouise Kroker Macmillan, 1993


As bodybuilding fails in its aim - to focus intently on bodily movement through the acts of counting, control and repetition - so too does the photographic installation 'Muscles'. This is the exhibition's blindness, but also its insight.

Upon ascending the neoclassical staircase of the Leeds City Art Gallery, I was pleasantly surprised to find four rows of four, 12' circular columns - or are they dumbbells - with square plinths and capitals. Fifteen of these columns are wrapped with computer-manipulated photographs of a woman, in full gym regalia, with exaggerated body parts. The sixteenth column is entirely black. Surrounding the installation are a series of paintings - mostly of nude men and women - selected from the Art Gallery's own collection by the artists, Clare Charnley and Lisa Watts. The idea here, we are informed by the exhibition blurb, is to recognise the echoes of gesture and form, and to ask questions about control and the depiction of the body. This works, but only up to a certain point. Intentions aside, I think 'Muscles' does something far more interesting, important and much less obvious. And I will return to this later.

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Although Charnley and Watts would like an association to be made between their work and the idea of the grotesque body as developed by Mikhail Bakhtin - he is after all quoted on the invites - I would have to say that, once again, this reading misses both the point and the importance of this exhibition. I simply do not 'see' the humour and the horror of the grotesque which is being elicited. The body depicted is first and foremost not the excessive, muscular body of the bodybuilder, but slim and toned, It barely perspires, never mind sweating. Perhaps that's because there's no equipment to be found anywhere. And although she has exaggerated body parts - stomach, breasts, arms, navel, belly, mouth and several bottoms - the body displayed cannot, to borrow the title of a conference held at the University of Leeds in 1997, be 'Considered Unsightly'. This is the exhibition's blindness. However, and this is the exhibition's vital importance, the photographs and the installation itself work to re-articulate certain practices of movement, focus, interiority and voyeurism that take place at the gym and then translates them into a resistant strategy for the space of an art exhibition. This is its insight.

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As Acker informs us, the focus and concentration that is necessary for a brilliant session at the gym is rarely achieved. One's own body constantly gets in the way. To reach the moment of the body's failure in the face of death, is to realize the exhibition's black column. In this heightened state of self-awareness, where is the place of the 'other'? Who is the other at the gym? And how is their gaze constituted? Although surreptitious voyeurism is readily a part of bodybuilding, flat-out voyeurism is often difficult. The object of desire is constantly moving; actively lifting, squatting, stretching, running, rowing, cycling... Your object is its own subject. And it is this voyeuristic disarticulation that forms the installation's insight. By reproducing this ludic dialogue in reverse, 'Muscles' disallows certain voyeuristic impulses. Against its apparent stability, the object of desire, the photographic image is no longer graspable, controllable and consumable. Unlike the easily voyeuristic potential of the paintings on the gallery walls, the spiralling photographs deny access. The columnar images demand that the viewer constantly move around them. Constantly moving in and out through the columns, repeating the act over and over, counting the columns, following the exaggerated body parts, concentrating and focusing on that which slips out of focus, and view. The viewer is constantly denied access to the object of desire. This is the provocation elicited by this installation's resistant strategy.

'Muscles' demands that the workout is in the viewing. This is the installation's insightful challenge. And, its great pleasure.

Joanne Morra is based in Leeds. She is a researcher and co-editor of parallax.

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