“Let’s get physical” says the 1981 song by Grease actress’ Olivia Newton John: in the music video we can see men with different body shapes featured and so I thought the song provided a starting point to reflect on the show ‘Shredded‘ by Alix Marie, which combines photography and bodybuilding.
From Youtube to advertisements on magazines such as Men’s Health, we are bombarded with stereotypical ideas of masculinity. On this note, ‘Shredded‘, Alix Marie‘s second solo exhibition, running at Roman Road until 13th July 2019, casts a questioning eye on ideal sociocultural constructions of masculinity.
Shredded – a term used to describe someone with extremely low body fat and very well defined muscles – continues Alix’s interest in “body, gender and sculpture”. “I have amplified what the novelist Kathy Acker, herself a bodybuilder, called ‘the language of the body’ as it undergoes this extreme transformation and essentially breaks down”, says Paris-born artist Alix.
Exploring gender construction and performativity, Alix conceived the exhibition as a multi-sensory immersive installation: on entering the exhibition, visitors experience being inside a gym environment, encountering a soundscape envisioned to echo the noise of workout machines.
“Bodybuilding is a performance of extreme virility but, in competition, it also comprises huge men almost naked except for tight gold pants. For me, the contrast of the machismo and the campness is fascinating. When they perform they become moving sculptures, as much Auguste Rodin as Arnie Schwarzenegger”, says Alix Marie.
With her new pieces, on display in ‘Shredded‘, Alix considers how male bodybuilding practice has a direct effect on “sculpted” sociocultural notions of male virility today. Bodybuilders undergo a strict health regime “to sculpt their physiques, controlling and developing their musculature in a quest to achieve the ideal shape and aesthetic”.
‘Olympians‘ (2019, above), for example, is a series accentuating male body parts by using cut-outs from popular bodybuilding magazines. Alix uses black permanent markers to delineate the shapes of the models’ exposed arms, legs and torsos, and fills the remaining background, obliterating the identity of the sitters.
Alix Marie: Shredded, installation view, Roman Road, London, 11 May – 13 July 2019. Courtesy of Roman Road and the artist. © Ollie Hammick
With ‘The More He Starts To Bring That Water Out The Better He Has A Tendency To Appear‘ (2019, above), Alix uses enlarged printed images of ripped torsos on the lids of Perspex boxes containing water. Displayed on metal stands and lightened up by lamps, the installation gives the illusion of sweat, making visitors reflect on the exhausting training bodybuilders undertake to keep their bodies “perfect”.
One of the works on display ‘It’s Like Somebody Blowing Air Into Your Muscle‘ (2019, below) features wind blower fans that inflate printed fabrics representing close-ups images of bodybuilders. The work draws on a famous quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1977 film ‘Pumping Iron‘, describing the emotions and the hype of going to the gym:
As Schwarzenegger says: “The greatest feeling you can get in a gym or the most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym, is the pump … I’m like, getting the feeling of coming in the gym. I’m getting the feeling of coming at home. I’m getting the feeling of coming backstage when I pump up, when I pose in front of 5000 people. I get the same feeling”.
This obsession with bodies provokes a sense of grotesque and somehow camp: machismo is deconstructed on the basis of its premises by showing the fleeting and precarious nature of this fitness practice.
What interested me in male bodybuilding, in particular, was the collapse of gender,” says Alix. “At first glance, it appears to be this performance of extreme virility, but actually these men are half naked on stage wearing golden underwear. So, visually, it is linked to the stereotype of the pin-up or the striptease, which are feminine cliches.”
Visiting the exhibition gave me a window to reflect on the impact of bodybuilding as a great way of questioning heteronormative standards of masculinity. And let’s not forget: gender is performative, so we should stop worrying too much about giving definitions.
Shredded will be on show at Roman Road gallery in London until 13 July 2019.