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"Building Modern Bodies: The Art of Bodybuilding" opens at Kunsthalle Zurich
© Martin Schoeller, Kristy Hawkins, 2008 • Courtesy Camera Work, Berlin.

By: Jörg Scheller

ZURICH.- This is not an art exhibition. It is an exhibition that deals with art indirectly—specifically, with the transformation of the human body into a work of art in bodybuilding. Since the late 19th century, bodybuilding has represented the artistic and aesthetic face of modern body culture. Since bodybuilders do not strive to achieve strength in itself, but the image of strength, pictures play an important role in their craft. By forming their bodies as sculptors once did with blocks of marble, they give the modern ideal of self-optimization a concrete form: sculpo, ergo sum. As self-sculptures, they not only embody the artist and the artwork in one, but also museums and restorers. While sports and fitness have no place in an art museum, bodybuilding is predestined for this place.

The wall facing the visitor features some of the originators of modern-day bodybuilding. For instance, there is the gymnastics movement of the early 19th century around Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, known as the father of gymnastics. [4] This school advocated an ideologically instrumental, functional understanding of the body: it sought to harden German culture like a muscle. Curiously, elements from this era have come back into fashion today: people exercise with full beards like Jahn’s, functionality takes precedence over aesthetic beauty, and longforgotten exercises are being integrated into “functional training.” Thus, history may well become the future. The gymnastics movement was joined by a more individualistic, liberal, aestheticist, and consumerist body culture with athletes such as Eugen Sandow [6, 8] and Bernarr MacFadden [3, 8] around 1900, along with obscure offshoots such as the in some cases National-Socialist nudists and sun-worshipers around Hans Surén [19, 7, 8] as well as various strident variety showmen. [7] The bodybuilding trend attracted an increasing amount of attention—and even unmistakably influenced Sascha Schneider’s bizarre Karl May illustrations, in which the Native American hero Winnetou appears to have a gym membership. [5] Sandow, who lived in London, was instrumental in establishing bodybuilding as an art with his classicist-inspired posing cures. [6] With him, the aesthetics of strength emancipated itself from the show of strength and led into postmodern body culture.

To the right hand side, Ewa Kasperek highlights a high point of the latter with two video works (2015). Bodybuilding experienced a boom in the 1970s and ’80s. Arnold Schwarzenegger [1, 9] and Lisa Lyon [10] attained global fame and emphasized the artistic aspects of bodybuilding in numerous statements. No wonder artists such as Andy Warhol were interested in these sculptors of the body. [1, 11] Kasperek’s loops (2015) from the films Pumping Iron I (1977) and Pumping Iron II (1985), which made bodybuilding acceptable among intellectuals, showcase essential characteristics of the subculture, such as self-referentiality, seemingly endless repetitions, posing, and self-presentation. [9] Rico & Michael take a similar approach to Kasperek in their film Total Body (2010/2015): repetition and presentation, presentation and repetition. [2] The duo’s photographs (2015), on the other hand, represent the culmination of the dissolution of traditional gender roles that began to emerge in Pumping Iron I and II: Hard-bodied women penetrated into the male domain of weightlifting without sacrificing their feminine attributes, while men cultivated monumental pectorals and a hairless bikini line. [13]

On the back wall, Kathy Acker’s essay Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body (1992) shows that bodybuilding theories were not only developed by non-bodybuilders, but also by bodybuilders themselves. [15] Anke Haarmann’s video essay on the Praxology of Bodybuilding (2000) also attests to bodybuilders’ ability of self-reflection. [20] Lea Rasovszky’s drawings (2012–2014), by contrast, demonstrate a new uneasiness in 21st-century body culture. [14] While bodybuilding was successful in the pop culture of the post-war period as an amusing spectacle of high and low in line with Leslie A. Fiedler’s phrase “Cross the Border, Close the Gap,” today it tends to be pathologized and exoticized. The focus is on the eerie, monstrous aspects. Muscle dysmorphia, narcissism, and doping dominate the discourse. With her works, Rasovszky makes this change tangible—and thus also the fossilization of pop culture in general.

To the left, Martin Schoeller and Ana Hofmann show bodybuilding in a more neutral light. Schoeller portrays female hardcore bodybuilders in the same way as he does celebrities, businesspeople, and politicians. In his photographs (2007–2008) he shows them not as exotic freaks, but as extreme yet dignified contemporaries. [17] Hofmann’s collaboration with the bodybuilder Toni Bellaroba resulted in two films that deal with the central importance of the mirror and diet in bodybuilding (2015). [18] The strict control and regulation of diet as well as the strict control and regulation of one’s self-image can be seen as secularized forms of asceticism. The monastic ritual becomes The Holy Pump.

Speaking of which, visitors are welcome to use the weightlifting area in the middle of the room. Here, those who not only want to consume art, but to become a work of art themselves receive both the opportunity and the inspiration to do so.

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