Bodybuilding as Performance Art Practise

Francesca Steele as the bodybuilding artist investigating a female role within our society.

I am interested in defining Contemporary Art and understanding which works of art can be put into this category. In my previous article, I briefly described the term Contemporary Art and laid out three conditions that help me to categorise artworks. The three conditions were - subject matter, criticism, and the way in which the criticism is conducted. The last time, I used Eva & Adele as the example to illustrate my points, and today I would like to focus my attention on Francesca Steele, who is a performance artist based in the United Kingdom.

Steele was inspired by the works of Kathy Acker, an avant-garde novelist who examined the correlation between destruction and growth. It is a transformation of energy where you take on one side and give on the other. This transformation of energy became Steele´s subject matter, and Steele used her own body as the material to accommodate and explore this transition. Based on the actual experience of moulding or training her body, Steele gained valuable insight into how such a transition of energy affects the final product. Steele, viewing the art of bodybuilding as alchemy, was intrigued by the element of control – “you just take things in, mix them and you don´t really know what is going to happen”. The result however, has to please to viewer´s eye. At one point, Steele fell into a personal crisis, as she was no longer sure if she was an artist or bodybuilder. No one, apart from the affected individual, is aware of the chemical changes in one´s body, and the not-so-obvious consequence such as mood swings or deterioration of relationships. Society judges us based on our appearance and public image and not on our inner-self. That is something not visible at first sight, but it has to be shared on an individual basis.

Steele was willing to share the fruits of her labour on an individual basis in face-to-face and one-on-one intimate performances titled Routine, for example, during the event The Pigs of Today Are Hams of Tomorrow in Plymounth, 2009 commissioned by Marina Abramovic and Paula Orrell. The utter nakedness of the artist, figuratively and literally, and her willingness to share the experience with the audience is a crucial point which makes it a really good work of Contemporary Art. During female bodybuilding competitions, the participants line up in front of a jury in a tiny bikini and high heels and perform a series of required poses. The jury ranks the participants and the one who achieves the highest score is the winner. This is a typical allegory for all aspects of our life. No one pays any attention to the private and intimate changes that one has to go through in order to pass someone else's judgement. Your inner being is of no interest to anyone until you decide to reach out and share it with other individuals. That puts you in a very vulnerable position, and it takes extra courage to make you think critically about the events of the world and how they are depicted.

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