In contemplating a topic for my latest blog, I found myself waffling and wavering, hemming and hawing, perhaps even dawdling and dillydallying. After the Super Bowl a few weeks ago, I was inspired to write about the overt display of bodies, from the gracefully violent movements of the players to the objectified fleshiness of the cheerleaders. What really caught my eye at the Super Bowl, however, was the joyous physicality of Bruce Springsteen during the halftime show. Here we saw a back-bending, piano-hopping, guitar-slinging, knee-sliding, lyric-rasping Springsteen bursting with delight. In a short but frenetic performance, he embodied a genuine jubilation that announced itself as artistic and corporeal expression. Beyond the basic kinesthetic connection between brain, fingers, and guitar, Springsteen’s physicality spoke to the meanings of his music and its place within this particular American moment. But that wasn’t quite enough…
Then last week, after watching the Academy Awards, I pondered the thought of writing about The Wrestler, the raw, gritty tale of a beaten-down, past-his-prime professional wrestler and his search for the love and admiration he thrived upon while in the ring. Perhaps partly fueled by my lingering fixation on Springsteen, whose title track captures the desperation and lamentation of the movie (best lyric…“my only faith’s in the broken bones and bruises I display”), I was struck by how the notion of the body really drives the film. The once powerful and indestructible body of Randy “The Ram” Robinson has endured years of training, injuries, and steroid abuse, but is now a failing body clinging to the memories of past glories. Although no longer a means to fame and wealth on the professional wrestling circuit, Randy’s body is still intrinsically tied to his sense of identity and worth. He works at a supermarket loading boxes (and then at the deli counter), and again his body claims centrality in not only his ability to make a living, but in the ways in which he desires to be perceived by others. The story is a piece of fiction, of course, but its portrayals of physicality and the instrumental uses of the body are undoubtedly accurate. Again, not quite enough…
Still a bit indecisive on what to write, I then thought about an experience I had last summer while visiting friends in London. Waiting out a rainstorm one morning, curled up in a café with a latte and the newspaper, I noticed an article in the sports section about, of all things, an art installation. English artist Martin Creed, who won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2001, had just mounted an exhibit in the Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain, entitled Work No. 850. Why the installation merited a mention in the sports section of the newspaper was its artistic focus—individual runners sprinting the length of the gallery, repeatedly pounding the marble floors, creating an almost circular and cyclical display of bodies in motion. The piece centered on a single runner sprinting down the gallery every thirty seconds, followed by an equivalent pause in which the gallery is empty and quiet, a balance of movement and rest, of noise and quiet. Art meets physical movement, or embodied physicality becomes art? Creed’s idea was strikingly simple, elegant, and undoubtedly a challenge to the dominant perceptions of what constitutes art. I had to see it.
Walking into the main gallery space, I heard the installation before I saw it. The squeak of running shoes on marble, the sprinter’s heavy breathing, and an almost spooky echoing of footfall after footfall. Then I watched as athletes from local clubs took individual turns running as fast as they could down the straight expanse of gallery space, hurtling past master works of sculpture and dodging unsuspecting tourists. The piece was surprisingly exhilarating and suspenseful. I couldn’t stop watching, even though I knew what was going to happen each time a runner took the mark. An introductory text located on a side wall of the gallery explained Work No. 850:
This work celebrates physicality and the human spirit. Creed has instructed the runners to sprint as if their lives depended on it. Bringing together people from different backgrounds from all over London, Work No. 850 presents the beauty of human movement in its purest form, a recurring yet infinitely variable line drawn between two points.
The beauty of human movement in its most simple and pure form—bodies running, becoming art, simultaneously sites of individual physical expression and collective consumption. Yet, certainly these bodies that composed Creed’s installation were not simply just bodies in motion. By placing them in the otherwise sterile environment of a museum gallery, Creed stripped the bodies of their contexts, individuality, and in a sense, their humanity. As a consumer of this piece of art, I passively gazed upon the runners, completely captivated by their movement and entranced by the rhythm of it all, but also engulfed by a longing to join them. The piece worked, and I fervently believe it is quite a brilliant artistic statement, but it also created a distinct gulf between “artist” (the runners) and “consumer” (those of us raptly staring at them) that seemed to perpetuate a cold divide between activity and passivity. At the bottom of the placard explaining the piece, in bold type, was the warning: “For reasons of safety, please do not run.” In Work No. 850, Creed sought to celebrate physicality and human movement, but by confining it to his artists and a restrictive gallery space, he may well have stifled its beauty and universality.
So I suppose the point here is the widening tension between active participation and passive consumption within and beyond physical culture. Can we grasp a multi-faceted understanding of the active body and its cultural, political, and even artistic complexities without directly engaging with the wide range of experiences available to it? Yes, I enjoyed watching Springsteen’s robust physicality during the Super Bowl; the embodied nature of his performance was incredible. Yes, I enjoyed The Wrestler and appreciated its artistic value as a well-crafted film suffused with themes related to physical cultural studies. And yes, I also enjoyed gazing upon Martin Creed’s Work No. 850 and still think about its linking of movement, simplicity, and sheer aliveness under the grand title of “art”. Yet, instead of merely consuming these works of physicality, I suppose I would rather be the musician feeling the music through my body, the wrestler crafting an embodied performance, or the runner as artist expressing the joys, pains, and freedoms that physicality can bring. But is that even my role as a curious and critical commentator on such things?