Brian J Morrison: RIPPED, CHISELED, AND ROCK HARD, Platform Arts, Belfast, 2013
I have not seen this exhibition. The following email conversation with the artist supported by photographs by Jason Higgins and the artist, aims to trace the intention and responsiveness to the subject matter, to the site, sources and concept.
JS: Yesterday, you have taken down your exhibition at Platform Arts of objects you have made. I have not seen it, I know the space, and I have seen some previous artworks of yours. Walk me through the space from the door, please, describing the installation, the way the objects were made and displayed.
BJM: The installation comprises of one floor-based inkjet photographic print and six inkjet photographic cut outs mounted on 6mm MDF. The cut outs are supported by 1 inch x 1 inch pine rods counterbalanced by cinderblocks. Each work is at an angle of 90 degrees from the floor and has been individually spot lit from above.
As we enter the space, the first thing we are confronted with is a lack of daylight. Each of the 28 windows has been blacked out in an attempt to create a sense of theatrical atmosphere, I see this a stage for the work to perform.
Standing just inside the entrance of the gallery offers the viewer an opportunity to see all seven works; they have been positioned in a way as to not obstruct each other from this viewing point.
It is likely that the closest of the six cut-outs is the one that grabs the attention first, a (slightly smaller than life size) photographic cut-out of an extreme male bodybuilder gazing directly back at us, with a bikini clad female lying at his feet.
“ Joe Weider picked up a weight when he was 13, and went on to change the entire world”
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Moving forward through the gallery on the left hand side we come to one of the more abstract cut-outs.
An enlarged (particularly bulbous) bicep and forearm, almost unrecognisable as a body part due to its scale and the isolation from the rest of a body. Just beyond the bicep is a cut out with similar characteristics to the first piece discussed; an image of an extreme bodybuilder staring straight back at the viewer, and the female form is presented.
At this point we are almost at the back of the room and a shift to the right hand side of the space take us to the largest of all the works. A headless image of a highly sculpted bicep, chest and abdomen is in a state of extreme ‘flex’ (to use a bodybuilding term), a process that renders the skin tight and muscles vascular.
If we continue on this path back towards the front of the gallery and what is possibly the most abstract of all the works, we see an image of a metallic structure and hydraulic piston. The final piece is yet another extremely bulbous male body part, on this occasion a decapitated chest and arm clasps an enormous dumbbell.
JS: Your use of scale, directed light, and simultaneous sight lines to each exhibit makes the open book image placed horizontally an exception. Victor Skhlowski coined a term, ‘foregrounding’, for such a strategy. It may appear as a distant echo of Barthes’ punctum, where that is narrowed down to the image itself, not to its place in a display. I tend to conclude that the display was a deliberate part of your aesthetic strategy aiming at foregrounding as an overall concept, expressed in the sentence on otherwise illegible pages. This supports to some extent Susan Sontag’s view that ‘only that which narrates can make us understand’. The question of the relationship between verbal and visual narrative has long history, from mythical and biblical themes to Poussin’s Ut pictura poesis. I sense that you present a variant of Poussin – by selecting a sentence that flies off the achievable, and expecting the exhibits to perform all at once, as a chorus, as a spectacle of a spectacle. Andy Warhol chose images of celebrities from known films as a tool to focus attention, you have chosen stereotypes of extreme care for a body, as part pro toto. What do you want them to change in the world, or what you want them change into? They are already lifeless, in spite of the directed gaze.
BJM: The concept of ‘foregrounding’ is a useful term to sum up my reasoning behind the inclusion of the open book. It is clearly a separate entity within this setting yet connected due to the content of the visible text and the individual who spoke the words and the person being spoken about. One of my interests lies in the function of a photograph (its purpose or role within any given context) and how altering the context and not the image can change that purpose, this idea fed into the open book piece. I became interested in the duality of the statement being made, and how its intent/function/purpose changed once positioned within this room full of photographic cut-outs of extreme male bodies.
It was a later consideration to have the text presented as an open book and was a decision I made once all the other works had been installed. I had planned to include the quotation in a more traditional manner (wall-based vinyl), however this felt too disconnected from the process and conceptual decisions I had been making with the other pieces. I felt it was necessary to link it directly to the cut-outs beyond the previously mentioned content connection. I liked the obvious connotation of an open-book as an invitation for knowledge and how that invitation is tainted; not only by the black marks obscuring some of the text but the fact it is a photograph of a book and not the physical book. This open book simultaneously invites and rejects the viewer’s gaze in the same way as the photographs of male bodies found in the pages of Muscle and Fitness.
The catalyst for all my work is usually some form of sociological observation or question, so it was interesting for me to observe the interactions of people visiting the exhibition.
I use the term interactions intentionally as many of the visitors did not just view the work in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, I watched as people photographed themselves next the to cut-outs, mimicking poses or caressing the bodies.
I had anticipated this on some level but not to the extent at which it happened. The interaction with the cut-outs in this way suggests that there is a deeply ingrained opinion of the types of bodies presented; they are objects, objects of desire, lust or ridicule.
Although the works are lifeless, it would appear, in this setting that life is thrust upon them.
JS: The response of your viewers is wonderfully inappropriate, in the sense that this culture agrees on normative behaviour at exhibitions, and in the sense that art’s function is not to be a consensual conformity to already prescribed responsiveness. These interactions cancel any normative hierarchy between the art object(often untouchable) and the viewing, which now includes movement, touch, and acting up. I wonder if there was a sound – either as expression of the flamboyant response or its constituent part.
Turning to the triad of life/object/life evoked in your previous answer. The selection of images privileges two of your exhibits: the standing man and seated woman, and the huge torso. I speculate that the size of these two had something to do with those responses, as it provoked the hypnotic pull of tactile qualities at the height of an average person. The smaller objects reversed their power back to the visual, to the sight lines from a distance, pushing recognition to the ambiguity of flat surface and abstraction. The exercising machine stands separate, alienated from its function by an abandoned usefulness.
Looking at the torso – and the machine, the machine looks more animated as if trying to reach out. The torso, on the other hand seems to exist as stasis behind an invisible barrier from which a peep hole of its size was cut out. You have made courageous cuts to the figures, your fragments have serious claim to a kind of completeness that allows to identify what it is I see. Just, and in the smaller torso with some difficulty.
It still is mimesis embracing the challenge of what may be a subject of art. Thinking about aesthetic categories – your viewers added humour and performance – I perceive irony condensing the aspiration being cut down to fragments that may lose their original identity.
It may be a metaphor for human species. Is it?
BJM: There has been a serendipitous connection between my investigation into this specific cross section of masculinity and the “hierarchy between the art object and the viewing”, a connection, that in many ways, completes an interesting viewing- interacting cycle. In Bodybuilding, photography plays a crucial role in the construction of a desired physical appearance. In the case of the images selected for the exhibition, in their original context – as advertisements – their main function is to invite a viewer’s gaze. As advertisements for Bodybuilding supplements and weights equipment, they use the male body to invite a very specific gaze from a perceived heterosexual male audience.
This invitation could read something like this:
Look at this body
Aspire to own a body like this
Do not sexualise this body
For me, there is no doubt that the advertising images presented in Muscle and Fitness reduce these muscular bodies to objects, the most basic tropes of objectification are apparent. So to consider these images in an exhibition space, transformed into large-scale art objects, it seems only apt that they would (for some) cancel the prescribed hierarchy of the art object and the act of viewing.
As you mentioned, the works that solicited a physical interaction, did so due to their scale and subject matter. It seems useful at this point to consider the interaction/reaction with/to one of the less seductive works, the machine piece. The inclusion of this inanimate object relates back to our original discussion of life/object/life. I perceived this image of a weights machine as a body part. Due to the close cropping, its shape and suggested form, it has an arm like quality and therefore reinforced a gendered objectification (body as object/object as body). The interactions with the machine piece have been more in keeping with a traditional exhibition viewing experience. It is the one work that has generated the most ‘theoretical’ discussion. From a nod to Dadaism, to its similarity with a hypodermic needle (and its relation to hyperbolic steroids) it would appear that this piece is more elusive and more difficult to define than some of the others. Is this because it appears as a more suitable subject for art?!
It was not my intention to deliver a metaphor for the human species, although I can see how, due to the content and range of social interactions this exhibition has invited, that it could be perceived as such. I am content in the thought that the work has invited a varied range of reactions and experiences. It enforces my opinion that this subject matter maintains validity beyond a social investigation and into an artistic practice.