Winckelmann revolutionized the historiography of ancient art by turning to the mystique of erotic contemplation. The artists’ school was in the gyms, he writes as he imagines Fidias going to the stadium to study the harmonious proportions of the athletes, their muscles in tension, the choreographic beauty of the struggles in the arena… Also, he figured Socrates in the arena recruiting young ephebos to whom to instruct in the art of the temperance.
The contemplation of athletes training would allow artists and philosophers to “rise above nature itself,” assuming the “spiritual nature that only the intellect conceives.”
Indeed, for Plato and the Stoics gymnos was a place of physical and moral training. The term askesis acquired for them the double meaning of gymnastic and mental practice destined to temper passions, to redirect desires.
In one of the actions that took part in the exhibition Theseus II (2014), Saul Sellés recited among tired gasps the ecstatic passage that Winckelmann dedicated to the Apollo of Belvedere while trying to hang with a rope from a beam fixed to the ceiling.
As formulated by the German historian, in the cult of the body of antiquity are intertwined fantasy, desire, voyeurism and masculine sensuality. Sellés resumed here the imagery rooted in the dawn of Western culture to reflect on the sporting spectacle as a metaphor of art, where technique and seduction are the keys to success.
Considerations that on El luchador (Mustang Art Gallery, 2014) take another view by introducing pole dance, a practice (now popularized) that originated in strip clubs and confronted with elements of boxing (sacks, knots, carabiners…), thus underscoring the artifice of binarism in the sports area between virility-aggressiveness versus femininity-seduction.
Is impressive to see Saul testing the bar (JustMad 2015), initiating sensual acrobatic movements that alternate with abrupt falls by the overexertion; It is sublime the struggle that he undertakes with himself. That choreographic tug of war between failure and overcoming removes in the viewer a mixture of admiration and tenderness that is common to those who come to the arena, the ring.
Sellés quotes Matthew Barney as one of his main influences, which we appreciate not only in his way of involving sport in art but also in using it to hold the binarity of gender in abeyance.
In the 90s Barney developed a series of actions in which, as the title notes, Drawing Restraint, the drawing is a result of physical effort: climbing ramps, jumping on a trampoline, pushing sledges, skateboarding with pencils attached to its base…
Barney’s fixation with muscle mechanics is already outlined in these expanded drawing exercises. He established a parallelism with the hypertrophy or growth of the muscles by overload and the excess of energy from which the creativity flows. The resistance stretched to the limit, compensated by moderation (his particular askesis), become models for artistic creation.
In the Cremaster cycle the themes become more complexed when adding personal myths, biographical memories mutated in cryptic epics, but if we limit ourselves to the analysis of the athletic as leitmotiv associated with metabolic and mental transformation are meaningful tributes that pay to two of his childhood idols: the escapist Houdini and the football player Jim Otto.
The breaker of illusionist chains and the player’s artificial knees symbolize to Barney the transcendent power of the body that becomes polymorphic when it goes beyond its own limits.
The title cremaster refers to the muscle that controls movement and contraction of the testicles (is exclusive to the male anatomy) by changes in temperature and emotional reactions. Reading this narrative substrate of biological nature throughout the chapters of the film seems that the embryonic phase prior to sexual differentiation, along with the polymorphism, are states of maximum harmony.
Gender and sport are once again intertwined in one of the works of Naia del Castillo, an artist who investigates femininity from here and there: from historical data, re-reading traditions and customs, cultural archetypes … In the photographic series On Seduction references are made to eighteenth-century gallant loves with attire and attitudes that pervert unidirectional standards of conquest. In Tiro con arco is the woman herself who aims her arrow as a Cupid; the armor and the plumage of peacock reinforce that symbolic inversion of the papers in the courtship rituals.
Naia even took some classes to learn the codes involved in this sport, archery, whose origin was associated with hunting and war, purely male areas, and later used to overcome the boredom of the idle society before being democratized.
Irony is always palpable in the photos of these artist: from the same series are the baby bibs that cover the female chest and the booties that wear sexy legs, both made in Jouy Versailles fabric (whose patterns wear bucolic scenes where gentlemen give floral bouquets or kiss the hand of indolent ladies).
About aiming and firing, one can recall the Shooting paintings (1960-70) by Niki de Saint Phalle. Dressed with coveralls and black boots she fired with a rifle canvases previously prepared for the impact to explode small bags full of pigments. Some emulated ecclesiastical altarpieces (thus shooting against the repressive education she had suffered as a child); others referred to international conflicts (in the midst of the cold war), colonial arrogance (war of independence in Algeria) …
She directed her displeasure against the figure of the father, both personally and politically. Misogyny and patriarchy were her targets, as she made clear when was asked about who was fired: “daddy, all men, short men, tall men, important men, fat men, men, my brother, society, the church … all men, daddy, myself.”
The performatic ritual was as or more important than the resultant work: for each occasion, at each shooting session, she chose to dress in line, from the androgynous overall to the provocative red dress, questioning gender stereotypes or underlining them for parody purposes.
We have seen the questioning of gender behaviors through sports practices usurped to the “other sex”, establishing parallels between the figure of the athlete (body worship, ovation, seduction strategies…) and the artist. But there is another phenomenon: the fall to the void and the tightrope walking that have served as metaphor of existential distress to a good cast of artists towards the end of the XX century.
A cast that included Antoni Abad and his Last Wishes (aerial projection of a wanderer advancing and retreating in an eternal cycle), Rosemary Laing and his stuntmen (in Spin records from the seat of the co-pilot how the aviator turns off the engine leaving fall until the last moment the flight rises again) … or the ropeless bungee jumping in Li Wei photos. Challenges of gravity that functioned as conditioning practices to environments transformed by technology and the celerity of the world, involving a curious mixture of vertigo to uprooting and desire for freedom.