Madeleine Swann writes about the body, objectification and art.
My Body Became An Art Piece
By Madeleine Swann
I WAS STANDING IN THE CORNER OF A STUDIO with a shiny wooden floor, surrounded by easels and people bustling to find a suitable spot. I leaned into the teacher and whispered, “I’ve not done this before.” She seemed a bit surprised but reacted with kindness and patience, explaining each step of the process up to the moment of truth: when I would have to lose the blanket.
I had gone in that morning feeling especially anxious. Would I be laughed at? Would I do something wrong? Would there be shrieks of terror?
Behind the changing screen I flung my clothes into a heap on the floor, and tried not to look terrified when, wrapped in a scratchy blanket, I made my way to the chair in the centre of the room. The students stood behind their easels, waiting and watching; all eyes on me. I whipped away the blanket and dropped it to the floor, taking a seat. There seemed to be more skin on show than there had ever been, miles of it stretching out forever.
And then… silence. All that followed was the busy scraping of charcoal on paper and the odd arm, stretched-out pointedly to measure me. I had gone from a woman to an object to draw correctly, and it was such a relief. I continued to do the job on and off for about ten years, and there’s always the chance I might go back to it.
In times past, life modelling would have been a more shameful job than prostitution, as you were forever on display for all to see, yet if I were a man I would have been proud of my immortalised virility. These days the most it provokes from people are raised eyebrows and a “wow, you must be confident.” Must I, though? I don’t think I’ve ever been truly confident, just perhaps more confident in that job than anything involving money handling. Even when I was a slender waif of a thing in the beginning I still thought I was fat, and by the time I had actually put a bit of weight on I was just used to doing the work. The thought of revealing myself in a public, non-artistic environment would still make me nervous though. It’s as though art has itself become a blanket to protect me from judgmental eyes. I often wonder if it’s always been this way, if we have always compared ourselves endlessly and unfavourably to others. I’m unfortunately inclined to believe that it’s so hard-wired that yes, it’s how we’re programmed. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Art students who truly want to improve welcome variety as it improves their skills, and thus seem more open and frank about body types. You also can’t really do this job without being able to distance yourself, even for a while, from how you look to others. Your body becomes as much of an object as it is for the others in the room, albeit one you’re stuck with. My perspective on my own outer shell changed with the years of exposure and daydreaming whilst they finish pictures.
I’ve had to do some odd things. I’ve wandered slowly amongst fine art students as they drew unrelated squiggles on a large piece of paper on the floor. I’ve been body painted and dressed up as a gorgon, skulking about the trees at an outdoor festival. I had to repeat over and over a contortion I could do with my arms (I could clasp my hands behind my back and get them over my head. Now I’m too old and it just hurts).
I briefly became, in my mind, a living artwork in which body shape and size doesn’t matter because I’m no longer just a woman who’s insecure about herself. I’m something else, in the same way that Edie Sedgwick of Warhol’s Factory was when she posed for his live portrait (or screen tests as they’re also known) and starred in his films. Her life from that moment became a kind of living portrait in the same way a woman signed by Piero Manzoni in 1961 still proudly carries her ‘Objet d’art’ certificate. Gilbert and George too became human sculptures when they painted themselves gold and sang “Underneath the Arches” in the sixties, as did the British public during Antony Gormley’s One and Other exhibition on the fourth plinth. As Yves Klein said once in the mid-fifties, “Life, life itself… is the absolute art.”
Perhaps, rather than focusing on the faults of ourselves and others and endlessly comparing – which we all do and deep down I know we always will – we could remind ourselves of the artist’s view when it comes to bodies, that each is just as intricate as the next and deserves to be drawn correctly. While I’m not suggesting we view people out in the street as mere objects, it might help to appreciate their differences and maybe even see them as works of art. I know it’s as much of a pipe dream as the dream I had in primary school of becoming an alien one day but, who knows, we may get close.
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Madeleine Swann’s collection of short stories, The Filing Cabinet of Doom, was published by Burning Bulb in 2014. She has written for magazines including Bizarre and The Dark Side and her fiction appears in a number of anthologies. You can find it all on her website madeleineswann.com. You can also follow her on twitter @MadeleineSwann