08 July 2010

Fat art that reproduces fat abjection

A couple of Nick Turvey sculptures have been picked as part of the Fitzwilliam Museum Sculpture Promenade 2010, in Cambridge, and will be there until next January. One of them is called 'venus' and BoingBoing reported: "It's carved from a block of upholstery foam, and coated in a rubber skin, so when you grab hold of those rolls of fat you find they are actually soft. Some people are disgusted, others love it, but it's certainly provoking reactions. It's one of a series I'm making about the materiality of the human body."

The artist's own statement goes like this: "a new kind of realism, using abstraction to trigger responses at a neural level ... quasi-musical variations or transformations of a simple, rhythmic form ... a set of possibilities like the malic molds, shaping the spangles of illuminating gas/ether ... the human body as a material object in myth, propaganda, dream and fetish ..." (Yeah, me neither).

I'm interested in what people think of as being a 'positive image' of fatness because 'positive' is such a subjective concept. I suspect that some people regard this sculpture as a positive image of fat. Look at the ladies giving her belly rolls a good old feel in the picture, for which the file is called venus-hug. Hug the fatty! It's lovely! But this sculpture really creeps me out and I want to say why.

'venus' sounds like an allusion to ancient fat female figurative sculptures that include the Venus of Willendorf, who has been appropriated by fat activists. But where those figures have at least heads, this venus is a representation of a fat woman who is nothing but her rolls of fat. Turvey is right when he mentions the word fetish, I think this is what he has produced: a representation of a fat woman as fetish object. Judging by the comment to BoingBoing, or his oblique artist's statement, I don't know if he has done this intentionally or understands its implications.

For me, a positive image of a fat woman might include some sense of autonomy. Ideally it would be produced by someone who has direct experience of a fat woman's subject position. I don't see any of that here. Instead, I look at venus and wonder: Where is her mouth? If she had a mouth, what would she say? "Get the fuck off me!" "Where are my rights?" Instead, a fat woman is diminished here through abstraction into little more than something passive, accommodating, squidgy and lovely – a magical fatty – and/or a disgusting blob. It's so limited. We deserve better representations than this.

Like John Yeadon's recent crap art I wonder if this sculpture is also a misguided product of mainstream obesity discourse, albeit a weak attempt to offer a more enlightened reading. It makes me long for art produced by people who actually have a clue about fat; Allyson Mitchell is one whose work is amazing, but yes Amanda Piasecki, I'm looking at you, and yes Stefanie Snider, I'm desperate to read your art criticism too.


RachelB said...

*nodding* Do we really need more headless representations of fat people?

Charlotte Cooper said...

Apparently yes.

lilacsigil said...

Whether the sculpture is perceived as a disgusting blob or a beautiful blob, there is no sense of humanity or agency there.

Vidya said...

"But this sculpture really creeps me out"

I think this is one of many fruitful reactions to a work of art.

While I definitely have a problem with headless/dehumanizing representations of fat people in the media, I think the art world should include works like these which challenge us to think through the whole complex of associations with fat/ness. The very things which make such representations problematic in the context of a photo accompanying a news story, for example, make a piece of art a nexus for dialogue.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Vidya, I agree. I'm not calling for censorship, or a world in which only 'positive' images are allowed.

I supose I wish there was more evidence that the artist knew what he was doing within a wider discourse on fat.

FilthyGrandeur said...

i have a similar reaction here: it's disappointing to see another fat feminine body reduced to an object. i don't find that empowering...

Kevin said...

"It's one of a series I'm making about the materiality of the human body."

It is "dehumanizing" because it doesn't represent a person. It just represents fat.

If he put a head on it, it's a fat person. People would approach it the same way they would approach other fat people: "She must be lazy," "She has no self-discipline," "She should diet," "She is unhealthy."

This is fat in a vacuum, without cause. It's objectifying because he's saying "Know what is object, so you may therefore know what is subject."

The downfall of the piece is naming it.

Charlotte Cooper said...

I don't know what you're trying to say. I find this work a bit stupid and ugly.

Kakale said...

Personally, as a fat woman venus speaks to that voice in side of me that can be self deprecating, the one that says I am only my fat. So much of who I am is because I grew up fat, and whether the artist meant it or not it really represents that part of me. Also I think the art piece is meant to make the viewer uncomfortable, mystified and amused, it is meant to make us feel something. So we will talk about it further and explore our personal feelings towards it.