Watching the Olympics, I am consistently fascinated by the body types of the athletes. We are a society of body worshippers and body idealizers, making the Olympics a rare opportunity to ogle and celebrate bodies that truly near an ideal form. This is not a spectacle of smokin’ hot bod’s but an exhibition of anatomy that has been honed to perform specific feats, and subsequently tell a story.
Ideals of body are illustrated in part by the closeness of form to function. The function of the average body is often hazy—hazier still as our lives become more sedentary and virtual. The human body, like any other beast, developed over time as a function of survival– being able to endure its environment, compete for resources and reproduce. As mankind civilized, the importance of mind and spirit were elevated and our ideals of the body incorporated these intangible qualities. Fashion, style and design developed to express these cultural ideals and give the body new context. As the world has become industrialized and now digitized the body seems less like a tool and more like baggage. Thus the ideals of the body shift to the urgencies of our times, which, some might say, are more superficial.
Coolness and sexiness dominate the forms we idealize in America from the body to contemporary art. Perhaps we celebrate these looks as a culture because they conjure notions of immortality, or rather perpetual youth and abandon. Immortality knows no bounds and without boundaries, ideals become fantasy. So the depictions of the body in pop culture are often unmoored from reality. Lady Gaga wasn’tactually born that way, per se.
The Olympics is mesmerizing because it matches our ideals of physical potential against the realities of our physical world. Each game that the athletes train and compete in represents a boundary of our physical world in a formal way. As boundaries they cannot be beaten but merely measured against. A swimmer doesn’t expect to become a fish, nor a runner hope to warp across the finish line. Acknowledging the boundaries of a game is to accept fate, whether we like it or not. The Olympics is mortality on parade.
If that seems like a dreary take on sport than consider how boundaries are liberating. Take Joe Shmo as an example of an average everyman whose blob of a body reveals no special distinction. Without observing boundaries for his body, he will keep an ambiguous form and relate nothing in particular about his environment. But given a particular athletic task to train for and the body is reshaped to focus on the demands of that sport. The body is in a focused conversation with its environment. Spectators can eavesdrop on this conversation by noting the shape of the body. Like a sculpture released from a block of marble, athletic training gives the body distinction. The boundaries not only allow athletes to perfect their bodies and performance towards a specific goal but are something to transcend.
The great variety of games on display at the Olympics allow us to see by comparison what each sport demands of the body. Weather it is the bulk needed to support the weight lifter, or the leanness required of long distance runners, these athletes have tailored their bodies to be the best tools for the task. Through those attributes one can see the invisible forces of the physical world. Our modern lives are distanced from the physical world by buffers such as escalators and car suspension, yet seeing these athletes strive and apply tool to task we are reminded of basic physical reality. Where a plum-bob merely exposes the effects of gravity, a diver, for example, shows a conversation with gravity. He or she twists and turns and plays with the gravity that inevitably plunges them into water. It is how the athlete performs that determines the tenor of the conversation and makes something grand that may possibly transcend the boundaries.
We focus on the sport of these Olympic events but it is the transcendence that we crave. Emotional moments that make scores and times irrelevant what speak to all of us, athlete and Joe Shmo alike. As an artist I am trying to reach for those transcendent moments from the boundaries of my medium of painting. The dimensions and borders of the rectangle, the prerogative of the subject matter, and the limitations of my materials set the rules of the game. Pushing the image into focus is a reaction to all those boundaries and particular musculature takes shape in the composition (and artist). The painting rallies around my ideals of beauty and, if I am lucky, the painting transcends to find something unexpected.