Review by Emma Crawley
‘The Life Room’, the current exhibition at the Chelsea Arts Space, brings together both the tools of the artist and the athlete in a somewhat incongruous display of easels, drawing boards and high tech gym equipment. At first glance the visitor wonders if they have stumbled upon a wacky art student’s gym, the treadmills and running machines dominate the space and become pieces of art in their own right. The exhibition is full of interesting contradictions; the classical music playing in the background and the commanding statue of Aphrodite placed in the corner of the room offer a pleasant contrast to the techno sound tracks and water coolers usually found in most modern gyms.
Despite their disparities, a connection between the activities of observational drawing and physical exercise is revealed; at the centre of both is an interest in the physicality of the body. In most art schools the life drawing room was once central to learning, allowing students to observe the human form and render it into a two dimensional form. Whilst capturing the physical perfection of the body may no longer be a priority for art students, it is most certainly of upmost importance in today’s gyms and leisure complexes, as people train to improve body image and physical fitness.
‘The Life Room’ offers an alternative space in which the visitor can participate in both drawing and exercise, and master classes from artists and fitness experts are given on certain days during the course of the exhibition. The placement of the gym equipment in the gallery challenges the visitor’s interaction with the space, and despite initially assuming the machines were simply objects to be looked at I came to realise they were there to be utilised. After witnessing an old man doing a rather strenuous work out on one of the treadmills I swiftly hopped on to a cross trainer (wishing I had not worn a skirt) and was able to watch five videos produced by various artists exploring the compulsive nature of exercise. This dynamic (if slightly bizarre) way of engaging with the art works highlights the interactivity of the digital age, questioning the importance of basic skills such as life and observational drawing that were once so vital in art schools.
A montage of sports photography featured on a plasma screen near the entrance of the exhibition illustrates perfectly how the artistic and the athletic complement each other, and with their tendencies towards obsession and their reliance on performance the two are perhaps more similar than may at first be expected. The professional sports photographer Leo Mason captures a number of athletes at pivotal moments in their practise; we see divers as they spring from a board, athletes as they scissor across the hurdles and gymnasts as they leap across the floor, and the aesthetics of an athletic body certainly make for a graceful and artistic subject matter.
‘The Life Room’ is an extremely unique and refreshing exhibition in its exploration of the arts and sports and its insistence on audience participation. In consideration of the pending 2012 London Olympic Games it is also highly relevant, and according to Donald Smith, the director of exhibitions at the Chelsea Space, it may well be showcased in galleries, leisure centres and cultural institutions across the country during the Cultural Olympiad. Let’s hope that it encourages unhealthy art enthusiasts to get physical. Whilst it remains at the Chelsea Space, I for one will certainly be back for a cheap yet educational work out.