SuperSet at fused space


SuperSet at fused space

By Anton Stuebner May 22, 2018

Fitness culture models itself as a kind of faith. It boasts fervent acolytes, spaces for reverence, and a nearly dogmatic commitment to perfecting and purifying the bodies of its practitioners, and, by extension, their inner lives. Like any faith, it rewards devotion and stern, ascetic attention. Its core intent, however, reveals a deep-seated anxiety around mortality and the inevitable, and inescapable, failures of the human body and its functions. SuperSet, on view at fused space and co-curated by Glen Helfand and Jessica Silverman, explores "strength and fitness in all its guises," while considering how fitness presupposes "an ideal condition that is also tenuous and elusive."1 Featuring twelve artists, the exhibition is ambitiously capacious in its attempts to understand how we collectively relate to fantasies of bodily integrity and its shortcomings.2

SuperSet (installation view), 2018. Courtesy of fused space and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco. Photo: John Wilson White.

Sculpted physiques appear throughout the show as exemplars of "good form." Two gelatin silver prints of pioneering bodybuilders Lisa Lyon and Arnold Schwarzenegger by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989) hang like stolid sentries near a pair of collotype studies of well-muscled weightlifters by Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904). The carefully documented postures and movements in Muybridge's 19th-century photographs—which configure a sequence of still images to depict bodies in motion—resemble the well-honed poses found in contemporary instructional aids that have defined popular interest in fitness, and made it a highly commercialized industry.3

Eadweard Muybridge. Curling a 50-lb. dumbbell (Animal Locomotion, Volume V, Men (Pelvis Cloth), Plate 324), 1887; collotype; image; 6 1/8 x 17 7/8 inches; sheet: 19 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Libby Black's papier-mâché gym equipment riffs on the commercialization of fitness culture by re-imagining barbells and punching bags as objects produced by high fashion luxury brands. Black eschews trompe l'oeil; sculptures like Chanel Barbell (2018) are fabricated to appear homespun. The uneven black painted surface of the stacked weight plates (which are "branded" with a shaky rendering of Chanel's iconic interlocking Cs) are an immediate reminder of their deliberate artifice. While seemingly playful, Black's sculptures are dark parables about the dangers of commodity fetishism where aspiration leads to paranoia, and to the deeper fear that, without the right gear or equipment, wellness is all but unattainable.

Libby Black. Chanel Barbell, 2018; paper, hot glue, and acrylic paint; 47 x 11 x 10 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

By comparison, Jennifer Locke's arresting six-channel video installation, Modulated Exercise Sequence (2018), depicts an impossible state of physical endurance: in the video, Locke—clad in gray workout gear—completes six high-intensity exercises (such as box-jumps and burpees) in 15-second sets, edited in post-production to play on a continuous, seamless loop.4 Once the videos are synced, Locke's temporal performative gestures become a near monument to heroic, indefatigable athleticism. The screen contains this fantasy of perfect, unfailing motion, with only imperceptible breaks in the loop. As with Black's work, however, Locke's video quietly underscores the darker side of aspiration. Movement cannot perpetually sustain itself. Bodies and monitors alike break down. They behave aberrantly and blow out. The technology Locke has chosen as her medium evokes salient metaphors for how bodies deteriorate: they work, until, eventually, they don't.

Jennifer Locke. Modulated Exercise Sequence, 2018 (video still, detail); 6-channel video installation; dimensions variable; 0:15 (loop). Courtesy of the Artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

The anxiety of mortality appears most obviously in Marina Abramovic's large format photograph, Standing with Skeleton (2006/2016)—which depicts the artist in a somber black dress as she carries a human skeleton on her back—and most hauntingly in Eric Giraudet's wall installation, Movement studies (2017), which comprises silicone casts of human limbs rendered with teal and orange pigments. Helfand and Silverman note that Giraudet's sculptures are "inspired by the sporting events of ancient Mayans...that involved rubber balls and human sacrifice," but, mounted on high-polished chrome hooks, the dismembered parts become unsettlingly clinical, bringing to mind more recent, horrific narratives about experiments in eugenics.5

Eric Giraudet. Movement studies, 2017; silicon, pigments, steel; five parts, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco. Photo: John Wilson White.

Paul Pfeiffer's miniature video installation, Live Evil (Seoul) (2015), depicts a distorted video of pop singer Michael Jackson performing in Seoul, Korea, in which Jackson's body is rendered by a post-production mirroring effect into a biomorphic, skeletal form. Pfeiffer's intervention defamiliarizes Jackson's athletic stage presence while re-casting his body—the object of scrutiny, especially during Jackson's sexual abuse trials in the early 2000s—as a memento mori of a much-publicized decline.6

Paul Pfeiffer. Live Evil (Seoul), 2015; installation view, SuperSet, 2018; digital video loop, 2.5 in. LCD screen in custom 3-D printed, painted resin shell, media player: 2 9/16 x 3 9/16 x 3 91/6 inches; 1:00 (loop). Courtesy of the Artist and Perrotin, Paris.

The recurrence of mortality throughout these works may seem strange, even disquieting, for an exhibition seemingly framed by terms borrowed from fitness culture. SuperSet, however, is most poignant in these moments of discomfort, and in these spaces for reflecting on the limits of our own material existence.

SuperSet is on view at fused space in San Francisco through June 1, 2018.


  1. Quotes are sourced from the press release for SuperSet.
  2. The exhibition's title, borrowed from fitness terminology, references a practice of alternating between two sets of exercises without a rest in between. Further explanation can be found in most fitness magazines, including this online article from Shape Magazine:
  3. SFMOMA's website provides a good and concise overview of Muybridge's studies of human and animal motion (eventually released as part of the larger project, Animal Locomotion [1887]), and his work’s impact on the then-nascent field of photography:
  4. Additional context on the exercises and physical fitness terms referenced in Locke's work, including explanation as to what a burpee is, can be found on Fitness Magazine's website:
  5. Quotes are sourced from the press release for SuperSet.
  6. Speculations about Jackson's alleged sexual abuse of minors would haunt the singer following his 2005 trial, and eventual acquittal, through the end of his life:

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