Three days before a competition body-builders begin a regime of 'carbohydrate depletion', banning starchy stuff from their plates. This has two effects. The first is to leech fluids into their muscles (up there on the podium a millimetre more on the abs or tibs means the difference between hero and zero). The second is to leave them utterly exhausted. During this period body-builders resemble not so much coiled springs (with all the potential energy that that implies) as great leaking, entropic gas plants. They have mass, yes, but not much else. They can't think straight. They can barely move a muscle.
The body-builder in Gail Pickering's performance-cum-sculptural installation Pradal (2004) appeared to be caught up in this pre-competition down time. Bronzed by the bars of an industrial heater, he reclined on a drift of dry, mustard-coloured lentils, a proxy of LA's Muscle Beach or perhaps of Robert Smithson's Asphalt Rundown (1969), a work in which a lorry-load of loose tarmac flows uselessly down a Roman cliff. Now and then he would rub Dream Tan into his bare 55-inch chest, scooping the gloop from its tin with fat, mechanical fingers, or else sit in silence on one of the oilcans that fringed the piece, admiring his pecs in their shiny surfaces.
Near the entrance to the gallery a mountain of pulses, supported by a buckling timber jetty, glowered down. If the body-builder seemed unmoved by this cornucopia, maybe it was because he was off carbohydrates or because, having spent hour after hour in its shadow, he realized that the mound was a fraud - nothing more than a large cardboard cone glossed with glue and then covered, a little amateurishly, with a couple of sacks of lentils. Beside the mountain stood a changing cubicle, hung with curtains made from the same nasty brown nylon as the body-builder's trousers and the slumped pile of tracksuit tops in the corner of the room. On the back of these tops was printed a Rorschach blot of a late 19th-century trade union emblem. Here twin workers, their eyes fizzing with superhero firepower, clambered atop the word 'CAPITALISM', or rather (given Pickering's doubling of the emblem) the word MSILATALISM - a palindrome that, by virtue of its very meaninglessness, its very ability happily to consume itself, would be impossible to overcome with anything as wordy or combative as dialectical materialism.
Pradal's atmosphere is one of wet-floored public baths and working men's clubs, places that once spoke of common values (in the 1880s, for example, members of one Chicago club performed a tableau vivant of the 'defence of the barricades' to a cheering, 3000-strong crowd) but now seem to have lost their faith. We might read Pickering's body-builder as a labourer washed up on the beach of laissez-faire capitalism, but this would be to forget the fact that, with his bench-pressed body, he labours only for himself. Rather, he describes a shift from Fordism to post-Fordism, in which physical fitness, once the by-product of work, is now something one has to buy (and gym membership and Dream Tan, as any muscleman will tell you, don't come cheap).
Plenty of artists make this type of socio-political observation. The problem is, making an observation (which, after all, can be done with a placard, a pamphlet or in a conversation in the pub) is often all they do, and they forget the crucial fact that they're also making art. Pickering is different. Her work's about showing, not telling. Consider the colours she uses to express the heat-death of the workers' movement - a worn-out, very 1970s palette of yellows and browns - or the sculptural presence of the empty oilcans, as drained of energy as the body-builder's burnished, barrel-thick biceps. Consider, too, her art-historical allusions, especially to Smithson and Walter de Maria, whose heavy physical labours (all that digging, all that planting lightning conductors in the desert) produced nothing of any use value or exchange value, only art.
Art, of course, is in many ways like pumping iron. Both activities are narcissistic; both make claims to be exemplary and both struggle for perfection, while all the time knowing that the physical world, like all objects of belief, will let them down. The difference is that, unlike body-building, the best art, while talking about itself, talks about other things too. Just look at Pickering's Pradal and the way in which it layers politics, history and complex-feeling tones in a sculptural language that's as lean as a gym-honed deltoid.