BY Jörg Scheller in Profiles | 15 AUG 13
Featured in
Issue 11

Witness the Fitness

Helga Wretman’s Fitness for Artists TV revives the surprisingly long history of art and exercise

BY Jörg Scheller in Profiles | 15 AUG 13

Helga Wretman & Pilvi Takala, Fitness for Artists TV, 2013 (courtesy: © ARTE Creative / Baby Darwin, Berlin)

At first glance, it seems like a pretty absurd idea. The Berlin-based Swedish artist Helga Wretman visits fellow artists in their apartments and studios. Instead of chatting up her hosts about their respective projects and positions over a cup of coffee, Wretman invites them to complete a short fitness programme and speak with her about art between stretches, cardio exercises, and weight training.

In a skin-tight exercise outfit, Wretman (whose body fat percentage can’t possibly be higher than six percent) bounces back and forth next to her conversation partner posing questions like: ‘what does physical fitness mean to you?’ The camera is always present, as television station subsidiary ARTE Creative airs the personal training sessions as monthly online episodes under the title Fitness for Artists TV (slogan: ‘creative perspiration’). Thus far, Wretman’s trainees have included Aleksandra Domanovic´, Constant Dullaart,Edgar Leciejewski, Egill Saebjörnsson, Jeremy Shaw and Pilvi Takala.

In practice, these workouts with hip young artists come across as a bit gimmicky. It’s clear that Wretman is using the radical affirmation of the fitness-crazed zeitgeist (or better yet: ‘zeit-body’) in an effort to counteract the clichéd image of the artist as a chain-smoking, red-wine-drinking couch potato. High-tech sneakers instead of paint-splattered boots,a crop top instead of a stiff leather jacket – we get it. The earnestness of the whole thing might leave some viewers wanting for a pinch of Postmodern irony.

Andy Warhol, working out, seated on a toilet, The Factory, New York, 1964 (photograph: © Eve Arnold / Magnum Photos / Agentur Focus)

On the other hand, Fitness for Artists TV, which is produced in collaboration with the collective Baby Darwin (Dafna Maimon, Kinga Kielczynska and Lindsay Lawson),is an interesting concept; the series offers the occasion to take a look at the historical ties between fitness and art. The history of these ties doesn’t begin with Matthew Barney, the hyper-fit high-performance mythologist of recent art history.Nor does it begin with the miracle man of Fluxus, Bazon Brock, that ‘artist without work’, who delivered his lecture performances of the 1960s standing on his head. The liaison between fitness and art (not to be confused with the connection between sport and art, which has been more thoroughly examined), is older, more complex, more surprising.

In the late 19th century,a newspaper article characterized one of the cofounders of modern fitness culture (i.e. individual exercise that’s not necessarily tied to athletic competition) as a ‘true artist’. Eugen Sandow, the Prussian endurance athlete, businessman, and author who lived in exile in London, posed as a living sculpture around the world and cited his first experience seeing ancient statues as the formative moment in his own personal transformation. For Sandow, an aesthete and libertarian with a handlebar moustache, fitness and art were two sides of the same coin – or, as his American colleague Bernarr MacFadden wrote in his Encyclopedia of Health in 1937: ‘there is no greater art than the art of living’. But truly being able to live, in contrast to merely existing, meant that the body had to be subject to perpetual exercise. In that era, monastic conceptions of body and soul as a unified entity were increasingly common. So, when Domanovic´ during a training session with Wretman says that ‘body and soul are a unity’, it evokes the post-Platonic post-Christian zeitgeist of the turn of the twentieth century.

With the urbanism, materialism, optimism, and liberalism of the late nineteenth century, fitness training spread quickly through the Western world, reaching artists as well. One such artist, who few would likely connect to fitness culture, and yet who greatly admired it, was the writer Franz Kafka. After reading the successful book Mein System (1904) by Jørgen Peter Müller, the Prague native became an adherent of home exercise. From 1909 until his early death, Kafka ‘müllered’ daily, as the common expression of the day called it. ‘Müllering’ emerged from the orbit of naturopathy, a popular alternative medicine of the time, as a response to the changing living habits of the urban population. Even alone in cramped quarters (in front of an open window when possible), a person was now able to make up for long days in the office and to shore up defenses against the perils of the ‘age of nervousness’ (Joachim Radkau).

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Muscle Beach, Santa Monica, c.1966 (courtesy: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Kafka wanted to alleviate the typical modern ailments (constipation, languor) of his daily existence. But with his workouts, he wanted to activate his mind as well – another topos of the era. In his journal, he writes: ‘What’s certain is that my physical condition constitutes the greatest impediment to my progress. With a body like this, you can’t achieve anything.’ To that effect, perhaps the suggestion behind Fitness for Artists TV – that fit, young artists would have fit, young bodies, or at least be ready to work on them – isn’t so absurd after all.

Kafka’s contemporaries in the field of visual art, like the New Objectivist Georg Grosz, were also taken with the new doctrine on training. In Starke Männer, Starke Frauen (1966), historian of physical culture Bernd Wedemeyer describes Grosz as a ‘fitness-crazed athlete. Even during his voyage into exile in 1932, he couldn’t keep himself from working out on the ship.’ In the exercise room of the transatlantic steamer, Grosz was rowing towards a new life in the USA.

In the postwar years, a Postmodern fitness culture developed in Los Angeles and New York that resembles the workouts on Fitness for Artists TV. No wonder then,that Andy Warhol, Mr. Postmodern himself, was similarly fascinated by fitness training. Much like his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger,who doled out training tips during rendezvous at the factory, Warhol used his body as a ‘calling card of the self’, as the sociologist and professor of sports studies Gabriele Klein describes it. Warhol often wrote about exercise in his journals. In an entry from 29 September1977, he expresses his concern at not having worked out for an unbelievably long time – two whole weeks.

Constant Dullaart & Helga Wretman, Fitness for Artists TV, 2013 (courtesy: © ARTE Creative / Baby Darwin, Berlin)

Photographs documenting Warhol’s work on The Last Supper, his final monumental series consisting of silkscreens, paintings and works on paper from 1986, show a studio full of exercise equipment. So, in a way, Warhol might be seen as the last of modern physical culture’s founding fathers. Bernarr MacFadden had already described fitness as a ‘religion’ around 1900, while in the 1950s, the bodybuilding impresario Joe Weider penned the ‘ten predictions of bodybuilding’– an analogy to Moses’ ten commandments. Weider praises bodybuilding as‘the activity that actually saved civilization from itself’.

With all this in mind, the nexus between art and fitness is neither particularly new nor particularly original. Rather, both are rooted in the ‘post-metaphysical thought’ of modernity (Jürgen Habermas).They latch onto religious topoi and debase them at the same time.But Fitness for Artists TV excludes exercise’s mythological-religious dimension, which high-performance thinkers like Peter Sloterdijk (in his 2009 book Du must dein Leben ändern) or a body artist like Matthew Barney (in his entire collection of work) give plenty of space – and for good reason. It’s likely that the results of this kind of training will last longer.
Translated by Jesse Coburn

Jörg Scheller is an art historian, journalist, musician and contributing editor of frieze. He is a professor of fine arts and art education at Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland.