Visual Arts

The Exercist

It is not your typical art opening. There are no paintings on the wall, no spotlighted sculptures on pedestals. The usual clusters of murmuring, wineglass-wielding museumgoers, clad in black and ignoring the artwork, are nowhere in sight at the kick-off of "Club Extra," the ongoing performance/installation created by artist Angela Ellsworth at ASU Art Museum's Experimental Gallery at Matthews Center.

In fact, the usually art-object-filled space has been transformed by Ellsworth into something resembling a swank fitness club. For the opening, the artist has donned the slightly sinister persona of Angie the Fitness Coordinator, the cheerleading femme fatale in charge of "Club Extra."

Clipboard-clutching greeters in tee shirts and sweat pants pass out complimentary passes at the museum door, together with brochures listing an exercise class schedule for the evening. Inside, the gallery space is filled with people in sweat-stained gym togs who animatedly talk to each other from workout equipment, take an aerobics class to thumping techno tunes (spun by a live DJ from a balcony) or just zone out on the machines.

But look closely at the "gym" and you discover the mirrors covering the walls are Plexiglas panels more akin to distorting fun-house reflectors. And the equipment packing the space is a ragtag collection of some of the funkiest workout machines this side of Brasil. They're obviously abandoned and cast-off torture devices straight from some late-night infomercial. Easy Riders, stationary bikes so old they have chains on them, wheezy treadmills, impossible rowing machines -- even one of those vintage vibrate-your-fat-away machines from the '40s -- take the place of the latest elliptical trainers and StairMasters.

And that brochure you were handed? It makes reference to ponderous works of cultural and art theory by post-modernists such as Michel Foucault, Jean Beaudrillard and Donald Crimp, spiritual guru Deepak Chopra and outspoken black feminist writer bell hooks.

You have just entered the Performance Art Zone, a disorienting parallel universe where it's hard to tell whether you're witnessing art imitating life or life imitating art -- or maybe an odd combo of both. An ugly, misunderstood stepsister to other art forms, performance art is ephemeral, revolving around action and experience rather than some traditional art object. It has included Happenings, particularly popular in the '60s, and continues today in the guise of staged, extemporaneous and interactive events. Two years ago, performance art finally was blessed with the ultimate imprimatur of institutional respectability when curator Paul Schimmel organized "Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979," the first in-depth retrospective of international performance art, for Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art at the Geffen Contemporary.

To the uninitiated, the museum space taken over by the sweaty masses looks just like an ordinary gym. However, Ellsworth has orchestrated every aspect of her installation -- down to the "ball people," a group of real exercise buffs recruited from a local gym who look like crucified centipedes as they writhe on their backs, in sychronization, atop giant blue and purple metallic beach balls. The exercise equipment has been loaned, donated, rescued and scrounged from thrift stores and yard sales for no more than $10 a machine. The fit, fat and flabby who grunt and hump to the pulsating music turn out to be local artists, art patrons, gallery owners, high school students and museum curators who have joined in to become a part of Ellsworth's performance.

As with exercise itself, one has to work a little to understand what "Club Extra" is all about. Ellsworth essentially sees her efforts as "a work about institutions like museums and fitness clubs that swirl around the idea of beauty." She believes that at their cores, both institutions control what is considered beautiful, desirable and aesthetically worthy of emulation in American culture. And both dictate what is and is not fashionable and acceptable in their respective spheres. In the words of an ad Ellsworth's placed in Sweat, a fitness magazine, "[w]e become members [of these institutions], bring friends, grapple with beauty, carry attitude and gaze at what we wish we had."

"A museum art opening, just like a gym, is generally not a place where you really see artwork," Ellsworth, who began her career as a painter, explains. "It's a social gathering, with people chattering, not really looking at the work. If you really want to see the artwork, you go back by yourself to be alone in the space.

"That's exactly how this installation is functioning. The opening was active, social and participatory. Going back alone into the space and listening to the exercise tapes while you use one of the machines is very different. It's more contemplative."

The tape Ellsworth is referring to is "Angie's 'Theory on Tape' Volume 1," a tongue-in-cheek takeoff on those ubiquitous "and-one-and-two" recorded exercise routines. It's available at the door, along with Acoustiguides, for your listening pleasure as you work out during the run of "Club Extra."

A cross between Richard Simmons' Sweating to the Oldies and the breathy, meditative mantra of a relaxation tape, the Ellsworth-crafted exercise routine includes snippets of maddeningly obscure art theory jargon and cultural critique. In sections titled "Sweating for Academia" and "Transcendent Bliss," Angie orders headrolls, throwing in weighty thoughts about art, the human condition and social institutions, all while keeping the beat: "'Illusions of space and time are created' -- uh-huh, you've got it . . . now double time . . . 'art is a lie that tells the truth,' Picasso once said . . . inhale, bring your arms above the head . . . now try that again, saying 'art is a lie that tells the truth' as you exhale."

The performance artist admits that the quotes she's spliced to the driving beat of über-hip music often contradict themselves or may be incomprehensible. The idea for the tape originally came from conversations with other students during graduate school. "We were making so much artwork, but we were also required to read a lot of critical theory," she notes. "We kept saying, 'Wouldn't it be great if Derrida were on tape and we could make our work and get the theory in all at once -- like books on tape?'"

The artist was also inspired by "Show," a 1998 performance piece by Italian-born artist Vanessa Beecroft at New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Beecroft filled the museum with leggy female model-types dressed in designer bikinis who eventually took off their clothes and stood around like mannequins. "They were completely passive, like living sculpture," Ellsworth recalls. "Interesting, but why aren't they doing something? I just imagined them all doing jumping jacks in those swimming suits and getting really sweaty."

Ellsworth wants people who see her installation to become part of the work She hopes to rope in people who ordinarily wouldn't set foot in an art museum. To that end, she's advertised in Sweat (her ad, captioned "Art Meets Athletics," taunts the reader with "[t]hink your workouts are so great they should be an artform?"). She's also placed advertising on video and LCD monitors at The Q Sports Club in Tempe.

The artist plans to create a second exercise tape and hold special "classes" specifically geared to participants in the Performance Studies International Conference, a performance art meeting to be held at ASU in March. Conference attendees will be invited into the space to work off what Ellsworth has dubbed "panel ass."

"On the second tape, I'd like to include quotes from work by some of the people who are actually going to be giving papers at the conference," says the artist.

By the end of Ellsworth's "Club Extra" opening, the heady perfume of burning machine oil from a treadmill on its last leg mingles with the yeasty stench of sweat from several hundred bodies. The strap on the fat-vibrating machine, now broken, hangs limply, a mute testament to better, pre-liposuction days. As people filter out of the museum space, the motley assortment of mismatched exercise machines left in their wake takes on the aura of strange sculpture, reminders of built-in obsolescence and castaway consumerism. Someone starts sweeping up pieces of rice cake that performance artist Ernest Lopez has been passing out, Mother Teresa-style, during the height of the action.

Is this art? You figure it out. Just remember: no pain, no gain.

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Kathleen Vanesian