Visualising obesity and the body
Obesity can be represented in various ways. How do different artists visualise the body? How is what is medically defined as the ‘obese body’ represented in different forums? Is obesity portrayed in a positive or negative light? Do these representations communicate the attitude of the artist towards obesity in themselves or in society?
Rosalind Woodhouse’s article ‘Obesity in Art – A Brief Overview’ (Front Horm Res 2008, 36: 271-86) offers an overview of the way in which fatness has been represented in Western art and what this can tell us about how the meanings ascribed to fat have changed over the years.
This image bank seeks to present and contrast some different approaches to visualising fatness and obesity and the objects that surround them, focusing especially on contemporary art. Full-sized images and more works from the artists featured can be found on their websites via the links provided.
Weight of Expectation, by sociologist Oli Williams and cartoonist Jade Sarson. A comic that tells the story of how stigma associated with body weight and size gets under the skin and is felt in the flesh
Deborah Sengl is an Austrian artist whose work interrogates individual identity in modern society. In 'All you can lose' a pig-person working out gives pause for thought about consumerism and bodily identity.
Refuge, by Lee Price. According to artist, these paintings are very personal self-portraits. In regard to food-choices, she always goes for things that are indulgent, forbidden or comforting. The paintings are about compulsion; no-one ever gets excessive or obsessive with carrots.
Faith Ringgold's 'More Than 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt', 1988. This work places food and bodily struggles with weight central to feminist politics in the United States.
Rebecca D Harris's Deep Seated Anxiety aims to unite both inside and outside sites of the body, referencing the related surgical procedures of body contouring and liposuction.
Self – Human Soap, a performative installation by Julian Hetzel. A sustainable solution for up-cycling the excesses of the West to the third world as a business that repurposes donated fat from liposuction patients into soap. With proceeds, wells are dug in the Democratic Republic of Congo, bar of soap donated for every bar sold. Human fat is converted into clean drinking water and hygiene: synthesis of third world aid, repurposed first world waste and economic value from pursuit of cleanliness.
Rachel Herricks’ ‘Obeast’ takes the natural history trope of museum display to explore the dehumanised and stigmatised fat body. Using a fictional narrative of hunted and endangered species, The Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies (MOCS) is an installation in which the viewers of the artwork are also the audience of the museum.
Eleven Years of Fat Shaming, by photographer Jen Davis. In this self portrait photo series, the artist aims toto understand herself better and to help her come to terms with her body, fat and all. As a large woman, the project has not been easy. In the beginning, Davis says, "I was never really comfortable putting myself in front of the camera." But she kept taking pictures anyway.
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Civilisation Pillar is a ‘monument to capitalism, vanity and excess’. The work uses fat from plastic surgery clinics When interviewed about the work, Peng Yu commented: “…the fat was obtained from those alive. We began to really pay attention to those alive… We erected a monument based on redundant fat from human being, wealth surplus and civilization. It was very appropriate to erect this golden, sticky and towering pillar in an art museum.”
Lilia Li-Mi-Yan's Mature Beauty series of photographs examines different ways of seeing beauty and the function of beautification in modern life, with emphasis on bodily assessment in society
ShiftN - formerly WS-network, the mission statement of this systems design network is to “bring clarity to complexity”. Members Philippe Vandenbroeck, Jo Goossens and Marshall Clemens were responsible for the visualisation and development of the Foresight Obesities Systems Map.
Antony Gormley‘s work is concerned with the body as a place of memory and transformation, and a vehicle for the exploration of self and other in space. Another Time was installed on the roof of Exeter College, Oxford, February 15, 2009. Positioned overlooking the junction of Broad and Turl Streets, the sculpture looks toward the site where Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer were burned at the stake for their beliefs in the 16th century. Images courtesy of S Ulijaszek.
Bronwyn Platten ‘body to brain and back again’ 2013 - performance piece at a library in Manchester. Meanings of words from a young adolescent's vocabulary are mimed, in the order that the words occur in the dictionary between body and brain. All the words are to do with physicality, the body, material qualities, emotion and agency. For example - body, boo, boohoo, boobs, booby,boss, bossy, bosom, boy, boycott, bounce, bouncer, bow, bowel, braid, braille, brain. Filmed and edited Insa Langhor.
Jenny Saville’s daring paintings are known for the mountains of flesh they reveal and strong feminist undertones. Jenny Saville’s work is described on artbank.com as a ‘dark reflection of contemporary fashion, depicting bodies that live outside the standard boundaries of attractiveness. Her feminist view of the female body shapes offers a valuable contrast to the mass media’s presentation of the perfectibility of the human form’.Image courtesy of the artist.
In TV Dinner (catwalk shot), Deep Freeze and Happy Eaters, the artist investigates obesogenic environments. Artist Tim Head is represented by works in the collections of the British Museum, Gulbenkian Foundation, Tate Britain, Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York. Images are reproduced with permission from the artist.
Corridor to Nowhere, Laban Dance Academy, London, Herzog and de Meuron. The interior is designed as an urban “streetscape”, a series of corridors, interior courtyards and meeting places, wrapped around the main theatre – the literal and metaphorical heart of the building. Colours determine the rhythm and orientation both inside and outside the building.
Goh K-I, Cusick ME, Valle D, Childs B, Vidal M, Barabási A-L (2007) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104:8685-8690 Systems biologists and physical scientists developed the human disease network (the human diseasome – top) from known gene-disease relationships. The persuasive power of this work relies on visualisations methods that graphically illustrate relationships between diseases and disorders. Show: subset of the network illustrating the relationships between obesity and diabetes.
This work explores ideas around ‘removal’ and thoughts about the departure of the human body at death, looking at processes by which the body might be physically ‘dispersed’; be rendered back to atomic particles.The featured image is from slice (slide dissolve work), which features 162 slides on a journey through the body. Images courtesy of the artist.
These two artists worked on Foresight Obesities. Charged with considering the evolution of the body in response to an overtly obesogenic environment and offering some proposals for tackling the problem. The outputs were visual provocations informed by the scientific consultation of this particular think tank
An industrial designer, Kingsnorth engages with biomorphic forms, questioning accepted values about boundaries. Fat sofa evokes fat stigmatization and the boundaries that fat bodies are seen by many to transgress.
The corporeal quality of ‘bigness’ that is central to diagnosis of obesity is mirrored in the ways in which we concieve of the ‘obesity problem’ in society, and the scale of the means required to address it.Cartoon reproduced with permission from the artist, J Banx.
Fat was an ideal material for Joseph Beuys to use to signify chaos and the potential for spiritual transcendence. Fat has the ability to exist as a physical example of two extremes: a flowing liquid when warm and a defined solid when cold. Beuys also believed that fat was psychologically effective, in that “people instinctively feel it relates to inner processes and feelings.”
Nayland Blake engaged with issues of over-eating in his 1998 piece Gorge. Nayland Blake has works in the perrmanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. He is represented by the Matthew Marks gallery, New York.Image courtesy of the artist.
Neo Naturists Swimming & Walking Experiment, Centre Point Fountains, London, 1984. The Neo Naturists comprised a network of collaborators which included BodyMap, Leigh Bowery, Peter Doig, Boy George, Grayson Perry, Derek Jarman, and Cerith Wyn Evans. Using body painting to expand past the canvas and explore body image and identity, their performances, at the time of the initial acceleration of obesity in Western populations, were body positive well before body positivity took off.