A landmark early feminist work, Eleanor Antin’s Carving: A Traditional Sculpture comprises 148 black-and-white photographs documenting the artist’s loss of 10 pounds over 37 days. Every morning she was photographed naked in the same four stances to record her barely perceptible self-induced weight loss. (The photographs from each day are arranged vertically, and the entire process can be read horizontally, like a filmstrip.) Antin’s performance purposely toyed with the traditional process of Greek sculptors, who were said to find their ideal form by chipping away at a block of marble and discarding any unnecessary material. The artist’s idea of “carving” her own body was inspired by an invitation from the Whitney Museum of Art for its biennial survey exhibition, which at the time restricted itself to the established categories of painting and sculpture, though this work was considered too conceptual for the exhibition.
Antin’s work also gestures to the male gaze. In acting like a Greek sculptor, she replicates the ‘carving’ out of an ideal female form, that true representation of beauty. That sculptor gets to decide what is beautiful, what is desirable. Much like those sculptors, the culture at large defines and sculpts beauty, the ideal forms of femininity. Women’s value is only measured through their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, their desirability dependent on the view of another sculptor who possesses the gaze. To possess this gaze, there is a cultural expectation that the female body therefore needs to be tamed, regimented, and constructed, in order to be worthy of desire.
Much like Valie Export’s ‘Body Configurations’, the body is the material that the artist is working with and manipulating. The body is the sculptural element that is transformed. There is fluidity in Antin’s work, as her body was changing as she created the art. Ironically, the performance was then fixed through photography.
© Harriet Grace Abbott, all rights reserved