As my frequent readers know, this past semester I took three independent studies which focused on the adornment and modification of the human body. One independent study was a psychology class, one was a makeup and wigcraft class, and the other was an art studio course. In this studio course I could work with the subject of body modification in any way that I wanted. One weekend in September while I was still sketching and looking for inspiration for my first big project of the semester for this studio, I attended my first steampunk convention, The Great New England Steampunk Exhibition. Steampunk conventions are when Victorian era enthusiasts and craftspeople get together to celebrate the literature, science, and fashion of the day, and to recreate that old-fashion feeling of adventure and discovery with a touch of science fiction. Everyone at this convention was adorning their bodies in the Victorian style, but also modifying the style to reflect the modern cultural ideal of equality for all.
During the steam punk con, there was a side show in the hallway. The performers included an escape artist, a knife juggler, and a contortionist! I was so struck by the contortionist, and the way that she had trained her body to move in ways that appeared to be so unnatural, that I decided to do a piece on her. One trick of hers that was particularly disturbing and dazzling to see in person was the contortionist walking around her own head. It was absolutely insect-like! I interviewed her after her haunting performance, and she said that she had all of her bones, and didn’t have any sort of special adaptation that made her more capable of these contortions than anyone else. She was naturally flexible, but had to train for hours every day to do what she does.
This got me thinking about the other ways that people, specifically at this convention, also modify their bodies. Most of the women, myself included, were wearing corsets. Corsets are a well-known form of body modification. Worn to an extreme, corsets can cause quite a shocking transformation to the human torso, but generally speaking, they do not cause out-bursts of shock and horror like the contortionist’s performance did. I knew I needed to make a piece comparing the two.
The animations in this post are my finished products: a comparison and comment on what we as a culture view as extreme body alteration. Corsetry, which is popular and accepted (I practice it myself) is totally unnatural. It involves tying whale-bone or steel bands to the skin, and tightening them gradually to reconfigure a person’s waste line. Corsetry provides the benefit of good posture, a pleasing silhouette, increased internal pressure, and relief from back pain and hernias, but it can also cause shortness of breath, immediate muscle atrophy, and in extreme cases it can restrict blood flow to the internal organs (because they’re being rearranged). Corsetry is a very unnatural practice, and does very little to improve your overall physical health, yet it is one of the hottest search terms on the internet, and a symbol of femininity and beauty.
Contortionist, on the other hand, is a totally natural art, but it is met with repulsion by those unaccustomed to it. These gymnasts train hard to be both flexible and strong. Many onlookers are shocked mostly because they imagine that the contortionists might hurt themselves, but in reality, being very flexible is the best way not to injure yourself during physical activity. Contortionism does not cause muscle atrophy, it strengthens the body, and it improves posture and coordination.
Contortionism pushes the body to its natural physical limits, while corsetry pushes the body to its garment-assisted physical limits. My animations are simply meant to make you more aware of your own reaction to these two types of body modification.
The animations themselves were hand-drawn using tracing paper and markers. They were then scanned into photoshop where I put them all together and added the tinted background.
These animations, along with my other videos can always be viewed on my website, here. http://shaunart.net/pages/video