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Museums and Collections

Bodies Electric

7.27.15

A still from the 80-minute video component of Green's exhibit, "Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik" (2008)
Image © Jesse Aron Green


A still from the 80-minute video component of Green's exhibit, "Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik" (2008)
Image © Jesse Aron Green

A photograph, Circling of the arms, from Green's series Illustration and Description of the Medico-Gymnastic Exercises (2008)
Image © Jesse Aron Green


A photograph, Circling of the arms, from Green's series Illustration and Description of the Medico-Gymnastic Exercises (2008)
Image © Jesse Aron Green

Another photograph, Raising of a stick over the head & behind the back, also from the series Illustration and Description of the Medico-Gymnastic Exercises (2008)
Image © Jesse Aron Green


Another photograph, Raising of a stick over the head & behind the back, also from the series Illustration and Description of the Medico-Gymnastic Exercises (2008)
Image © Jesse Aron Green

Installation view of  Green's exhibit, including the video component,  Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik, projected onto the far wall
Image © Jesse Aron Green


Installation view of  Green's exhibit, including the video component,  Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik, projected onto the far wall
Image © Jesse Aron Green

The artist, Jesse Aron Green
Photograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications


The artist, Jesse Aron Green
Photograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

In the depths of the Harvard Art Museums, a troupe of Buster Keatons moves jerkily across the screen. Projected into the dark space of Menschel Hall, the hapless comedian—who, by an early trick of cinematic magic, plays every role in a small orchestra—seems out of place in this sharply contemporary auditorium, with its placoid ceiling and steel gray walls. An elderly woman two rows ahead of me seems to be under the impression this is going to be a Buster Keaton marathonon entering the theater, she’d expatiated loudly on her love of the comedian, rattling off a list of her favorite filmsbut, in a heroic display of tact, she stays for the entire event, even as it becomes obvious that his 1921 short, The Playhouse, is old-fashioned and quaint compared to the works to come. In the next piece, Bruce Nauman’s Dance or Exercise around the Perimeter of a Square, Nauman steps mechanically around the perimeter of a square, in a strict rhythm and pattern, for 18 minutes—and that’s it. Each film is more experimental than the last, and elicits fewer laughs from the audience. When the occasional surprised burst of laughter sounds here and there, other viewers scratch their heads: What did they miss?

This evening, which explores the body in comedy, is the first in the series Round Peg/Square Hole: Films on the Body, curated by the artist Jesse Aron Green ’02. The screenings complement his exhibit Jesse Aron Green: Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik, on display from May 23 through August 9 in a gallery space three floors above the auditorium. Green’s bricolage—comprising video, photographic, and sculptural elements—centers around the exercises prescribed in the eponymous health manual published by Dr. Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber in 1858. The gallery is dominated by the large projection onto one wall of the video component, in which models stand on wooden platforms in a warehouse and perform the book’s exercises while a mobile camera circles the scene in a languorous tracking shot. Elsewhere in the gallery, the platforms themselves, smudged by the models’ feet, lie stacked on the floor or hang from the walls. Also festooning the walls is Green’s series of photographs of one model—a man in beige tights—performing each exercise; reminiscent of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the last position of an exercise is superimposed on the first, creating a bevy of strange effects. At times the model appears to sprout extra limbs; in other images, he appears to be holding himself in a sensual embrace. Through these elements, the installation attempts to explore apparently scattershot themes: physicality and social control; psychoanalysis; twentieth-century fascism; and, above all, the body—its movements, and the afterimages of these movements.

If his project seems to flirt with ungainliness and compositeness, Green himself seems the embodiment of focus, capable of uniting these ideas by his physical presence alone. He is nattily dressed, with well-coiffed hair and stark, canted cheekbones. Speaking quickly and fluidly, he moves about confidently; each gesture is concise, none wasted. He looks as though he could have stepped out of the exhibit moments ago.

The former visual and environmental studies concentrator, who then earned an interdisciplinary M.F.A. from UCLA, has exhibited in galleries the world over, including Tate Modern in London and Halle 14 in Leipzig. But this is the first time Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik is being shown in its entirety (previous installations exhibited only its video portion). When all the project’s elements are displayed together, visitors benefit from the free play of associations—an activity Green sees as essential if the work is to achieve unity.

“A lot of my job is organizing these parts so that they illuminate each other, so that they allow each other to be seen in new ways,” he says.

The exhibit rewards a discursive eye unwilling to dawdle too long on any single element. As the work’s elements are compared to one another, unforeseen images and moments begin to emerge from apparent monotony. “When you’re looking at the exercises,…many of the repetitions and movements are seemingly the same,” Green explains. “And then maybe I’m hoping that the more time you spend with it, you see that…that guy clearly hasn’t gone off the couch in six months, and…that guy is maybe a lead ballet dancer…and he can raise his leg higher than your head—and the other guy can barely get it off the floor.” 

After this description, he admits: “Some of those photographs, I think, are a little ridiculous.” He says this with an appealing honesty, as if broaching an open secret. “Some parts of the video are just long and boring and loud and repetitive—and then some parts are maybe kind of funny: when you see someone in a circle trip over themselves, or lie down like a baby.” 

He ranges freely among possible modes of analysis. The image of the grid prevailing through the work, he says, harkens back to avant-garde artists of the 1960s and ’70s. “If I wanted to get theoretical about it,” he explains, in a way that makes it seem he’d rather not, “then the grid is a device that allows different forms to be displayed in a non-hierarchichized way, and allows difference to appear without any one sort of unit taking precedence over any other.” The exhibit, he frequently asserts, is designed as a level playing field for plural, competing interpretations.

But keeping the first difference that you spot between images from coloring your subsequent impressions is difficult. For me, it was a single photograph: the usually stoic model glared out, unaccountably, with a conspiratorial smirk. Though his strange expression offered no easy explanations, the model also seemed to want to give permission to laugh, and to acknowledge the strange sights that were surely never intended by Dr. Moritz. A simple physical exercise, viewed in a certain way, can produce a passionate embrace, or an embarrassing pose—here the model appears to be kissing himself, here he seems to be scratching his knee, and here, if you’ll look closely, he seems to have become a centaur composed of two men—

And all of that’s a little bit silly.

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