With Leisure Time, the second chapter of a six-month programme commemorating the Bauhaus centenary, S1 extends its gaze towards the influence of physical and mental wellbeing upon creative expression. While the inaugural exhibition Order & Limitations challenged artists to exploit patterns and sequences within their own practice, Leisure Time sees Vicky Hayward, Lucy Vann and Natalie Finnemore grapple with the ways in which physical exertion and self-discipline can offer a path to artistic fulfilment.
Leisure, the exhibition explains, was an integral part of the Bauhaus curriculum, whose communal living arrangements meant that exercise and meditation could be incorporated into daily life. Artists such as Johannes Itten looked to Mazdaznan teachings to help invest students with a sense of inner purpose and spirituality alongside their formal artistic training, and the exhibition accentuates just how intensively this was pursued. Gallery texts provide insights into an ascetic schedule, and the barely digestible swill of garlic that was apparently its main food staple. Accompanying images show students boisterously performing gymnastics, while excerpts from various Mazdaznan-inspired guidelines reveal a fixation with running, hopping, and plunging various body parts into ice cold water. Leisure, by Bauhaus standards, meant being anything but idle.
Similarly, Vicky Hayward’s work does not take the term ‘leisure’ at face value. Her piece ‘Moodboard’ is the first you experience, its array of television monitors flickering through different colours in what seems at first to be sporadic and unpredictable sequences. After a few moments, a number is murmured softly over a speaker, sometimes accompanied by incidental noise, coughing or traffic, at other times isolated. It is the outcome of a month-long project undertaken by the artist to log her mood at least three times a day, attributing her emotional status a rating between one and ten, then classifying each with a colour. This system was inspired by Gertrud Grunow’s ‘theory of harmonisation’, a practice designed to educate Bauhaus students on the correlations between colour, sound and motion. Hayward’s work, however, takes these somewhat austere concepts and applies them to lived experience. Little overt explanation of the work is provided — it seems beside the point to spell out which colours represent positive feeling and which are negative — but you can find the original tables of data displayed elsewhere in the space, showing just how intricately the cycles have been logged and tracked. The result is a methodical rendering of the ways in which small rituals can help impose order upon seesawing psychological states. While cloaked under abstractions of colour and statistics, the work is nonetheless deeply subjective; a perceptive and wise experiment which explores how cognitive patterns can cohere to reveal a deeper human truth.
This playfully analytical bent can also be seen in the work of Lucy Vann, which is not only charismatic, but approachable. It enjoys getting out of its comfort zone, and likes pizza, probably. If this sounds like baseless projection, then that’s because projection is the bread and butter of dating apps, a phenomenon which Vann exuberantly unpicks here. ‘Zones of Comfort’ is a sequence of large-scale vinyl charts in which questions surrounding actions and desire are reconfigured into scrupulously neat diagrams. One graph measures the pursuit of goals against an axis of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, while another quantitatively compares the categories ‘can do’, ‘want to do’, ‘really want to do’ and ‘really, really want to do’, as though recreation and its potential pitfalls can be scientifically evaluated and probed for results. Follow these steps, the work slyly suggests, and you can achieve success.
Leisure might be read here as a resource to be repackaged and, ultimately, monetised under the guise of self-realisation. After all, even experiences as intrinsic as human attraction can be outsourced and converted to data, as Tinder demonstrates. On the exhibition’s opening night, Vann performed a monologue inspired by the dating app, collating the kind of deceptively perky one-liners seized upon by its subscribers. Instead of a potential Tinder match, however, she addressed a cluster of gallery-goers, offering up ordinary biographical details alongside frank admissions: ‘I’ll try anything once, so here I am’; ‘I’m trying to push myself into new situations’; ‘I’m not really a selfie person, so please don’t ask me to send any pictures’. The performance toyed with the barely compatible strands of exhibitionism and vulnerability demanded by online dating, and how this converges with being an artist; a vocation also uniquely preoccupied by the use of platforms and audience response.
If you missed Vann’s speech, its underpinning themes are well-represented in the other aspects of her other works on display, such as the short film ‘Maternal Exercises’, which features the artist (led by her mother, a fitness instructor) exercising vigorously to polished early 00s chart hits as a pair of socks dries forlornly on a radiator behind her. In an era of obsessive fitness routines, Vann exposes the contradictions of laying oneself out, raw and open to rejection, while doggedly slaving towards a finished, idealised product. Her work explodes the self-deceptions used to coerce the body into structured routines it may want to resist, and the occasional discomfort of having to sand away one’s edges under the guise of self-improvement.
Unlike the other works in the show, Natalie Finnemore’s piece ‘Function: Grasping/Movement Ability Developing’ interprets the concept of leisure in terms of pure substance. Her sculpture takes the form of large, luxuriant pillow rings fashioned out of calico and stuffed with buckwheat, a type of seed also used in yoga cushions. Unlike most sculptures, these don’t ask to be distantly admired; rather, they intervene in the space and encourage visitors to recline and make themselves comfortable while experiencing the show. The theme of spiritual wellbeing perseveres even through the choice of materials: these objects are minimal, but imbued with philosophical ideals. Buckwheat boasts a catalogue of healing properties such as lowering blood pressure and helping to regulate body temperature, as well as being biodegradable. It’s as though these pillows understand your body’s needs better than you do. The sculptures are also receptive to Bauhaus ideals in that their simple mimetic form suggests that they can easily be reproduced, upholding the overarching importance of function. There’s surely a punchline in here: is spiritual health and wellbeing really so elusive if it can be drawn up into a prototype and mass-produced?
Ultimately, Leisure Time is bolstered and enriched by these subtle strands of humour. For a show so closely concerned with purification and new-age approaches to health, it somehow sidesteps earnestness. Instead, the artists adopt highly introspective and original approaches to uncover how the pursuit of self-improvement is interpreted by the mind and body, and how this can, as suggested by Bauhaus principles, be conducive towards creativity, while nevertheless acknowledging some of its more sinister implications. The devotion to rituals, for example, can either regulate the body or force it into conformity. Collectively, then, this exhibition is a meditation on how nurturing the body can nurture or inhibit expression. And as far as meditations go, it is one which seems a great deal more appealing than those practised by the Bauhaus cohort.
Leisure Time runs at S1 Artspace until 9 February 2019.
Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.