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Blog 8: On life modelling / 23 October 2012

photo of artist Aaron WIlliamson, performing semi-naked in front of an audience

Photo of Aaron Williamson performing 'scratching'

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Taking a year out between my BA and MA back in 1991 I chased two sources of income. The first, which I soon gave up, involved patrolling the aisle on trains between Brighton and London offering to demonstrate to bored commuters how to fingerspell their names in sign language. The process took much gurning but having got the letters over ('Joe' was welcome, 'Hyacintha' not so much), I'd accept a small donation from the chuffed, newly-initiated sign-languager and move on to another victim.

The other occupation I took up was to work as a model for life-drawing classes. I'm unsure if it was my new lifestyle as a student that gave me an aptitude for this work as I've never really been lazy as such, but it turned out that I was good at it. Good at doing nothing, without moving for up to an hour at a time. It was cold when the bar-fires blew out, but generally I enjoyed working for art schools and village classes alike, and didn't think much of being nude either way. In any case I was in demand enough to suffer a drop in income on returning to University.

The connection between these two professions was that, whereas being deaf was essential to any success as a finger-spelling beggar (I was accused of fakery a couple of times); my deafness was also generally perceived to enable me to stand still for lengthy periods.

Many a sketcher of skewed figures (life-modeling is not a job for narcissists), would approach me once my mind had re-entered the room following a blissful plunge into the sublime, to enquire (in a way that seemed somehow prurient), 'just how much can you hear'? So that I wouldn't take anything the wrong way, they'd reassure me that I was good at the job and speculate that, surely, living in 'silence' must give me an advantage over the other fidgety thud-jumpers that shared my profession?

The point I'm coming to is that in preparation for my three-day durational performance at the Walker Art Gallery (1) I've been immersed in researching the real-life models who posed for many of the paintings in the Victorian Room there. I'll offer some outlandish tales about that motley crew in the next blog but I was struck by a phrase in Wendy Steiner's 'The Model in the Mirror of Art' where she describes life models as 'professional self-objectifiers'.

Social objectification (or stereotyping) is such a hazardous aspect of the disability experience that it can be liberating to 'self-objectify' to one's own design rather than accept what is imposed. It seems to me that this is at the root of crip humour: not to try and prove that one is as normal as anyone else but to play with stereotyping in order to subvert it.

In any case, social objectification is something the disabled person may have no choice about and so might as well answer with their own version of selfhood, their own way of 'standing apart' (excuse the ambulatory metaphor). So then, I'd ascribe my success as a life model not to being cloth-eared but to the fact that I was already some way along the path of self-objectification that has led to me becoming one of those troublesome creatures, a performance artist.

Recently I was invited by Richard Wilson, the sculptor, to make a performance at the Royal Academy (2). By neat serendipity, given my current research, this was to be in the Victorian life-drawing class, a wonderfully ramshackle wooden room that once hosted the likes of Turner, Constable, Burne-Jones and everyone else who has been an RA. So naturally for this performance I wanted to take on the guise of a life-model, adopting, for the modesty of any art-kids attending, the Victorian male models' convention of wearing a G-string (but eschewing the pipe and sandals that they often accessorised with).

The sub-theme of my work was 'the life-model's revolt'; his worm-turning breakout from object-hood. I dwelled upon a friend's anecdote of the Victorian RA's poking their models with a stick to see how the muscles reacted and I thought about all the endless hours in which the models must have had no auditory stimulation other than the scratching of lead on paper. In preparation for this 'revolt' then, I grew my fingernails long over a month, sharpened them and got the go-ahead from Richard to scratch the room itself anywhere I wished: it's still a working environment and not an ossified shrine. 

So for my performance last Friday at the Royal Academy I reached between the audience to scratch the wooden drawing rails with my sharpened nails, moved on to scratch a life-sized model horse, some plinths, a skeleton; before rebelliously slicing the seat of a model's chair to de-upholster its foam. Most of the scratching, going by the largely hearing audience's winces, sounded horribly cringe-making (sadly, I had no blackboard to drive the pain home) and although it was quiet, people were covering their ears. Towards the end of the ten-minute piece I couldn't help but notice that a young couple at the side of the room were struggling with a violent nervous reaction and were giggling uncontrollably. So I scratched them a little too.
1. The Eavesdropper at Walker Art Gallery Liverpool, 15th, 16th and 17th November - See Walker website for details and events.
2. 'Frog Pond Plop' was an evening of performance and video art in the drawing room at the Royal Academy, (19.10.12); curated by Richard Wilson and featuring Marcia Farquhar, Richard Strange and Terry Smith amongst others.

Keywords: life modelling,social constructs,visual arts