Competitive gymnastics is interwoven with contradiction. It is a sport synonymous with near-superhuman levels of strength, flexibility, and co-ordination, yet its finely-honed bodies frequently operate under the shadow of multiple injuries. Elite-level gymnasts often appear simultaneously childlike in stature and unnervingly mature in terms of muscle development and physical power. For the spectator, too, much of the satisfaction derived from gymnastics results from an inherent tension between movement and stillness—it is a quest for physical perfection, a mastery of movement that can only occur in fleeting instances, which are all too easily missed.
These contradictory concerns create something of a framework for Jo Longhurst’s meditative documentation of the interior world of artistic gymnastics (itself an arguably incongruous term—the notion of artistry sits uncomfortably alongside the reality of measurable, quantifiable competition). New Order, Other Spaces is an otherworldly exhibition, reflecting the peculiarities of the sport itself, and especially of the competition environment. Longhurst’s ethereal images are realised across an array of media—printed on fabric, embedded within Perspex, and mounted upon modernist metal frames. She documents moments of suspension, capturing bodies in mid-flight, and fragmenting their gravity-defying feats of physicality. The blurry, indistinct rendering of these forms in motion further underscores the interstitial nature of gymnastics as a discipline.
In its quiet contemplation of gender and physicality, New Order, Other Spaces queries the problematic notion of ‘perfection,’ and opens a door into this relatively closed world; for the uninitiated, viewing gymnastics can be an opaque experience, as it is a sport characterised by an inscrutable and ever-changing scoring system. While Longhurst does not make explicit her own experience of gymnastics training, it is evident that she draws upon an intimate understanding of this unusual environment, a world in which children are shaped into formidable competitors from an early age. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a hint of nostalgia pervades the space. ‘A–Z’ (2012),an extensive, exhaustive collage denoting various routines across time and space, bears a resemblance to the bedroom wall of a gymnastics super fan, for example. At the same time, Longhurst’s impressive collection of archival imagery acts as a wordless history of gymnastics and its changing aesthetic preoccupations, while her portraiture (Longhurst was artist in residence with the Heathrow Gymnastic Club) stills and contains the intense energy of her young subjects.
Unusually, however, Longhurst also grants us access to the largely private, preparatory moments that take place before a competition begins—having been given only five minutes with each of her subjects, she asked the gymnasts to demonstrate a pose or warm-up exercise that they might undertake before being presented to a panel of hypervigilant judges. In ‘Peak’ (2012), for instance, the gymnast’s body performs an impressive forward fold, heels lifting off the floor as if in preparation for a handstand. Yet we do not see the ‘finished’ manoeuvre; instead, the emphasis lies on intermediacy. Longhurst captures several such liminal moments, documenting the transitional points that precede execution of more recognisably camera-worthy exercises, and subtly highlighting the toll such intensive training exacts upon the body in the visible traces of physical injury.
The influence of Russian Constructivism—in particular, the works of Alexander Rodchenko and Lyubov Popova—is immediately evident upon entering the gallery space, where geometric sculptural forms both occupy floor space and act as mounts for images projecting outwards from the wall. They add a three-dimensionality to ‘Space-Force Construction’ (2012), a striking photographic series depicting gymnasts drawn from three global superpowers (the USA, India, and China), competing in the vault of the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. Again, bodies are suspended in space, disconnected from the starkly-lit context of the competition environment. This distancing effect, combined with the Constructivist supports, emphasises the mechanistic aspect of competitive gymnastics. Yet these are also bodies in flight, reminding us that gymnastics is that rare sport which enables the athlete to defy gravity, to push the body beyond its supposed limits, to become almost superhuman.
Despite its primary focus on the confined realm of artistic gymnastics, New Order, Other Spaces posits further discussion of the relationship between physical culture and wider society. In the middle of the space, an image of a young girl being instructed in the Margaret Morris Movement technique hovers like a ghostly apparition. This snapshot, found in a 1931 photo album from a Swiss tuberculosis sanitorium, provides a fascinating insight into early wellness culture, and underscores the significance of Morris’ work, which remains thoroughly under-researched in academic literature. A dancer, choreographer, and educator, Morris formed the Celtic Ballet Club in 1940, then helped to establish Scottish Ballet in 1960. She qualified as a physiotherapist, and her movement technique evolved to function as a form of remedial therapy. Her profound interest in the relationship between a healthy body and healthy mind was part of a contemporary cultural shift in favour of bodily awareness and movement. Physical conditioning—including collective displays of gymnastic and callisthenic exercises— and concepts of self-improvement became increasingly popular tools of social transformation in the first decades of the twentieth century. The vogue for body culture presented a particularly attractive opportunity for women to engage in stamina-building exercise, shedding the damaging restrictions of corsets, and rejecting popular beliefs that physical activity was perilous for the female body. This is a recurring reference point in Longhurst’s work, where femininity is equated with strength: dominating this exhibition space is her 2016 work, ‘Cross’, a large-scale image of a young female gymnast suspended on the still rings (a piece of equipment reserved for male gymnasts). Her direct gaze betrays no sense of strain, despite the unfamiliarity of this equipment, and the degree of physical strength required to hold such a pose.
Longhurst’s citing of Margaret Morris also raises the question of the relationship between gymnastics and dance, and this is reiterated in ‘Pinnacle’ (2012), an arresting collage of female athletes’ legs and feet. With their knees drawn firmly together and toes pointed (several sporting arches that would draw the envy of any dancer), one might be forgiven for misreading these fragmented body parts as belonging to the ballet world. Longhurst’s penetrating gaze quickly dispels this, however, as she allows us to see the spray-on skin, ankle supports and bandages characteristic of a sport where injury is endemic. Despite the intimacy of her portraits, and the insight afforded by her personal and professional proximity to the sphere of artistic gymnastics, a sense of secrecy still shrouds this exhibition. Longhurst may permit us only a fleeting glimpse into this curious world and its ever-evolving quest for perfection, but it makes for an exquisite and uncanny experience.
New Order, Other Spaces, Jo Longhurst. Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, 2 - 12 August. Part of Festival 2018, the cultural programme accompanying the Glasgow 2018 European Championships.
Lucy Weir is a Teaching Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Edinburgh