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Male IEU, London, 9 February 2016

18 February 2016

The Male Intensive Enquiry Unit (Male IEU) is a small group of male artists who use drawing from life to drive a scrutiny of the male body that is “more critical and incorporates peer critique” to develop their thinking. Before visiting the Unit, I’d been asked if I would be comfortable with the concept of a single pose that had “a certain religious connotation“. Well, I thought, it’s not as if they’ll crucify me…

The Death of the Artist

I arrived early at The Armour Studio – home of Jonathan Armour – to join Jonathan and his five fellow artists for a preliminary group discussion. He opened by referring to Roland Barthes’s essay entitled ‘The Death of the Author‘ (1967), which suggested that no matter what meaning an author intends to convey in their work, the reader has total authority to read and interpret it in any way they wish.

This led Jonathan to ask the artists directly: in what aspect of human life is the male body most widely portrayed naked or nearly naked? The answer he had in mind was not immediately forthcoming, but gently he tilted the conversation towards churches displaying the crucifixion of Christ. Together we looked at the Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-16) and various other images of crucifixes.

The Death of the Model

A couple of the artists cast sideways glances at me, wondering if I knew what I’d let myself in for. In a private briefing with Jonathan beforehand, however, he’d disclosed his intention was indeed to crucify me – or least to hold me in a crucified position by means of leather wrist straps suspended from cord. I was somewhat surprised at my phlegmatic acceptance of this proposition.

The session would be divided into three periods, with artists working in pairs. During each period, two pairs would work on the floor with sheets of paper, 240cm by 56cm. The last pair would work on an unprimed canvas, 180cm by 93cm, propped against a wall. I would be strapped directly opposite with arms out sideways, horizontally, and legs straddling a large upward facing light bulb.

The objective of the artists was to scrutinise my naked crucifixion pose and to create works that a viewer would be unlikely to interpret as having any religious meaning or connection. With the challenge thus presented, I wondered how ever the artists could capture me faithfully without hinting at a crucified figure; I also wondered how on earth I could endure almost 2 hours with my arms outstretched.

Period 1 – 37 minutes

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Period 2 – 47 minutes

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Period 3 – 40 minutes

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Intensive enquiry

From the opening moments of the first period I went into a calm meditation to observe my body inwardly and notice its changing sensations. My muscles were aware they were being asked to do something unfamiliar, but a faintly dull discomfort that made itself known at the outset never turned into pain. Even the vulnerability of my situation did not develop into a psychological source of concern.

Instead I watched and listened with calm fascination from my unique vantage point as pairs of artists discussed their approaches to cooperating on each piece. I saw works evolve, following their progression from concept to execution, and – when finally I was unstrapped at the end of each period – I joined in a collective analysis of the artworks created, albeit offering only tentative contributions.

The session was intriguing, instructive and enjoyable. Whilst the novelty of having a naked crucified man strapped to the wall was lost on nobody, this was nonetheless a genuine, serious artistic practice. The nine pieces produced were remarkably diverse, technically well considered, and all achieved their stated objective. For me, it was yet another new and greatly rewarding modelling experience.

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