Flex Point at PUBLIC Gallery in London
The exhibition’s point of departure is the idea of self-optimization. The ideal, modern woman uses technology and social media to showcase an immaculate image, while simultaneously documenting rigorous personal growth. She partakes in a fad smoothie diet or attends an exercise class in the latest, fashionable leggings. She is as flawless and functional as possible. Nestler envisions a glitch, an antidote to this exhausting pursuit of perfection in the form of the cyborg, which appears in Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay A Cyborg Manifesto. The cyborg accepts how artificiality is embedded in her, while seizing the potential of this in order to become fluid, radical and resistant.
Across the gallery’s three floors, the artist reimagines the cyborg as a shapeshifter. In the basement, hybrid therianthropes take the form of clothing and accessories. The selkie, who in Celtic folklore sheds her seal skin and comes to land as a beautiful woman, must marry a fisherman but is always longing to return to the ocean. For Selkie’s Gym Bag she is fashioned in lustrous black furry velvet with metallic leather cone breasts. The Greek tale of Arachne, the ill-fated weaver girl who challenged the goddess Athena and was transformed into a spider, is referenced in the work Spinner. Wooden human arms and legs merge with an upholstered, faux fur abdomen to skulk up the gallery wall.
On the ground floor, another wall-mounted sculpture (Affordable Face Lift) depicts a cut out of a face clad in collagen pads, formed of cushioned candy-wrapper blue textile. A silver leather ‘snake piercing’ is attached to the protruding tongue, a nod to body modification undertaken to make oneself more animal-like. Nearby, a menacing freestanding sculpture lingers, featuring a ballet barre with sharp, pencil-point feet and an upside down sports bag (Ballet Bag). Leather gloves also clasp a bunch of flowers, a monochrome memento mori inspired by delicate floral depictions by Dutch painter Rachel Ruysch whose career boomed during 17th century tulip mania (‘Sottobosco’ bouquet after Rachel Ruysch).
The video works are centered around a barre class run off the rails, where the group perform a manic routine of balletic arm gestures, leg lifts and pelvic thrusts. An edited segment of the video Flex Point is displayed on a monitor on the ground floor of the gallery. The enthusiastic instructor, performed by Tess Dworman, appears on screen ordering a smile, a bounce. A participant mimics a fire-breathing dragon, with a cavernous mouth and wild eyes. On the top floor, a large projection playing the video in its entirety is installed, accompanied by mirrors, exercise balls and resistance bands. In contrast the frantic, ritualistic scenes are bookended with abstract footage of lower Manhattan skyscrapers, while opera singer Martina Gordon belts out Vittorio Giannini’s melancholic ‘Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky!’, a loving tribute to something greater, the transitioning seasons or the inevitability of aging.
What adjustments are made to protect, succeed and ultimately compete in a capitalist and patriarchal society? Flex Point refers not only to a ballerina’s foot movements, but also to a space of transition, adaptability that collides with pressures to perform, to flex. Nestler revels in the tension between the pull of consumerism and the need to fight against it. Present-day beauty standards are turned on their head, somehow making them grossly enticing.
text by Grace Beaumont