I can’t remember the first time I went on a diet. I know that it must have happened during childhood, but the event seems to belong to geological deep time — predating my actual existence, laying a complex emotional and ideological bedrock upon which the foundation for my nascent subjectivity was laid.
As an adult, I am now curating my first exhibition, Soma Grossa, opening on November 17th at the Brew House Association in Pittsburgh. This mixed media group show features all fat artists creating art about fatness, and working on it has urged me to explore the entanglements between my identity as a fat person and my curatorial practice and philosophies in ways I was not anticipating.
Soma grossa, which literally means “gross body,” plays with the double meaning of “gross” as both disgusting and as an amount that exists before any deductions are made. The title is meant to draw attention to the simple yet ruthless calculus fat people are constantly subjected to: Without any “deductions,” the fat body is necessarily grotesque. Only once deductions are made — weight is lost — can other important things be gained: social capital, romantic fulfillment, medical dignity, etc. There exists a tension between spectacle and repression that is so often at work regarding fat bodies: Fat people are subject to an imperative to hide, make themselves smaller, disappear or stop existing completely, by a populace that nonetheless needs fat bodies that exist in specific acceptable ways — as entertainment, moral analogue, before-and-after horror story, or as vehicles for humor. The dueling desires of people whose worst nightmare is inhabiting a fat body often express themselves in shaming fat people to exit social spheres, only to bring them back as objects for popular consumption.
You condemn us for what you’re sure is rampant gluttony, yet jump at the chance to devour us whole. And the art world is no exception.
When I was researching for this exhibition, results were sparse. Shows featuring fat bodies exist, sure, but shows centering fatness in a critical way? The 2019 exhibition Beyond the Body at the Fondazione Forma per la Fotografia in Milan claimed to “reinterpret [sic] the real-life stories of four obese people, painting their words directly onto their bodies,” which were then photographed for the exhibition. Lauded (nonfat) figural painter Jenny Saville is famous for her moody, larger-than-life gestural paintings of fat people. Her so-called “fascination with obese people” apparently began when she won a scholarship to study in the United States and was greeted by herds of fat women in shopping malls. Saville’s paintings and the Milan exhibition span the impoverished spectrum from pity to fascination that is typical of reactions to fat bodies in the art world. I might go so far as to call these works anti-art: Rather than engaging with new sensoriums, they merely reinscribe the same tired tropes of fatphobic hegemony.
The transcendent self-portraits of artists like Laura Aguilar, who embraced the fact that fat bodies literally take up more space in an image than nonfat ones, are few and far between. By photographing her own fat body in majestic natural scenes, subverting the history of landscape photography as a cis White male medium, Aguilar embraced the fat body by transforming it into a literal landscape.
When I was doing my initial virtual studio visits for Soma Grossa, I had a pretty good idea of which artists and which works I was interested in. During each video chat, I gave a spiel about the exhibition, why it was important, what kinds of pieces were in it, etc., then asked each artist to tell me about themselves and their work. Everybody who responded to me was kind, thoughtful, and genuinely excited about being part of this show. We talked about how mere representation is often a neoliberal solution for structural inequalities and too often results in merely making fat bodies palatable for consumption by the public — just another way to satisfy the fat calculus. We discussed the metaphysical censorship of fat lives in a world that attempts to will them out of existence. Many conversations became emotionally charged, as we connected not just as curator and artist but as fellow fats who existed in a shared world despite being sometimes thousands of miles away. We knew why this show was important — big — bigger still. But what is my role there as a curator? What does it mean for fatness to be part of my curating philosophy? How do I assuage the tension between empathy and objectivity, creating and experiencing?
Before working on this exhibition, I assumed curating would be an augmented version of my work as editor of an arts publication: god’s eye view, there to help bring out the artists’ visions in a unified, thematic way. In a sense this is true; as writer and curator Tim Clark writes in the introduction to Curator Conversation (2021), “curator” comes from the Latin cura which means to take care or oversee. The book contains a series of essays that aim at reframing — or perhaps reorienting — curating as a practice of interpersonal and inter-object caretaking and ethical responsibility. I had always considered caring for the writers and artists I work with an integral part of my role in interacting with them. However, I did not predict that I would find myself not only immersed in the exhibition’s subject matter but engaged in and actively cultivating a series of communities. Curating this show requires not only urgent and caring attention to artworks and artists but also to the living ecology of communities that exist within the radical fat liberation discourse being created between the artists in the show, between myself and the artists, and between the artworks and the audience. As a researcher and academic who was used to thinking about ethical responsibility as the kind of “thinking through and around” oneself that Isabelle Stengers describes, it was honestly shocking and disturbing to be brought so viscerally back into the “personal” — something that seems almost taboo and counterproductive of social and cultural responsibility.
To put it shortly, I had always conceptualized good curating as community building; I just didn’t think I’d truly feel like part of the community. As somebody who long ago eschewed diet culture and body positivity in favor of radical fat liberation, working on Soma Grossa made me realize I was following these movements from the shadows. I’m still nervous to claim fatness as a public identity. With this show, it feels like there’s no turning back.
I’m sitting at the computer applying to curate another show, and the application asks me to summarize my curatorial philosophy in one word. Without hesitating, I type an emphatic “fat!”
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Note: Jenny Saville’s early work, of “towering” flesh, were self-portraits. She was using her own body… She was not exploiting ‘other’ bodies.
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