In 2003 I started a Contemporary Arts degree at Manchester Metropolitan University. The degree was split up into five electives – Visual Art, Creative Writing, Dance, Drama, and Music – of which most people chose to do two. Personally I chose Art and Writing. In the first year, everyone, regardless of subject, was required to do a Contextual Studies module. This was the only lecture I had in one of those great big lecture halls often seen in American 'college' movies. You were required to learn bits about all fields of the arts and how they fit into modern thinking. Every week we would split up into smaller tutorial groups, lead by MA students, in order to discuss the lectures and give presentations.
Our tutorial was lead by one of these MA students particularly notable, not for her intelligence or grasp of the subject, but for her relentless barrage of right, like, right, you know, right, right, right, punctuating her speech. This habit made it impossible to hear anything she said except for right, right, right. When I was younger I had a similar habit which my dad expunged through imitation and mockery; an act which I am grateful for. One day, right, while leading a tutorial, right, she sat on a table and pulled a chair towards her to rest her feet on. After a few beats for comic effect both of her stiletto heels went through the plastic fabric of the cushion covers. Through embarrassment her right frequency increased dramatically.
For one presentation we were required to do a polemic. As I was to understand a polemic is an extremely one-sided argument, often an attack on an opponent, and often on a highly contentious subject matter, likely to cause controversy or offence. This dictionary agrees: polemic n. 1. A controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine. There seemed to be a problem amongst many of my fellow first-years with comprehending this very simple idea. Even after having it explained some people just couldn't manage it.
The way I saw it was you just needed to pick a subject. It didn't need to be something you liked or even agreed with. It was more about a performance, an exercise in writing either something you disagree with, or something you agree with but perhaps not to such an extreme, and then presenting it in a passionate manner, aggressive even, in order to wind people up. A popular, trite, idea was Pornography as Art. Obvious, and outdated. I chose Professional Wrestling as Art, a subject which I could easily defend and go completely over the top.
One of the other students did a presentation that could easily have been called Why I Sort-Of Quite Like Salvador Dali, but to be honest it's ok if your not that into him, because I don't love him, he's just OK, yeah? Our presented polemics were supposed to encourage discussion and disagreement amongst the group, and as far as I was concerned the longer the discussion and the more aggressive and vocal the disagreement, the more successful the polemic. Her pathetic Salvador Dali presentation was met by stunned silence. Rather than saying "sorry, but that wasn't a polemic, you can do one next week," the tutorial leader said "yes, very good, now discuss". And when no one wanted to say anything, as we had been given nothing to go on, nothing to agree or disagree with, she went around the room getting us each to say something.
I began my polemic with a few words stating my subject matter, the artistic merit of Professional Wrestling. I then showed a video of the first two minutes of the independent wrestling documentary Beyond The Mat:
"I love the pageantry, the athleticism. Even the incredibly cheesy acting. I look at wrestling as theatre at its most base, and guess what? So do most of the fans. We know what's going on. Is it sport? Is it entertainment? It's both. It's wrestling.
Now let's get something straight. I know wrestling is a show, but it's not as fake as you think. Of course the winners of the matches are predetermined, and the violence is choreographed, however the result of the violence is very real.
All these years watching wrestling one thought still swirls in my mind: What sort of human being bashes another man's skull into a ring post for a living?"
A better, more concise explanation of the appeal of Professional Wrestling I have never heard. My intention with starting with this video was firstly to show some images of mainstream wrestling, recognisable faces like The Undertaker and Steve Austin, and to give a rational description of the appeal. I wanted to lull my audience into false comfort. Even mainstream wrestling is divisive: some people love it, some people think it's pathetic, but many people are indifferent to it and never give it a passing thought. I could picture people mentally preparing their "it's not art," or "maybe it is art, but it's shit art for idiots" arguments. Had I left it here the post polemic discussion would have been lukewarm at best.
I then showed a promotional video for the underground hardcore wrestling even Combat Zone Wrestling's Cage of Death V: Suspended. This featured unsimulated, but consensual, violence with weapons including broken glass, light bulbs, barbed wire, a string strimmer/weed whacker, staple guns and baseball bats, and ended with the wrestler John Zandig (also the owner of CZW) being suspended from the ceiling of the arena by meat hooks pushed through the flesh of his shoulders.
This act is a kind of body modification performance art. The hooks are put through temporary piercings made immediately prior to the actual performance. The effect is dramatic but the actual damage inflicted is minimal if done properly. Aside: in 2007 I frequented a micro-bar in Osaka, Japan, run by a body modification artist. Once when I was in there he and his female partner were preparing for a suspension performance later that day. She was sat on the only sofa in the room, next to me, and he came out from behind the bar and began making the temporary piercings in her arms and legs. He was using antiseptic, latex gloves, and an autoclave to sterilise his tools.
I can't find the actual video I showed, but here are some examples of the sights seen by my audience (forgive the dumb ass metal music, it seems to be a compulsory addition to wrestling videos these days):
The wrestlers in this video are quite literally risking serious injury or death, not for money (for there is none in such low budget organisations), but simply for self expression. This could not be more in keeping with the attitudes to art expressed by post-modern darlings, loved by Contemporary Art lecturers. Performance artist Chris Burden had himself nailed to a car and shot in the art with a shot gun on seperate occassions. Vito Acconci sat in a restaurant staring at someone, rubbing his own arm until it bled. For another piece he lay under a false floor in a gallery wanking, looking up through a hole at people walking above. ORLAN is a conceptual artist whose work is her own body, deformed over years by endless plastic surgery. Her performance is her surgery, and she has even sold, as art, pieces of flesh and fat removed from her body.
My argument is that wrestling, particularly of the extremely violent variety, is more powerful than typical Body Art, because it is more direct and visceral in its ability to make us think about and question the limitations and possibilities of our own bodies. I didn't need to say this at first however, because as soon as the video ended the room erupted in discussion and argument, while I sat back to enjoy. Mission accomplished. I hope the Salvador Dali girl failed hopelessly.