Life Modelling: Humanity and Boredom
Since I finished my MA I realised that I actually miss writing, so I decided to keep this blog going. Now and then I will write an article to share my thoughts and observations. This time I would like to share my experience with life modelling. I enjoy being naked. My photographic work mainly revolves around taking nude photos of myself. I also love going to nudist beaches and saunas. For me being naked is about connecting with the body and about healthiness. When a friend of mine told me she does life modelling it sounded intriguing and I wanted to know more. I emailed the place and booked myself as a model for my first life drawing session. It was in September 2019 and I’ve been doing life modelling on and off since then. I’ve made a few observations about the aspects of life drawing/modelling since I started, and I would like to discuss them here. The purpose of life drawing is for the audience to practice figure drawing through observing details of the human body; which is better done if the particular human has no distracting clothes on. In other words, if you are the model, your function is to sit naked and still for a few hours in front of a fully dressed audience that scrutinises every detail of your body to re-interpret it in their own way on paper. Audience full of strangers with different lifestyles and different reasons that brought them to the class. Obviously the main reason for them to be there is to draw, but out of so many classes I’ve been to and out of many faces I’ve seen, I’m sure that during some sessions there would be a handful of people who came there mainly to have a good look at the naked model. As a model this is very important for me to be aware of; I’m exposing myself and allowing others to scrutinise me, judge me and potentially fantasise about me. It is easy to say; if you don’t like the rules, don’t play the game. However, in my opinion it is fine to enjoy what I’m doing, but be critical about it at the same time. I would like to look more in depth into being a life model and the aspect of being looked at. When he talked about European oil painting, John Berger in Ways of Seeing explored the dynamics between the female subject and the male audience. She submits her nudity to him - the male viewer who is presumably dressed up. She is painted in a way that doesn’t confront the viewer (usually in a coy way and rarely looking directly at the viewer), so he can keep scrutinising her and be undisturbed. The purpose for which she is painted is to please the viewer - thus she becomes a sight. But this is painting, the subject has already been captured on canvas and is not present anymore. With life modelling it is different because as a model I am present, and at times I look directly at my audience (usually 50/50 men and women), not to confront them, but out of curiosity and because it’s natural to look around. But my purpose there is not to please the audience. The question is; am I a sight? Kind of. My body turns into an object, not a sexual one in case of life drawing classes. However, sitting there on my ‘pedestal’ in front of the audience with their eyes vigorously focused on me, I’m as much of a human being as a bowl of fruit. At least I feel that way. But I believe that some people in the audience feel the same way about me. Let’s reflect on the dynamics between me and the audience. The class consists of two sessions. The first one starts at six and ends at half seven. Then there’s a 30 minutes break, during which I can finally stretch my limbs and empty my bladder. At eight o’clock the second session starts and also lasts an hour and half. Before the first session starts I usually arrive 15 minutes earlier, so I have enough time to undress. I’m provided with a room where I can do it in privacy and also can leave my stuff there. I put a bathrobe on, under which I’m fully naked and walk down to the drawing room. At that point there still would be 5 minutes until the start of the session. I prepare my set, sit down, wait and look around. My eyes are jumping from person to person, occasionally our eyes meet. Until the session starts there is no need for me to take the gown off. But I can already sense a certain awkwardness in the air. When our eyes meet, people tend to look immediately away. I suppose they don’t want to give the impression that they are the ones who stare. During the breaks it can be quite chaotic. Some people who come for only one session would get up and leave, but before they can do so, they have to pay. Those people who come for the second session would start arriving. If I don’t need to go to the toilet I would usually spend the break sitting in my posing chair. What I find interesting about the people there is how much they try to avoid me. Especially when I was very new to life modelling. The people there would rarely say ‘thank you’ to me for posing, even though they say ‘thank you’ to the guy who organises it. They would rarely acknowledge my presence on the way out, even if they walked past me, and say ‘bye’. They would spend 3 hours getting to know my body very intimately, so they could just pretend that I’m invisible in the end. Not many seem to be capable of acknowledging that the naked model is a human being. And for the rest it is simply awkward to talk to the naked person. It reminds me a little of Marina Abramovic project Rhythm 0. In this experiment Abramovic stood motionless (and emotionless) in front of her audience for several hours. Her audience was invited to do to her whatever they wished, using 72 items (some causing pleasure but some pain).This experiment explored how long it would take for the audience to disregard any humanity in her and treat her like an object. I realise this is an extreme example for a comparison with the life drawing classes, especially considering that her audience turned violent against her. I want to make it very clear that I don’t think the people in my life drawing sessions tend to disregard me intentionally, and I especially want to stress that I believe they are not bad people. My point was to reflect on this phenomenon - if you turn someone into an object it’s difficult to see humanity in them. I’ve built my relationship with the people there over time. I began to recognise faces and started saying ‘hello’ to them and occasionally joined or started a conversation. Now there are a few people I’m always happy to see and have a chat with. Also more and more people smile at me, say ‘bye’ or ‘thanks’ to me on the way out. But I had to show my humanity and work my way up in order to be seen and treated as a human. The presumption that everybody has to see humanity in you because you are a human being is taken for granted in ‘normal’ everyday life. Because you are more or less equal to others. This is a presumption of the privileged. I feel like I’ve tasted being stripped of this privilege by being gazed at naked by a bunch of dressed up strangers. I believe I’m lucky that this innocuous experience was the only one for me to taste it. People of colour, gay people, trans people, women in middle east, etc. they would believe that I’m very privileged to experience ‘not being seen fully as a human’ only through a life drawing class. I really don’t want to sound negative about life modelling! If you haven’t got the impression that I love it, let me continue then! But before I get to the main reason why I really enjoy life modelling, I would like to share my last experience. The last time I modelled, there was a lady who captured my attention. She came for the second session and I noticed her as soon as she entered the room. She looked quite eccentric, but mainly there was something about her body language - the confidence in herself, as though she was saying; feel free to look at me, but I don’t give a fuck what you think. The session started and Jon, the organiser asked the audience whether they had any special wish about what kind of pose I could perform. When I model it is totally up to me what poses I do, however the audience can suggest whether they would like a standing/sitting/lying pose. They can also have suggestions in regard to the length of the poses. However, when Jon asks the audience, people rarely have any suggestions because no one wants to stand out and speak. But that evening somebody did stand out. The eccentric lady said: “She should do whatever pose she’s comfortable with, and whatever pose that makes her feel comfortable in her feminine self.” This was the moment I felt considered for the first time after 2 years of performing there. The first time somebody out loud recognised that I also matter - my feelings, my comfort and my skin. I’m not an object whose nudity is just a matter of course. I’m not part of the classe’s drawing equipment like pencils and papers that can be disposed after the session’s over. I’m a human being who happens to perform as a model in my free time for fun and for money. I also appreciate she recognised my vulnerable position of a naked woman exposing her body to a fully dressed audience of mixed sexes. I suppose that by her “whatever she’s comfortable in her feminine self” she asked me to perform a pose in which I would show myself the way I don’t mind being seen. In other words, I don’t expose my body in a way that doesn’t resonate with who I am, just so the audience has something more interesting to draw. It’s fine to do creative and fun poses for the audience, but only as long as you are happy in yourself. I’m aware of it, but I was really glad to meet a person who was on the same page. This finally gets me to why I really enjoy it. What I like about life modelling is that I’m in charge of the poses I perform. The audience can only see what I let them see. It is me who decides whether or not I sexualise my body. There is a long history of sexualisation of female bodies in art and media, and I want to make sure I don’t contribute to the old stereotypical representation of women. Being a model and having control of the poses is a great tool to re-represent the female body. I can choose a really empowering pose, a pose that makes me feel confident in my body, a pose that makes me feel proud of being the human I am. Whatever pose I decide to perform is a representation of myself and my body - and that is what the audience captures on their papers. Of course, they will re-interpret it in their own way, but I give them the direction, the starting point from which they take over. What I like about it is that even those who struggle to see humanity in me ‘the naked model’ have to portray me the way I present myself; not a muse, not a ‘bowl of fruit’, but a real woman. I aim for exactly the same thing when capturing myself on the camera for my photo projects.
Last but not least, when I lie or sit there for three hours I have a lot of time to think. People’s eyes are continuously moving back and forth from me to their canvases. I can nearly feel their eyes touching my skin. So I either close my eyes or fix them on some part of my body. Then I notice how silent it is in the room, all I can hear are pencil strokes hitting paper and occasionally some noises from the outside. I find this atmosphere strangely soothing. Especially when I perform a long pose, like ten or twenty minutes, I feel like the time slows down. Besides the strokes of pencils I suddenly realise there is something else I can hear, something else that is present; my mind. During the modelling sessions I spend a lot of time with myself, listening to my own thoughts. It almost feels like some kind of meditation. I really enjoy this aspect of life modelling and I ask myself; why don’t I just sit down at home and focus on my mind more often? There is this constant pressure in our society to be occupied by doing something, that it has become embedded in us. We are constantly on the move; go to work, do activities after work, socialise. We are being encouraged to do sport, gain new skills, improve in this and that, etc. We rarely hear how important it is to sit sometimes down and do ‘nothing’. I was raised in a way that a sense of guilt is triggered if I do ‘nothing’ because that is not what I’m supposed to be doing, this is not what is expected of me. If I want to be successful in my life and ‘worthy’, doing ‘nothing is not the way forward. This is bullshit, however, living in an environment that teaches you to always strive and never stop, does have an impact on your life. I would like to look more in depth on doing ‘nothing’. Doing nothing is usually associated with boredom. We do nothing when we have no cool activity to do, so we get bored. Doing nothing translates as a lack of entertainment. When we lack entertainment we usually result in trying to find something entertaining to do. Nobody wants to sit and do nothing because we are expected to do something. All the time. But do we really need to? I remember when a friend of mine told me she doesn’t enjoy being in a situation when she can clearly hear her own thoughts. She explained it is because she doesn’t like spending too much time on her own. Recently my partner admitted that he prefers to go for a walk with me, because he finds it boring if he goes by himself. I believe these are not two isolated examples, there will be more people feeling the same way. But what is it that makes people not enjoy their own company? As I mentioned we live in a society that is focused on striving, success and the physical self. Unfortunately the importance of mental health is often forgotten. We feel bad about ourselves if we indulge in leisure because we don’t want to give the impression to other people that we are lazy. However, on the other hand, people who guiltlessly indulge in leisure all the time without the need to strive, are victims of the same system that still wants you to do something. You can either be productive and learn new things or gain skills, etc. Or you can be ‘lazy’ and watch the telly, play video games, etc. Regardless of which one of these options you choose you are choosing to do something. You don’t want to be unproductive or bored by doing nothing. The problem is that the more you focus on other things, the less you focus on yourself. Too much entertainment or busyness disconnects you from your mind and body. In my opinion, this is why people feel uncomfortable in their own company, because the moment they are by themselves, they realise how little they are used to hearing their own thoughts. This is why my friend prefers to be surrounded by others, and why my partner doesn’t enjoy walking by himself. But it is so good for you to give yourself space and listen to your own voice, sit down or go for a walk and embrace focusing on your mind. Enjoy doing ‘nothing’. This is what I realised during the life modelling classes, when I was shocked how clearly I could hear my mind speaking to me. I wasn’t distracted by watching films, doing work, household chores or socialising with people, so my thoughts became louder. The brain never turns off, your thoughts are always present, but become more apparent when you give them more room and listen to them. I discovered this through silence and pain; two big aspects of life modelling. I’ve already mentioned how silent the classes are, now I would like to focus on pain. When I perform a longer pose - around ten to twenty minutes, it is really important to choose a comfortable one, otherwise you will get pins and needles and cramps. However, regardless of what pose I choose, some parts of my body always become painful after a few minutes. So when I’m choosing a ‘comfortable’ pose I’m only choosing the lesser evil. Also, lying or sitting motionless for a long time, you are more prone to get cold, especially in winter when it’s quite difficult to heat up that massive drawing room. In other words, during life modelling you experience mild suffering. You desperately want to stretch your limbs, put a blanket over your cold skin and gulp down a massive cup of hot tea. At least I do. However, all of this suffering, regardless of how bad it sounds, I find quite good for me. It helps me connect with my body and my mind. Spending time with myself on such an intensive level like during these classes is something I normally never do. I do enjoy walking by myself and listening to my thoughts, but I never sit down and focus on my mind and body at the same time. That’s exactly what I appreciate about the life drawing sessions. Even though I’m exhausted and cold afterwards, I feel very good about myself. For me it’s worth it. Let’s embrace the importance of mental health, spending time with our own company and listening to our own thoughts. Go for a walk by yourself in nature and enjoy the senses; the wind on your skin, the smells, the sounds, the colours. Make yourself a cup of tea, sit by a window at home or a cafe and watch the passing life outside. Download Headspace into your phone and start with meditation. Focus on your mind and your body. You don’t have to become a life model in order to realise the importance of spending time in your own company doing ‘nothing’. But I became more aware of it through life modelling and I’m glad for it. Now I can share this awareness with others.
Fig. 1: Lucie, probably 10 mins pose References: John Berger, Ways Of Seeing, 1972 Marina Abramovic, Rhythm Zero https://vimeo.com/71952791 Fig. 1: Life Drawing Nottingham https://www.instagram.com/lifedrawnottm/