I live in Hamtramck, MI, a small diverse city of immigrants and artists inside Detroit. Here, you’re apt to see more saris than Spandex on a daily basis. As a larger woman I have been striving, in the face of delicious international foodstuffs, to lose weight here for the past 5 years, most days driving to the suburbs to attend fitness centers we don’t have in town. Somewhere in all that gym time, I started to see the parallels between working out and making art. There is an undeniable similarity between being in the white-walled space of a gallery and the neutral space of an exercise studio, the daily dedication to the two practices, and the futility and small triumphs that come with both.
Trying to bring the practice of gym and studio together, I created performative and sweetly subversive public interventions that allow me to use my city, and not some suburban gym, as my training ground. Dressed in full rainbow-hued regalia, I go through my workout paces at unconventional sites around Hamtramck– tossing sides of meat with the butcher in Bozek’s meat market and lifting a huge bag of onions outside Al Haramain Market, a local Yemini run grocery. There, a man in traditional Yemini costume watched me for ten minutes as I failed to lift the bag over my head, when I had done so he cried ‘Superhero!’ Though the performances in “Jessercise!” are indeed poking fun at my own struggle, these interactions and performances are honest feats of strength. I am literally wrestling with the food that both gives me nutrition and yet packs on the pounds. I am also trying to relate my own culture to one that is different from mine and doing so with humorous actions tends to be the best way to foster connections between people.
The Jessercise Gymnasium and participatory “Jessercise” performances make up the larger exhibition. In this gallery version, I mount a carpeted platform and proceeded to lead the crowd in an instructional workout with moves like the ‘Pop and Squat’, which features a champagne bottle as ‘Hydration Weight’. A sprint around the gallery includes as its objective, dipping into a bowl of potato chips with every lap. Backsliding is part of the exercise plan. Here the long tradition of displays of endurance in performance art is channeled with a lightness and hilarity that suits the bright palette and self-deprecating humor. Each performance is different, just as exercise routines differ. Each comes with a monolog of my own struggle to fit into my pants as well as fitting into my chosen place. My body, and those of the audience in the gallery become moving sculptures. There is a recalling of the ‘proper’ body image, so ingrained in our culture, replaced instead by an embracing of the everyday and everyone.