Pictures of people doing handstands in exotic locations, usually while on vacation, have become a mainstay of the fitness world in the New Frontier. I’ve been guilty of a few. Here I am on the Parthenon, for instance:
One can make the argument that this particular strand of selfie culture has its origin, or at least an early exemplar, in Conceptual Art, Robert Kinmont’s 8 Natural Handstands (1969).
Depictions of people engaged in fitness activities and sport are among the very oldest in art. Here, unlike those first images, there is almost no emphasis on the physique; rather it’s on the performance itself, which in this case feels like something of a party trick—and that’s probably why there’s a whiff of narcissism about it. That sense of showing off is only strengthened by the fact that it’s a self-portrait, one executed in a notably heroic setting, balanced on a rock ledge, so that the artist is, in effect, looking down on the majestic mountain landscape in the distance. Throughout the series he becomes ever more subsumed by his surroundings, by nature. Although we may at times stand out, we are nature, the images seem to say; and also, life is balance, and precarious.
What interests me in particular about Kinmont is that he abandoned art in 1981 and became a carpenter, while also studying Buddhism. One can see Conceptual Art as a reaction against craftsmanship, in which case Kinmont’s switch of professions seems like a rupture, a turning of his back on art. But there is another way to think about it. In You Must Change Your Life, Peter Sloterdijk calls craftsmanship “a quiet rebellion against the forlornness, lack of means and lack of cunning for which the Greeks coined . . . the term Amechinia,” which he defines as “lack of tricks and truc, of leverage and tools.” In this latter view, Kinmont’s Conceptual Art, itself an assertion of tricks and tools, is perfectly consonant with his carpentry.
I would only add that the images in 8 Natural Handstands unite two basic and related practice modes–fitness and art—and that Kinmont’s subsequent carpentry is a third. The progression is smooth.