Visualising obesity and the body

Obesity can be represented in various ways. How do different artists visualise the body? How is what is medically defined as the ‘obese body’ represented in different forums? Is obesity portrayed in a positive or negative light? Do these representations communicate the attitude of the artist towards obesity in themselves or in society?

Rosalind Woodhouse’s article ‘Obesity in Art – A Brief Overview’ (Front Horm Res 2008, 36: 271-86) offers an overview of the way in which fatness has been represented in Western art and what this can tell us about how the meanings ascribed to fat have changed over the years.

This image bank seeks to present and contrast some different approaches to visualising obesity, focusing especially on contemporary art. Full-sized images and more works from the artists featured can be found on their websites via the links provided.

laban corridor to nowhere






Laban Dance Academy, London. Herzog and de Meuron

The interior is designed as an urban “streetscape”, a series of corridors, interior courtyards and meeting places, wrapped around the main theater  – the literal and metaphorical heart of the building.  Colors determine the rhythm and orientation both inside and outside the building.

FATCOLUMNCivilisation Pillar

According to one reviewer, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Civilisation Pillar is a ‘monument to capitalism, vanity and excess’. The work uses fat from plastic surgery clinics, and was shown at the recent Art of Change: New Directions from China exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London.

When interviewed about the work, Peng Yu commented: “…the fat was obtained from those alive. We began to really pay attention to those alive… We erected a monument based on redundant fat from human being, wealth surplus and civilization. It was very appropriate to erect this golden, sticky and towering pillar in an art museum.”

Image courtesy of S Ulijaszek




The Obesity Unit

The corporeal quality of   ‘bigness’ that is central to diagnosis of obesity is mirrored in the ways in   which we concieve of the ‘obesity problem’ in society, and the scale of the   means required to address it.Cartoon reproduced with permission from the artist, J Banx.



Tim Head

In Happy Eaters (top) and Deep Freeze and TV Dinner   (catwalk shot, below), the artist investigates obesogenic environments. Artist Tim Head is represented by works in the collections of the British Museum, Gulbenkian Foundation, Tate Britain,   Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York. Images are reproduced with permission from the artist.





Antony Gormley



Antony Gormley‘s work is concerned   with the body as a place of memory and transformation, and a vehicle for the   exploration of self and other in space. His public sculptures have inspired   lively discussion and debate about the everyday, individual body.Top: Prior to the opening of Gormley’s first major show at London’s   Hayward Gallery in 2007, 31 life-sized sculptures of Gormley’s body appeared   in public spaces surrounding the gallery. They were all turned to face the   gallery.Middle: In the summer of 2009, Gormley created a living monument on the   Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London. In the space that is normally   reserved for statues of Kings and Generals, Gormley installed   randomly-selected volunteers from around the UK every hour of every day, for   100 days. Entitled One and Other, the work was   intended to represent the whole of humanity, challenging the way we celebrate   the individual. Gormley comments: “Through elevation onto the plinth,   and removal from the common ground, the body becomes a metaphor, a symbol. In   the context of Trafalgar Square with its military, valedictory and male   historical statues to specific individuals, this elevation of everyday life   to the position formerly occupied by monumental art allows us to reflect on   the diversity, vulnerability and particularity of the individual in   contemporary society. It could be tragic but it could also be funny.”Below: Another Time was installed on the roof of Exeter   College, Oxford, on February 15, 2009. Positioned overlooking the junction of   Broad and Turl Streets, the scupture looks toward the site where Hugh   Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer were burned at the stake for   their beliefs in the 16th century. Images courtesy of S Ulijaszek.



Nayland Blake

Nayland Blake engaged with issues of   over-eating in his 1998 piece Gorge. Nayland Blake has   works in the perrmanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art,   New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Walker Art Center,   Minneapolis. He is represented by the Matthew Marks gallery, New York.Image courtesy of the artist. blake

Andrew Carnie

Andrew Carnie studied chemistry and painting at Warren Wilson College, North Carolina, then zoology and psychology at Durham University, before gaining a BA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College and an MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art.His current practice concerns various scientific topics, primarily in the form of time-based installations. For ‘Head On’, a show on neurology at the Science Museum (in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust) Carnie produced a number of pieces of work centered around memory, the brain, and neuroscience, while working with neuroscientists at the Medical Research Center for Developmental Neurology, Kings College, London. In July 2002, Carnie presented ‘Disperse’, a new work produced for ‘Hygiene – the art of public health’ at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London. The work explores ideas around ‘removal’ and thoughts about the departure of the human body at death, looking at processes by which the body might be physically ‘dispersed’; be rendered back to atomic particles.The featured images are from slice (slide dissolve work), which features 162 slides on a journey through the body. This work was inspired by conversations with neuropsychologist and writer Paul Broks.Images courtesy of the artist.


saville2 saville1

Jenny Saville

Jenny Saville’s daring paintings are known for the mountains of flesh they reveal and strong feminist undertones. Jenny Saville’s work is described on as a ‘dark reflection of   contemporary fashion, depicting bodies that live outside the standard  boundaries of attractiveness. Her feminist view of the female body shapes  offers a valuable contrast to the mass media’s presentation of the   perfectibility of the human form’.Images courtesy of the artist.


Charlotte Kingsnorth  (with Jenny Saville)

Fat sofa

An industrial designer, Kingsnorth engages with biomorphic forms, questioning accepted values about boundaries. Fat sofa  evokes fat stigmatization and the boundaries that fat bodies are seen by many   to transgress.


fat chair2Joseph Beuys

Fat Chair

Taken from Walker Art Gallery website:Fat, the material found in animal tissue composed of glycerides of fatty  acids, was an ideal material for Beuys to use to signify chaos and the potential for spiritual transcendence. Fat has the ability to exist as a  physical example of two extremes: a flowing liquid when warm and a defined   solid when cold. Beuys also believed that fat was psychologically effective, in that “people instinctively feel it relates to inner processes and feelings.” Fat, a nurturing, life-sustaining substance, is essential for nourishment and fuel. Beuys began using fat in the 1960s with the  installations Fat Corners (1960, 1962) and a sculpture entitled Fat Chair (1964).




Formerly WS-network, the mission statement   of this systems design network is to “bring clarity to complexity”.  Members Philippe   Vandenbroeck, Jo Goossens and Marshall Clemens were responsible for the visualisation and development of   the Foresight Obesities Systems Map.


Tackling Obesities: Biofeedback. Biofeedback creates a visual, sensory and bodily feedback system in response to dietary intake

Jessica Charlesworth and Michael BurtonThese two artists  worked at Foresight, a UK Government think tank based in the Government   Office for Science, to envision the impact of the predicted obesity epidemic   over the next 50 years. Their work considered the evolution of the body in   response to an overtly obesogenic environment and some proposals for tackling   the problem. The outputs were visual provocations informed by Foresight’s   extensive consultation with leading world scientists, experts and other   leading stakeholders in order to stimulate debate in Government as well as   the general public. A range of visual scenarios were developed, extrapolating   the various drivers deemed to be contributing to the development of the obesity   epidemic. Each scenario was based on a paper written by various experts in   education, nutrition, the built environment and each one discussed their   theories on the causes and potential impacts of obesity in the next 50 years.


Tackling Obesities: P-Evo clinic. The MRIscan ritual begins


Tackling Obesities: Food Activism. Fast growing algae-graffiti: “Fresh not frozen”


Visualisation of the human disease network


Goh   K-I, Cusick ME, Valle D, Childs B, Vidal M, Barabási A-L (2007) Proc Natl   Acad Sci USA 104:8685-8690

Systems   biologists and physical scientists developed the human disease network (the human diseasome – top) from known gene-disease   relationships. The persuasive power of this work relies on visualisations   methods that graphically illustrate relationships between diseases and   disorders.Below: Subset of the human disease network illustrating the relationships between obesity, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, myocardial infarction and stroke

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