In our latest interview, Britain Uncovered is speaking with interdisciplinary contemporary fine artist, Alison Dollery! In addition to discussing the artist’s recent ‘Manufactured Body’ exhibition, we’re focusing on why Alison has chosen to use her body as a canvas, the ways her weight loss has impacted her work, the challenges that come with featuring her body so prominently in her creations, her experience as a life model, and more!
Britain Uncovered: Hi Alison! To start with, could you kindly explain a little bit about how the Manufactured Body project first came about, along with what you were initially seeking to achieve when you first started work on it all the way back in 2017?
Alison: It started as a cathartic response in artwork to losing ten stone in weight. I used my art practice to document what was happening to my body, how it was transforming, and how I was experiencing it.
Through real-life experiences and responses to my artwork, I became hyper-aware of how society responds to weight loss and weight gain – specifically noticing how differently you are treated by how your body looks. My work has always used my body as the medium to depict an actual living painting, or what I call ‘My Body as a Canvas’. I wanted to continually push what drawing, painting and performance can be and transform it via the artist’s body.
BU: Why did you feel as though the body would make for a good focal point for your projects, and in what ways were you seeking to explore it through your work?
Alison: I wanted to document everything I was experiencing. At the time, I wasn’t aware of any other artist documenting extreme weight loss from a medical perspective, or who was using their own body as the painting/canvas while incorporating philosophy and art theory into the practice using research approaches.
BU: You mentioned in the synopsis for the exhibition that the project concerns the artist's “Lived experience of extreme weight loss and what has been manufactured into our bodies' materiality and socially”. Could you possibly expand on this notion and reveal to us some of your thoughts and feelings in relation to this?
Alison: The lived experience element is essential as I represent my narrative and experience, and I believe everyone’s experience of this subject is very different.
I am interested in the authenticity of lived experiences and voices representing someone’s medical illness or body type (and shape). I have had and lived every body size, from a size eight through to a size 26. It’s a unique perspective on understanding how the body experiences the world, how we move in space and place, and how others treat you based on your appearance. The trajectory of this scale is extreme, and I have experienced anorexic symptoms and morbid obesity.
Our bodies are deeply affected by our medical care, environments, access to health resources and education and psychological states. I have been recording all of this in academic research and visual artworks.
Equally, I noticed trends in body positivity emerging during the pandemic after I started my project, and there appeared to be a shift in public thinking – potentially because of social media and a revolt against the perfect image of the body (or bodies filtered to perfection) being shown.
I specifically use my body as it is the most authentic material to represent the subject and research. It’s an embodied experience and the material I understand the most. How can I manipulate my skin and flesh to portray different materiality and body images?
BU: How important was it for you to tackle body image issues via this project, and would you say that your attitudes and perspectives towards the body have changed in any way since you first started work on Manufactured Body?
Alison: Great question. Yes, firstly, it was purely about handling and representing obesity discrimination. However, the issue is highly complex, with a multitude of different research and opinions on what ‘fat’ or ‘obesity’ is or how it should be classified, considering fat activism. My weight loss was for medical reasons, and I underwent surgery to regain my health. I found myself under what I describe as the ‘bariatric gaze’ (people intensely watching as you lose weight). However, I was no longer obese, so my voice shifted towards focusing on self-care and how we categorise our material bodies and relate to ourselves, along with the related effects on our identities. Alongside this, I posed the question, “What does the future hold for our bodies?” This is where my research on the mutations of the body, alienation and the posthuman is represented at the exhibition.
Then there is a debate about nudity and the body being seen as sexual. My work shows my nude body and parts of my body from my perspective and experience. It shows the texture of my flesh, the real material of my body. It subverts the stereotype of a portrait painted by a man or another person; and because the work uses the actual human living body, it brings further dynamics around representation and the use of the artist’s body.
In relation to contemporary art, I have documented every exhibition and event that has related to or been influenced by the subject of body image and identity from before the start of the project. The first exhibition I visited was Botticelli Reimagined at the V&A Museum in 2016. In contrast, more recently, the most compelling and relevant exhibition to my practice was Carolee Schneemann’s event at the Barbican in 2022.
Schneemann pioneered using the body as a material in art practice when creating her work back in the 1960s – which was delivered through feminist performance arts – and it’s just as pioneering today as it was back then. Her work is not about body weight specifically, but it again questions the space between the artist using their own body and representing others.
BU: How would you evaluate your own levels of body confidence over the years, and has being in this space, where you’ve focused so intently on your own body during the creation of all of this work, had an impact on you or shifted your thoughts and feelings towards the way you view your body?
Alison: I have grown confident in using my body as the material; it has been a process of acceptance of my body, and this is a strong narrative at the exhibition. Equally, seeing how others respond positively and relate their body and experiences to the work motivates me. I understand that everyone feels like their bodies do not fit in somewhere or somehow, and we are all alienated in some way.
BU: Do you feel that we all, as a society, need to be having more open and honest conversations about bodies and body image – and if so, do you feel Manufactured Body has been able to help facilitate these types of discussions? Was this one of the aims of the project, or simply a happy by-product?
Alison: The work has been curated within the exhibition format to encourage these conversations.
Each room has a slightly different theme, to come at the subject from a different viewpoint, and you can see my body confidence growing through the exhibition – from the moment of printing the body (in the My Dirty Body installation, designing the body) and then the celebration of me continually representing my own body. I found that the audience goes on the journey themselves.
The other more academic aim is understanding society as a social sculpture, and the belief that sculpting my own body can create these sculptures in society.
BU: Some of the attendees at the exhibition seemed a little surprised that you were the one who was actually featured in the images and artwork on display! Did you ever have any reservations about putting yourself at the centre of the project like this, or was this actually a really crucial component?
Alison: It’s very difficult to do, to use your own body and become so exposed. However, it was crucial in showing our bodies' transformative power and my narrative. Equally, I enjoy the viewer questioning the space between what is considered a traditional sculpture and my manufactured sculpture, which is my natural body (versus what is a painting when my body is the canvas). Additionally, I only use art materials, not body paint, as there are significant safety concerns and I do not recommend this.
I refer to my body as the artist’s body and a manufactured sculpture, as I wouldn’t look how I look today if I hadn’t remade myself through surgery or self-care. “Manufactured” means to make in one’s hands.
My work is not photoshopped or digitally manipulated in any way. You are viewing a natural body photographed against a set I have made, or a suitable backdrop.
BU: How were you hoping viewers would react to seeing your creations for Manufactured Body, and do you feel that seeing the artwork you created will lead the viewer to think about and/or re-evaluate their own relationships with their bodies?
Alison: This is an integral part of the work. It evaluates their relationship to their bodies and other people’s bodies to start new conversations about how society handles the body differently.
BU: Several weeks before opening the exhibition, you also decided to pose nude at a local life drawing class – and many of the sketches created of you that day ended up featuring on the walls of your exhibition alongside all the other fantastic work that you showcased. What was your incentive for wanting to model nude for the project, and how did participation and the resulting sketches of you tie in with all the other work you had created for Manufactured Body? Had posing like this always been a part of the project since the very start?
Alison: I wanted to perform Becoming a Manufactured Sculpture live to capture the audience’s responses as a form of event documentation. With the exhibition in mind, I also wanted to include other local artists and allow them to exhibit their work. The original work made in 2019 couldn’t be performed live because of the pandemic.
Regarding my art as practice research, the life drawing event allowed me to see how other artists would respond to my body and narrative. The results and quality of the work immensely touched me. The event had fantastic feedback as a different experience in life drawing.
The bariatric body isn’t commonly discussed or included in contemporary art. To date, I have only found one reference to another artist who has publicly made art about their surgery and weight loss. The life drawing was the first time a bariatric body was used as a life drawing model (although I would love to hear from anyone with different research on this).
BU: Having never posed as a life model before, how did you feel in the lead-up to the session, and were you at all hesitant about baring all in such an environment? How did you go about preparing for it, and what were some of your thoughts, feelings and emotions during the time you spent posing for the class?
Alison: I focus on it as a piece of performance art; the mental agility to perform. However, I was working with Rachel Cowell, an extremely experienced life drawing teacher, and I, of course, had studied the positions of the body through my research and previous photoshoots of the Manufactured Sculpture. I used props such as a tape measure and held my loose skin (as I do in my drawings) to show what I call the ‘materiality reality’ of my body.
The event far exceeded my expectations. It allowed me to question where the artwork resides, in the body, the artist’s body, the narrative, the performance work and its resulting documentation. In my art practice, I describe it as ‘hybrid’ or ‘interdisciplinary’, as I am always thinking through, drawing or writing through my body.
BU: Did participation change the way you viewed your project, or the way you feel about your body – or both – and would you say that you feel more body confident having taken part in something of this nature?
Alison: I have been using my body through performance work for several years now. The body is a material in my practice, and I focus on the health of that materiality as being where the real confidence in my body now lies.
BU: Having now modelled for a life drawing class, do you feel it is something you would perhaps like to do again one day, and do you feel social nudity, and taking part in events like this, can ultimately help people to embrace their bodies and feel more comfortable in their own skin?
Alison: Potentially. Artists are so focused on colours, lines, textures and shapes, that they are the best type of people to allow this intimate relationship to view your body and aid a person in feeling confident. Although I think real confidence needs to come from within, as acceptance, rather than from external validation.
BU: Moving back to Manufactured Body as a whole, having worked on the project for the best part of six years, why did you feel that now was the right time to finally bring everything together and to create this exhibition with all of your fantastic work?
Alison: The exhibition was approximately only half of the work I have created. I frequently work in a place of research and investigation, and I am a naturally self-led learner and very inquisitive.
The exhibition was actually the third version of the Manufactured Body exhibition – the first taking place in 2021 and the second at the Hawth Theatre in Crawley in 2022. However, this was the most significant six-room space I have used. I am currently looking to take the exhibition to different locations. The work is very malleable, so I can transform any space with it. The exhibition grows in size every time I present it.
There were many curatorial challenges, especially working with a disused building that isn’t commonly used as an art space or for exhibitions. The space [a former restaurant] was manufactured as much as my body is.
I am very grateful for the experience and for working with other fantastic artists; it has become collaborative and participatory and shows how we can respect other people’s bodies. There was a period when I wasn’t ready to show the work, as it was so personal – but now I celebrate the work and the journey I have been on.
BU: Of all the art on show, which creations are you particularly proud of, and what can you tell us about the two pieces that are front and centre when visitors first enter the exhibition?
Alison: The Body as a Canvas series was first made in 2019. I was responding to a traditional oil painting I had made of my flaccid stomach in 2018, titled Deflated. The painting was unremarkable, yet very personal, and I wanted to develop that work in a non-traditional way. But how do you paint your own body, and how do you use your body for research? I initially made a video and captured film stills of the performance. The video showed me using my body as a canvas, and I have remade the work several times since, in different ways.
BU: Could you also share with us some insight into one of the smaller, experimental pieces on display named Body as a Drawing Tool / Becoming the Drawing?
Alison: This was a performance piece made in 2020 where I used my body to make the drawing; it combined performance drawing and embodied approaches to mapping the body physically and psychologically. I was exploring the material trace the body can leave, which included bodily fluids and imprints. I was naked when I did the work, and the drawing naturally transferred to my body; again, this time, my body, as a canvas, became part of the drawing. There is something special about the work when the artist’s body remains in it.
BU: Has Manufactured Bodies now reached its conclusion, and if so, will you continue to feature the body in your future works – or are you moving onto a different subject matter entirely?
Alison: Yes, I have four sketchbooks of ideas to move on from, alongside the research and feedback from the exhibition to consider. The work and project are very iterative, and exhibitions and workshops now change the scope and development of my practice. The work will always come back to the experience of the body. The material of my body is the medium and the material that I know the best – I have ownership over it, can push it, and can transform it to its limits.
BU: Finally, what would say is the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself and your body as a result of undertaking this project?
Alison: To take care of my body regardless of how it looks.
- To see more from Alison’s portfolio, and to keep tabs on her upcoming exhibitions, be sure to check out the artist's official website over at alisondollery.com. You can also follow Alison on Instagram via @alisondolleryartist, and on Facebook by clicking here. If you wish to read more about the Manufactured Body exhibition, you can find further details in our recent show preview.