Sandy Riddell, one of the top female bodybuilders in the world, was on the cover of the October 1990 edition of Ironman magazine. There she demonstrated a fierce, ironical contradiction between the feminine and masculine. The Iron-MAN on the cover is a WOMAN. As the audience, we are fully aware of the irony presented, since the conjunction of sexual identities, namely femininity and muscularity, is an ironical connection (Mansfield and McGinn, 1993: 49-50). In this case, Sandy Riddell personified contradiction and irony, which we will discuss again later.
In this essay, we will attempt to understand irony as no more than a rhetorical figure at a certain level of signification with certain characteristics. The characteristics I’m referring to is not what Robert Scholes (1982: 76-77) expounded through his pragmatic criterions dependent on situational degree or based on communication contexts, rather a configuration of signs which in one hand directs meanings to one pole, and on the other hand directs them to a contrasting pole.
In other words, irony is produced from a contradiction of meanings. This contradiction is such that it implies or elicits comical and playful impressions, mocking, taunting, and subtly “pinching” the audience, spectator, reader or other recipients of the message. The basic structure of irony is clearly visible from these contrasts of meaning, for example between said and done, expectations and reality, intentions and outcomes, thoughts and appearances. To recognize irony we only need to glance at the meanings and contexts, i.e., the surrounding signs, but the meaning is itself contradictory.
I intentionally chose two Masriadis with configurations of visual signs that are relatively less complex in an attempt to be concise in demonstrating how an ironical masculine code in a bodyscape works, while simultaneously giving it meaning without the burden of any extra-textual data about the artist’s biographical experience. Following the comprehension of Mirzoeff (1995: 3), bodies in artworks such as Masriadi’s has to be distinguished from the flesh and bones they try to “copy”. In such a representation, the bodies do not exist as bodies, but as signs which meanings are not fully controlled by the artist. From this point on, we will refer to these complex of signs as bodyscapes.
The subject matter of both paintings I chose are sports, a thematic choice that is rather unusual throughout Indonesia’s art history. First is “My Body is Not Big Enough” (2001, acrylic on canvas, 144 x 199 cm), which portrays a male bodybuilder posing as if in an exhibition or competition; while the second is “Thick Skinned” (2008, acrylic on canvas, 300 x 200 cm), which depicts a person who in my mind is recognizable as the boxer Mike Tyson.
My Body is Not Big Enough
Imagine we are watching a bodybuilder on stage in an exhibition or competition. The body he is showing off is categorically not only a dominating body, but also a disciplined body (Morgan, 1993: 75 and 80). Disciplined, because only through diligent practice and great effort can someone have such a body type. This sort of training is intended to fulfill certain criteria related to size and musculature. Dominating, because here masculine power is readily exposed through posture and overall physical appearance.
Holding his breath and straining hard, both eyes bulging, our athlete takes the front lat spread pose displaying the powerful undulations of his muscles. Yes, these are the predominant visual signs composing the bodyscape in Masriadi’s “My Body is Not Big Enough” (2001). The extraordinary structures of his abdominals, pectorals, deltoids and biceps—hyperbolically drawn—have long represented the traditional characteristics of masculinity. This muscular body represents a prime male identity (perceived) as ideal. Other visual signs are then smartly added to this body to generate an irony.
The first is a spoon and fork. We understood that these are a pair of culinary technologies which, among others, are used to facilitate eating. They are a metonymic sign representing specific domains of activity, particularly consumption of food and gastronomy in general. Cooking, in day-to-day gendered segregation, is a female world, a predisposedly feminine sphere of work (though many professional cooks are male). So, imagine the irony when a muscular figure representing masculinity is holding utensils tendentiously categorized as feminine technology.
Secondly, we run into the same irony when we see the briefs he’s wearing. They are red, a color diction that is almost never selected or prioritized to wrap a masculine body. This visual irony, compounded by the title’s presence as a linguistic message, gets a re-emphasis. The title serves to relay or transmit the voice of the athlete, who with such a big body, was still complaining that his body is not big enough. How ironic!
It seems that we are already familiar with the owner of this muscular body, Mike Tyson, a legendary boxer famous for his ferocity in the ring, known in Indonesia as “Concrete Neck.” (compare this with another Masriadi painting, “Masriadi is The Winner”, mixed media on canvas, 1999). This recognition is clearly based solely on self-identity markers which we can easily identify through the similarity of his face with that of a human called Tyson. However, the main interest of this painting is not on the figure’s identity, but how Tyson’s body is treated using special visual and linguistic tactics.
On the dimension of visual signs this dark-skinned body with gleaming muscular textures is shown standing and staring at us, the audience facing the painting. Tyson’s eyes are challenging us to fight. If we scan from top to bottom like a camera tilting down, the next feature is how his hands are shackled. He is handcuffed. Tyson’s hands are placed just in front of and thus covering his genitals. Continuing down, [what a surprise!] we see his underwear slipped down to his ankles.
An even more surprising visual sign is the pattern and color on his underwear: red flowers on a pink background. Here we can perceive a contradictory visual message. In one hand, the sharp and challenging gaze and muscular body offers meanings of rage and machismo, dominating masculinity; on the other hand, the shackled hands, nakedness, and slipped down underwear put forward interpretations of helplessness, embarrassment, and lack of self-esteem. The contrast of these meanings are underlined as an ironical connotation when Masriadi playfully added the attribute deviating from the masculine body code, namely the previously mentioned underwear. Flowers, red and pink, is a misaligned, nay, opposite, visual convention with the dominant codes of masculinity. It is clear as day that the vocal point of this painting is there, on the underwear, so Tyson’s mighty figure underwent femininization.
The comical visual irony gains more emphasis when Masriadi put two linguistic messages on his painting, Accustomed to being stripped! (text) and Thick-skinned (title). In other words, this embarrassing nakedness is not new, and the figure we are talking to is a figure without shame—in Indonesian idiom called muka badak (literally rhino-faced) or kulit badak (literally rhino-skinned), which means thick-skinned. In other words, the linguistic messages are used to bind meanings, directing our interpretation to the ironical dimension of meaning.
Many of Masriadi’s works use sports as the thematic domain, including athletics, swimming, football, boxing, wrestling bodybuilding, and arm wrestling. With this thematic choice, it made a lot of sense for Masriadi to freely explore bodyscapes, especially the masculine body type. Let alone Wicaksono Adi (2008: 10; in Sabapathy, 2010: 36) who indicated that Masriadi’s irony might connect with capitalistic meanings by saying “He does this by processing visual cues from mass media culture and adding criticism, parody and capitalist irony;” I’m not even sure how far this ironical masculine body code, as shown in only two paintings, also operates in other Masriadis.
Nevertheless, at least we’ve been able to formulate how the code works. First, visual signs related to the object of masculine bodies in Masriadi paintings can have ironic meanings when put next to certain contradictory visual attributes, for example the spoon and fork, red briefs or alongside pink with floral patterns. The ironic meanings can be presented through the contradiction of visual signs with linguistic signs, whether in the form of a title or text notched on the canvas.
- Mansfield, Alan and Barbara McGinn. “Pumping Irony: The Muscular and the Feminine,” in Sue Scott and David Morgan (eds.), Body Matters: Essays on the Sociology of the Body. London: The Falmer Press, 1993. Pages 49-68.
- Mirzoeff, Nicholas. Bodyscape: Art, Modernity and Ideal Figure. London dan NY: Routledge, 1995.
- Morgan, David. “You Too can Have A Body Like Mine: Reflection on the Male Body and Masculinities,” in Sue Scott and David Morgan (eds.), Body Matters: Essays on the Sociology of the Body. London: The Falmer Press, 1993. Pages 69-88.
- Sabapathy, T.K. Nyoman Masriadi: Reconfiguring the Body. Singapore: Gajah Gallery, 2010.
- Scholes, Robert. Semiotics and Interpretation. New Haven dan London: Yale University Press, 1982.
Kris Budiman is a writer and literary critic. He holds a doctorate in media and cultural studies. His writings have been published in various books, newspapers, and journals. He teaches anthropology, semiotics and visual culture studies in Faculty of Social and Political Science of Atma Jaya University, Yogyakarta; Graduate Program of The Indonesian Institute of The Arts, Yogyakarta; and Graduate School of Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta.