What Happens When a Turner Prize–Nominated Artist Leads an Insanity Workout

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd's performance art take on the fitness craze leaves no room for hangovers.

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Sep 25 2015, 6:00pm

All photos by Steph Wilson

I am so hungover it feels like my soul is about to leave my body. I repeat this to myself as I descend the steps to the ICA in London, also known as the Institute of Contemporary Arts. My soul. It's about to leave my body. I have spent all night drinking supermarket tequila in a Vietnamese restaurant, and my internal organs feel like a scrunched-up wad of paper that a small child is now stamping on, repeatedly. And now, I am going to exercise.

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Fig-2 is the ancestor of fig-1, a "radical exhibitions program" that first showed Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry, and other seminal enfants terribles of the English art scene. Now, 15 years later, it's back, with 50 weeks of artist-curated shows set up in the ICA's white-walled studio space. One artist has exhibited Mexican-influenced rugs; another has created an installation inspired by a lichen-covered branch. Instead of these lovely, soothingly tactile-sounding options, I have ended up attending the show where audiences are made to attend gym classes. Insanity workouts, to be precise.

"The art of supermarkets, convenience stores, and so on have been explored," Guillame Vandame, the co-curator of the week, says, "but no one's really explored the art of going to the gym. There have been references to the body throughout modern art and art history, but this context especially is unique."

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd's fitness crew stretches it out. Photo by Steph Wilson

Vandame and his collaborator, Josh Wright, invite artists and gym instructors to reinterpret fitness trends for an art-going audience. The Turner Prize–nominated artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd—who is a woman and was formerly known as Spartacus Chetwynd—is in charge of tonight's class, which will reinterpreting an Insanity workout. If you are already finding this hard to keep up with, consider doing it on the worst hangover of your life.

Insanity (or INSANITY®, as it's described on its website) is a workout regime, £99.99 DVD boxset, and lifestyle rolled into one. In its promotional video, astounded men and women cry, "You'd have to be INSANE to do this!" "Oh my God," says one man, looking down in delight at his ripped abs, "This is INSANE." There are Reddit threads in which Insanity aficionados ask each other, "Vomit-y feeling after working out... What does that mean and how bad is it?"

'Are you crying?' our photographer asks, concerned.

"It's the most popular class by far!" Angelica, the PR for fig-2, informs me at the entrance of the ICA. "There will be an open door in case you need to leave suddenly," she adds helpfully.

Wright & Vandame, as they call themselves, radiate good health and cheer as people nervously enter the ICA studio. The two curators look like the kind of people you encounter at Burning Man; they are people with playa names like Sparklepony and Moonshine. Vandame is wearing very small, silver American Apparel gym shorts and looking alarmingly alert. Chetwynd has brought a crew of sinewy performance artist friends, who are dressed in all-white rave fitness gear and are warming up with deep lunges. There is a beatboxer making drum machine sounds through a mic. A DJ is standing behind a laptop playing loud, generic house.

The strip-lit room is very, very bright.

"Are you crying?" our photographer asks, concerned.

Stretching in the studio. Photo by Steph Wilson

Some visitors have come prepared in exercise leggings and sneakers. I am in a T-shirt that has a tomato sauce stain from my breakfast sausage sandwich. As we unroll our yoga mats, I wistfully remember the time I left a gym class halfway through to drink a can of Coke and then hid in the bathroom until I was sure the instructor had finished the ab workout.

"Good evening, and welcome to our gym!" Vandame shouts. "We are the artists for the 38th week of fig-2. Everything you see around you is a gym and art piece." He points to a fitness ball on the floor, which on closer inspection turns out to be made of concrete. "Marvin's workout will transcend your body. By the end of tonight you will not be the same person."

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Chetwynd, who is dressed in a bodysuit printed with rainbows, ambles onto her mat. "I want to tell you about an Al Jazeera documentary I watched," she says. I immediately flash back to the last Al Jazeera article I read, which was about waterboarding. "It's called Who Owns Yoga."

She paces up and down her yoga mat. "Yoga's had a really strange journey," she says, describing how the exercise form has mutated from its original roots in India into clubbing yoga (yoga with dance music) and voga (yoga with voguing poses). "The sun salutation is only a hundred years old and has input from Swedish fitness and British military drills!" Chetwynd turns to us, solemnly. "Keep those ideas in your head."

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd with her exercise mat. Photo by Steph Wilson

The class launches into an easy warm-up, rolling our shoulders and arms back and rotating our ankles. I remain suspicious. "Natalie wants to do something," says Chetwynd, wheeling around to a petite goth girl with pale skin and shaved eyebrows. Goth Natalie giggles loudly and demonstrates a move that looks like a dog paddling vigorously through water. It involves about twice as many limbs as I currently feel capable of moving. I hate Goth Natalie.

"Everyone OK?" Chetwynd asks. We now move into the actual INSANITY® part of the workout: the Fit Test. According to Chetwynd, all Insanity devotees must complete the Fit Test before they start truly attaining INSANITY®. We are told to do as many reps as we can of each exercise and record it on paper. The beatboxer launches into a rhythm from an M.I.A. song. I feel a headache approaching.

"These are called Power Jacks," Chetwynd shouts, consulting the DVD liner notes from the Insanity boxset. "Go!" The room explodes into star jumps and hollering. At the front of the room, Wright & Vandame scream motivational slogans and INSANITY® mottos. "You're beautiful! I love you!" Vandame screeches over "Bucky Done Gun." "DON'T STOP WHEN YOU'RE TIRED, STOP WHEN YOU'RE DONE!" Wright howls.

"STOP IF YOU FEEL PAIN." Photo by Steph Wilson

"You could not be more perfect or amazing!" shrieks one of Chetwynd's friends, a girl in gold Nike trainers. She leans so far into a jump squat that she almost falls over onto my mat.

"My feet smell," someone whimpers in the back of the class. "SMELLY BUT GORGEOUS!" Vandame bellows. The beatboxer has now moved past early-2000s indie dance and gone straight into psy-trance beats. Now we are doing Globe Jumps, which look exactly like Power Jacks but are ten times more painful, because we have already done the Power Jacks.

"I love you," Vandame says to the room, utterly sincere. "I believe in you." (Later on, he tells me, "People my whole life ask me if I'm taking something. I'm just a naturally energetic person.")

By the time we steamroll through five of the exercises, I am laughing hysterically and smiling so hard that my face hurts. A girl wearing what appears to be a fringed lampshade on her head has backward-rolled into someone. There is a 70-something-year-old man in a rainbow tie-dye T-shirt who looks like he may be having the time of his life, or going into cardiac arrest. "STOP IF YOU FEEL PAIN," a woman with braids screams at me.

The whole studio smells like the inside of a dead person's sneakers. Photo by Steph Wilson

"I feel like that's enough of a workout," Chetwynd says. The whole studio smells like the inside of a dead person's sneakers. "Or do you want to continue until you die?" She looks like she has been dragged through a hedge backwards, and her homemade jumpsuit looks like it is about to split apart at the seams. I feel, miraculously, OK. I feel more than OK. I feel great.

As people filter out of the room, ecstatic but sweaty, I tell Chetwynd about my hangover—it seems to have miraculously evaporated. "Did you join in? That's a really good result!" she replies. The White Review once described Chetwynd as a "legend among South East London's art community," where she lived in a nudist art commune and made alternatively hilarious and insightful theatrical pieces, including a puppet show that reimagined Jabba the Hutt as a silver-tongued Lothario and The Walk to Dover, in which Chetwynd and her friends embarked on seven-day walk to the coast of England while dressed as Dickensian orphans. All of Chetwynd's art has the manner of a hammy improvisation piece about to go horribly wrong.

In a weird way I make art by running down a hill, and it seems to work.

"[Insanity] was totally spontaneous," Chetwynd says, explaining that she first saw the workout while watching the Shopping Channel. "I opened the [DVD] box yesterday at 3 PM, I watched the documentaries on Al Jazeera yesterday evening, and I looked at the notes on the plane coming down. In a weird way I make art by running down a hill, and it seems to work—it stops you from overworking things."

"I just was really excited by [Insanity]; it's got some weird self-irony within it," she adds. "The title shows that they are conscious that it's a step too far... I'm attracted to the over-ambitious. Insanity is insane. It's perfect!"

I start feeling sick as soon as I leave the ICA.

Wright & Vandame's run at the fig-2 finishes this Sunday. Fig-2 continues at the ICA until the end of the year. For more information, visit the ICA website here.