Vera & Donald Blinken Open Society Archives
Bodies in Formation
Salvo. With a deafening roar fourteen thousand soldiers ran through the gates of Prague's Strahov Stadium, the biggest stadium in the world, covering an area larger than eight football pitches. They launched into a performance which drew gasps of admiration - and sometimes fright - from the crowd. The musical accompaniment built up to a crescendo as a huge five-cornered star formed from their bodies with the corners spreading from the stands on one side to those on the other. In the middle of the star a soldier climbed the pyramid of human bodies. He spread his arms wide, raised his eyes to the sky and from the Strahov Stadium, the "hymn of the working people" - the Internationale - sounded over Prague.
Performances such as these were typical of the Czechoslovak Spartakiads. They were some of the most spectacular mass gymnastic displays ever held, as the ritual of synchronized mass movements played an important role in all communist countries. The Turn- und Sportfests in GDR, mass gymnastics displays in front of the tribune of the Politburo during the May Day parades in Red Square in the Soviet Union or at Felvonulasi Square in Hungary were all a variation on the same theme.
More than a hundred photographs, including those taken by such names as Alexander Rodchenko, Sandor Bojár or World Press Photo winner Zdenek Lhoták, accompanied by secret archival material, will show both the striking mass gymnastic performances themselves and the techniques of manipulation and choreography behind them. As mass gymnastics was not a communist invention, rare archival footage never shown before, such as a gymnastic display in front of the Czar and his family in 1913, will be shown to demonstrate the roots of this extraordinary phenomenon. Next to the original posters and propaganda materials, the visitor will have the opportunity to see exercise tools and equipment, such as the wooden hammers used by communist gymnasts at the first Prague Spartakiad in 1921 to express "the determination of revolutionary workers to fight under the leadership of the party to overthrow capitalist supremacy." Finally, standing on the special grid covering the floor of the Galeria Centralis, the visitor is given a chance to experience personally the dehumanizing effect of mass gymnastic performances, when a human being was reduced to the abstract intersection of x and y axes.
With the help of explanatory texts and the exhibition catalogue, the visitor will be able to see behind the attractive visual material. The exhibition touches on a number of important theoretical issues, starting with Foucault's disciplinary society, followed by semiotic ritual analysis, and the question of legitimisation and visual representation. Most importantly, it analyses the relationship between mass bodies and power. The body alone is the most powerful metaphor for life and its meaning; multiplied bodies in mass gymnastic displays are in the same way a metaphor for the ideal society and its leadership. The communist regimes could not miss the opportunity to use the enormous symbolic potential of mass gymnastic performances. They transformed the key concepts that the performances proffered - strength, youth, beauty and discipline - into symbols of a strong, young, beautiful and disciplined socialist society. The coordinated movements of the gymnasts served as a final proof of "the readiness of the people to fulfill the wise and courageous plans of the leadership".