The 17th Contest of Body Artistry

by Alex Dally MacFarlane

The theme of the 17th Contest of Body Artistry was the history of Goldchair, a more serious choice than in previous years. It inspired a different style of art. One woman moulded her torso into a skin-black replica of early Goldchair, sleeker by far than its current shape: more like a commercial craft, capable of atmospheric entry and exit, than a city always wandering between the worlds. A man walked around the exhibition hall with his blackened palms held out, and directed the curious to use the magnifier he wore like a necklace. Through it, they read the details of Goldchair’s construction in scrolling, minute ink. Two children tied the individual strands of their hair together into a two-dimensional schematic of one of Goldchair’s habitation levels.

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In the preceding months, the usual commentators on the contest complained unendingly about the theme. This narrows the scope, they said. This enforces un-necessary restrictions on art. Some chose not to attend, already speculating on the 18th Contest’s theme, feigning — or truthfully stating — no interest in the outcome of the 17th.

Some — a few — noted that more long-term residents of Goldchair joined the list of participants than in any contest but the very first.

The announcement of the judges’ names caused further outcry. All six were long-term residents of Goldchair — and, worse, while two had been heavily involved in the contest for years, the other four had no claim to expertise beyond attending late viewings of past contests.

Just because the competition is held in Goldchair does not mean it has to be about Goldchair, the usual commentators said. It has never been about a specific place before. And: These people know nothing about judging.

The 17th Contest went ahead, uninterested in these complaints.

On its first day, the judges and privileged advance viewers walked among the contestants, dressed in plain grey to provide no distraction from the art of the bodies.

Afterwards, the judges reported the difficulty and pleasure of their work.

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Third Place

That Ashah Pear received an award surprised almost no one — but his artistry caused some confusion among the usual commentators. Where, they asked, is Ashah Pear the glittering? Ashah Pear the sublimely irreal? This is just a hollow man.

As a professional body artist, Ashah Pear long ago removed the organs of his torso, replacing them with units in his thighs. Little between his hips and collarbones is natural. Even less than usual was on display at this contest — for Ashah Pear hollowed himself out, and walked around the exhibition hall in his typical combat trousers and boots and sleeves, daring people to put their heads inside him, like a knife into a sheath.

“Listen,” he said as each person rested their chin on a softness almost like flesh.

Proclamations of love in every language and dialect spoken in Goldchair whispered from exactly 67 audio-nodes.

One judge, who had believed herself to be her language’s sole remaining speaker, filled the hollow of Ashah Pear with her tears.

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Second Place

Ah yes, the usual commentators said and wrote on seeing Tiri, this is more appropriate.

She parted her coat, black covered with star-dots of white, to reveal an interactive game across her body, a visual cacophony of Goldchair’s exterior: docked craft, glass-walled corridors emerging from the city’s side like bulging veins, myriad metal extensions upon the city’s originally sleek shape, miniature hand-rails and the bright pink bands of magnetised strips. The game supported up to four players. The holographic avatars could traverse the exterior of Tiri-as-Goldchair, fulfilling quests issued from the non-playable characters in her left armpit and on her right heel. There did not seem to be an end goal.

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Winner

This is a contest known for granting the top prize to extravagance: to bodies changed beyond recognition, re-imagining humanity, re-shaping it, sign-posting any number of possible futures.

This is not body artistry, the usual commentators said. Anyone could do this.

Dari Li stepped into the hall naked, her body shaped in curves that might be her own, and bare of ornament or ink — except for the ten small screens rooted in her brown skin. Dark, they looked like uncommon birth marks. Dari Li posed, one hand on her hip, and blinked eyelids like switches. The screens lit up. They played a collection of archival clips: the launch of Goldchair’s major components, the various stages of its assembly in orbit — the vast network of engines that keep the wandering city lit and oxygenated and subject to precisely 1g, the habitation areas, the water recycling and waste processing systems, the vast agricultural modules, the internal and external communications arrays — and the scenes of joy as it was cut free from the world; and, in-between those momentous events, the screens showed a young woman repairing a shuttle, a family of three embracing, a man walking across Goldchair’s exterior on a routine maintenance check, a woman painting the walls of her new shop, and more, each one glowing on Dari Li’s body. At least two hundred clips played, stored in the screens’ shared memory.

People gathered around Dari Li. Whether she stood talking to a judge or retreated to the side of the hall for a drink, they yearned to see her screens. For a long time she lay on a table, and people crowded around her: silent, watching, as the screens played their history.

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The theme for the 18th Contest of Body Artistry is currently the subject of intense debate.

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