I always liked sport – and in many ways I’ve grown to love it. My peers, those who are artistically inclined, have never liked hearing this. School and adolescence did a number on the jocks and the quirks whose disdain for one another is symptomatic of this inbred social divide, growing in adulthood to a deeper, more political guise of liberalism (art) vs. imperialism (sport). It comes as no surprise that garbage art and football fandom is the butt of less civil jibes regarding pot-smokers and testosterone juicers; the list of stereotypes is lengthy.
It would be pacifying to criticise and attempt to settle some differences, but I won’t be hosting my concurrent friendship groups anytime soon. This present article is concerned with the artistic possibility of the athletic gesture freed of concerns relating to commercial hang-ups of popular sports culture and entertainment. Sport is mostly, to art, a kitschy parade of quasi-religious and pseudo-masculine enactments. Clearly there are challenges in placing the two adjacent, not least for the symbology of war and the counter-complexity of sports rhetoric. But this itself has served as a backdrop to the work of many contemporary artists; the aesthetics of sport being deployed to address gender roles, sexuality and politics.
Sport has served a representative function, therefore, that being an image of a blunt instrument. In the muscled and athletic form we have the incarnation of intent – the desire for sexual allure, power and size, control – much art pertaining to the hyper-masculine and fascistic nature of the sculpted body has delivered a critique of its egotism and illiberalism. Robert Mapplethorpe represents the pinnacle of the athletic reclamation for artistic end. His self-chosen subjects are gym-hardened males, whose bodies hang in the balance between sex object and art object. A striking photograph of Arnold Schwarzenegger (1976) places the bodybuilder lost behind a patterned drapery, the perspectival effect of which is to cast him backwards in the frame and diminish him. The image acutely dispenses with the shallowness of the body-aesthetic, the classical ideal, and the arch-myth of power through self-discipline and suffering; nothing more than a decorous veil.
Contemporary artists have tackled the pop-culture giant of mass sports since television gave rise to its phenomenon. Matthew Barney is a self-proclaimed former athlete – of the American Football ilk – and his early drawing restraints, right through to The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) series of films, are complex, layered manifestations of a struggle to achieve an outcome; an abstracted sports match. Jonas Wood has depicted the tennis courts of many a hallowed turf devoid of players and spectators – casting aspersions on the tournaments commercial framework, highlighting the sterility of the stadia and the Pop reality of the sports rhetoric. Eddie Peake and Gabriel Orozco have both used the athletic performance, the former with nude football matches and the latter inviting gallery-goers to play Ping-Pong with a twist. We can neatly unpack this stuff because it taps into the sports cliché and mythology that is a long loose end to pick at, and unravels with great ease. It is not that sport is unfairly picked on – the clichés are generally true – but that this kind of work seems to just, miss the point.
There is a quandary in sport and art that is in evidence in the most abbreviated version of the two acts. Allow me a pleasant segue: early Homo sapiens of the Upper Paleolithic (around 30,000 years ago) were the first hominids to exhibit the cognitive and motor functional capacity to use mark-making with elementary pigments to achieve a representative image. For prehistoric man, where survival was the imperative, a picture actively removes the essentiality of the object, the drawing of a bison, for example, renounces utility in favour of novelty. The neurological backflips that are in evidence here are breathtaking, and it must’ve come with a level of bafflement from fellow settlers…
It lays bare a fundamental paradox to art making, but I will posit that additional instances of obfuscating behaviour in pre-modern man will stretch to include the athletic act. Would that hunting, scavenging and foraging serve the crucial purpose, both the artistic and athletic represent a veto of the survival instinct and the pursuit of something delineated from objective existence. When the first spear was cast for spectacle rather than survival, in the vein of expression rather than intention, the rush of phenylethylamine and endorphins began a soft addiction for the physically expressive gesture – of course, the neurobiological effect of exercise no doubt played its part in making exertion appealing – but millennia on and the psychological and emotional investment into the athletic performance is greater than ever.
A shared truth about the athletic and the artistic act is that, in their element, they are of the same religiosity. Each performance requires a faith of Kierkegaardian fervour, that committal to a single gesture that transpires to demonstrate a rupture with the precedent – the work of art and the athletic movement are events that can allow an audience to experience a tangible sublime. Having joined artists in studios and athletes on training camps, it is not hard to see the worship and faith in action. What does come to light here is the sincerity of art and sport that makes them fertile ground for substantiations of the abstract – the gestures do not attempt to be anything more than they are. What they are, above anything else, is rudimentary.
Whilst period-defining artwork and championship-winning performances account for many iconic moments, these are rarely of the quality that could be considered religious. Usain Bolt’s breaking of the 100m and 200m world records repeatedly and on cue is a prime example of this. One of the key aspects in the nature of these experiences is that they are at once understated and monumental. By conditional misfortune, great artworks and performances can evade modesty, and thereby have a much higher barrier to cross in order to catalyse a transcendent event.
The minutiae that can serve as triggers are fleeting and tender: a certain dexterity of paint and condition of colour observable in a painting, the arc of a ball across court, the motion of one athlete’s body to avoid another, or the delicate rendering of a torso in stone. Like touching a hot stove, you are only convinced something has occurred post-event, and the vexing sensation of neuro-intervention lingers long enough to imbalance the conviction of perception. And in the same way we make look at a work of Velasquez, Albert Oehlen, Joan Mitchell, Phillip Guston or Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, in quietly eruptive dissolution on the smallest scale, the image breaks down to reveal the brief interventions of the human hand. On this level, the relationship between performer and spectator is entirely corporeal, and the primitive negotiations at play within the artistic and athletic begin to flash and shimmer.
In a recent exhibition at Thomas Dane Gallery, on view was a selection of Paul Pfeiffer’s video works spanning from 1999 to the present day. The artworks, which pay homage to Francis Bacon and the high renaissance, are the closest assimilations I have found of the artistic and athletic act. Pfeiffer’s Caryatids series (2003-present) seamlessly loops as we gaze distracted by the spectacle of violence, each one singling out and isolating in shameful mode the punishment of a boxer mid-fight. Through a rotoscoping process (copy and paste for film) the artist has removed the opponent entirely, subjecting the remaining athlete to a kind of humiliation. It is not until several repetitions have passed that the recurring footage begins to feel denser; the slow-motion effect draws itself longer, the ceaseless imagery is more eye-twitchingly provoking, until the videos hum with a voice that seems to say, “focus…focus.” In isolating the sports slowmo footage that is so crucial to its television entertainment, Pfeiffer’s work pinpoints this search for something, fawning and trawling through the glorified money-shots of Pacquiao taking a right hook to the chin, or a Federer forehand down the line, or the panning shot of the athletes face pre-competition. It sieves through the mythos to find the heart of the gesture in the tiniest details.
This stuff is an attempt to move us, to enact the compelling alter-reality of our sports watching. Because the excessive frame rate graphic is the nearest physical tangent to the divine athletic crescendo – the nexus of transience and the concrete – where the human appears unidentifiable. These are micro-doses of creation, where the vacated human form is a medium for the infinite gesture, borne out of sheer abjection. The essence of the artistic and athletic act is not the heavenly heights that the movements are or even aspire to be, therefore, but a sudden glitch, absolute freedom through the prison of the body that is sub-infinite – it echoes in our chest cavities not for its closeness to God, but for its stake in our silence.
Oliver Morris Jones
Oliver Morris Jones is an independent writer and artist, living in London. He has worked for auction houses and public art institutions, in addition to indulging his love of sports. His practice has been a self-referential dissection of themes of masculinity through painting, sculpture and photography. A graduate of the University of Brighton (2015), he will be studying towards his MA in Contemporary Art at the Sotheby’s Institute from September.
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All images courtesy of Oliver Morris Jones