I grew up playing sports. Day and night, all year round, switching from one sport to another. Team after team. The culture of athletics occupies a primacy in contemporary culture as it did in my youth. It is credited for providing a formative structure for youth to learn the lessons of life, the value of hard work and discipline, the importance of teamwork, and the rewards of exercise and good health. I participated in this culture from an early age and aside from the teachings of the game the experience revealed volumes about culture as a whole. I’m not sure if my teammates were as aware of the social and cultural revelations that were happening between us. Through sports I learned about homophobia, about extreme class difference, about gender roles and the constructs of race identity- all by the time I was 12. My experiences playing sports greatly impacted who I am today, and on a much smaller note would contribute to the excitement I felt about an exhibition that revolves around sports.
This was my first trip to the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and it took me a second to get an idea of the galleries layout. It’s an awkward space, consisting of three floors of small exhibition space. I think the size of the show, in terms of the scale of the works and the amount of works included, was rather constricted due to the galleries layout. I found myself combing through the artist registry in my head, searching for works or artists who were not featured in the show. Admittedly, my first impression of the exhibition left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. This would eventually change.
I have a new favorite. In Julie Henry’s two channel video projection Going Down collective human emotion is palpable. The piece depicts the crowds of two rival British football clubs, each occupying their own frame, positioned facing each other on adjacent gallery walls. Both crowds are electric and anxious, the heads in both screens face the same direction holding expressions of intense focus and expectation. We as viewers are situated in between the opposing groups, and often become subject to a threatening glance thrown by a spectator. The sound of the piece is equally immersive, as the volume of the crowd raises it informs us of a crucial moment in the invisible game. One of the teams scores polarizing the emotions of the two crowds. Its beautiful. The elated victors celebrate by hugging and jumping, they make eye contact with each other, they share in the victory be acknowledging each other. They become united. On the opposite side, we witness the collapse. No one touches each other or turns to their neighbor for solace. The only thing they share is the same facial expression, forlorn brows and vengeful eyes. They all retreat to their own seats. I love this piece. So simple in it’s construction, it really capture’s the intensity of being in a crowd, and illustrates a collective force that encompasses a crowd.
The work of Vesna Pavolovic also looks toward the spectator but through the lens of photography. These images are immensely less visceral. At times they feel completely void of emotion or frustratingly ambiguous. Pavolovic is interested in “the act of looking itself,” but to me these photos are more about the photographer then the subject. I can imagine her working her way through the crowd with complete disregard for the sporting event. So much so that it erases her presence altogether, like the crowd would never notice her.
I was also drawn to video pieces by Paul Pfeiffer and Brett Kashmere. Both artists pull from existing materials and video footage to construct critical responses to identity and its connection to nationality, masculinity, and history. Kashmere has three pieces in the exhibition, the most engaging is Valery’s Ankle, a 33 minute film that addresses hockey’s relationship to national identity and global politics. The real life narrative describing the 1972 Summit Series match up between Canada and the Soviet Union is interspersed with countless video footage of hockey fights and other violent episodes pertaining to the sport. Kashmere is a native to Canada, which gives the piece a personal undercurrent. His narration has a tone of sadness and shame. The piece is fascinating in the way it reveals how the international hockey event become subject to clashing Cold War ideologies, a platform for Canada’s political figures, and an opportunity to demonstrate the countries ongoing relationship to violence in the form of organized sports. Kashmere stakes a claim that Bobby Clarke’s breaking of rival Russian star Valery Kharlamov’s ankle during the 1972 Summit Series is a pivotal point in Canadian history, with ramifications for the country and the sport alike.
I have seen Paul Pfeiffer’s work in several other exhibitions, but none that were devoted to sports specifically. The single piece in this exhibition is a good one but very small, it left me longing to see more. Where was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or The Long Count (The Rumble in the Jungle)? Perhaps these works were inaccessible but the exhibition would have been much stronger had they been included.
Although I don’t think it hit it’s mark, I would still recommend stopping in to see this show. It runs through July 13th.