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Tag Archives: sport

Misunderstood Art

Polonius: (To Hamlet) What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

(Hamlet II, ii, 192-3)

Nobody mistakes a game of football for anything else; there is never the question that it might not be a game of football or that it might be about something other than football. There are rare exceptions, the 1956 Russian Hungarian Olympic Water Polo match was about more than a sport. Generally the quality of the playing is tested and the results displayed on a scoreboard. Debate about sport is possible but eventually resolvable, the best team is the one that wins the most games.

Art is not like that; nothing will ever be resolved, it can be tested but not definitively. New interpretations and assessments are always possible for art but, short of revelations of cheating, nothing reverses sports results.

With all art there is always the possibility that it will be fundamentally misunderstood, not just in meaning or quality but also in its very category. It could be interpreted in a number of ways, or in post-modern speak, there are multiple readings. It is this possibility of being misunderstood that brings a special kind of quality to art. Not that all misunderstood things are of art, nor that ambiguity should be the objective of art, but that without the possibility of being misunderstood, that ambiguous quality, that makes art more than the sum of it constituent parts.

According to Mary Douglas’s theory expounded in her book, Purity and Danger (1966) the ambiguous category of art should make it taboo, a pollution that should be expelled. Or, because it does not fit into any category, that it should be sacred. Art is seen as both sacred and a pollution in society.

This ambiguous quality means that art can be about something else. Art has a relationship to a subject that cannot be reciprocated. For example, art can be about football but football can never be about art; as football is always about football. For art is a sign and signs also have a non-reciprocal relationship with what they signify.

Humans naturally want certainty but art requires a sophisticated, civilised approach that is, in this aspect, against nature. Art requires a degree of uncertainly, ambiguity or cognitive indeterminacy; to not know if you are looking at an image or paint, a story or words, Hamlet or an actor. Art requires possibility of multiple correct readings and even misunderstanding.

The unsophisticated mistake fiction for fact: a character for a real person, an actor for the character played, etc. They are apt to mistake art as pornography, sedition, blasphemy or some other prohibited or offensive category. These are unsophisticated views because they are forgetting that art is ambiguous, that they are looking at nothing but a creation of ink, or paint, or lights on a screen.

When a government’s claims to be able to make unambiguous distinction between what is permitted and what is censored the government case will always appears unsophisticated. How an unambiguous distinction can make about ambiguous material is never explained. It is simply assumed that the government is acting in a reasonable and rational manner. That agencies like the Australian Classification Board represent community values in their decisions. That it’s arbitrary interpretations of ambiguous material are certain and definite even when they very from year to year.

Sport is uncensored and more approved of than art because sport can be legislated. It can be legislated and controlled because it is unambiguous.

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Basil Sellers Art Prize 2012

Melbourne artist, Jon Campbell won the $100,000 Basil Sellers Art Prize for his work Dream team – 22, a series of enamel paintings on board each with a footballer’s nickname: Dipper, Richo and Buddy Love. It is a footie fan’s dream team a nicknames.

Basil Sellers will be relieved not to be taking home a DVD this time for it is an acquisitive prize and the last two prizes have been won by video art.

There was a strong showing by aboriginal artists this year I especially enjoyed Richard Bell’s two paintings and Brook Andrew two works, especially his painting examining the indigenous origins of Australian Rules football.

I enjoyed seeing Simon Perry sculpture “Twickenham”. The small figures rotate as their roll along a track mounted on the gallery wall; the figures are based on Ian Bradshaw’s photo of the arrest of the first streaker.

Patrick Pound’s exhibition of found photographs of amateur sports-people, electronic game machines and souvenirs of professional sports stars that lost suggest the ordinary tragedies that are the corollary of sporting triumphs.

The Basil Sellers Art Prize has started me thinking about sport again – see my previous post about Art & Sport and the Basil Sellers Art Prize 2010.  (I don’t often think about sport; when the grand final was being played in Melbourne on Saturday I was watching “Writer’s Bench” at ACMI, thank you Sandra.)

In “Fair game: Art versus sport in ‘the lucky country’ (Art & Australia v.47 n.4) the article Christopher McAuliffe describes the oppositional positioning of art and sport noting the objections to sport from Robin Boyd (and David Williamson) and identifying the 1956 Olympics as the point where sport moved from a balanced part of Australian life to an obsession that indicative of conservatism and a reason for national pessimism. McAuliffe is optimistic that a balance can be restored but his evidence is only anecdotal.

On the other hand Barrie Houlihan (School of Social Sciences, Staffordshire University, “Sport, National Identity and Public Policy”, Nations and Nationalism v.3, Issue 1) concluded “that while sport possesses a powerful symbolism that can be exploited on occasion to great effect, the malleability of sports symbolism often undermines its capacity to exert a lasting effect on national identity.”

Art, what ever it is, is an elaborate cultural activity that exposes elements of a culture. Reflecting on art can illuminate these cultural elements, both the intentional and the unintentional. In this aspect I think that art is helpful to human happiness as it provides a time to think – as happiness requires, according to Epicurus: friends, freedom and time to think. Sport and games in general, although enjoyable but do not provide time to think, very few people reflect on their life at a football match or while playing on the X-box. This is not to argue that sport and games are not conducive to happiness, they are a great way to spend time with friends, only that sport and games alone will not provide a happy life. Sport and games are not the same as the free play that occurs in art.


Sporting Heroes

Sport Sculptures in Melbourne

The heritage-listed neon sign of the Italian cyclist Nino Borsari at the eponymous Borsari’s Corner, on the corner of Grattan and Lygon Streets, is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about public art and sport in Melbourne but I had to mention it. The Basil Sellers Art has made me think and write more about art and sport. It is one of the intentions of the art prize not just to have an exhibition and a prize but to encourage a dialogue about art and sport. I’m not so sure that there isn’t this dialogue already. Leon Van Schaik discusses the influence of sport on design in Design City Melbourne, (Wiley-Academy, 2006, England).

Louis Laumen "Sir Donald Bradman" bronze

There are many sports themed sculptures located at Melbourne’s many sporting venues. These are, mostly, conservative, hero-worshipping sculptures in a traditional figurative form, in bronze, on a plinth. They link recent sports with the traditions of commemorating athletes with statues from Ancient Greece. These statutes allows Australian sport create the illusion of history and traditions even though all of these statutes are fairly recent. “The Pathfinder” by John Robinson, 1974 in the Queen Victoria Gardens is the earliest. The statue of the hammer thrower clearly looks back to classical Greek traditions.

There are 10 sculptures by Louis Laumen “sporting legends” at the MCG. The 10 sculptures, on their black marble plinths each with a biography and sponsors logos (really classy), were finally all installed for the 2006 Commonwealth Games redevelopment. At Gate 1 there are the cricketers Bill Ponsford and Dennis Lillee. At Gate 3 there are the women sprinters Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland- Delahunty. The footballers Leigh Matthews and Ron Barassi are at Gate 4. There are more cricketers, Sir Donald Bradman and Keith Miller, at Gate 5 and more footballers, Haydn Bunton and Dick Reynolds at Gate 6. Also at the MCG there is a statue of cricket batsman “Victor Trumper”, 1999 and “The Birth of Australian Rules” 2001- both by Louis Laumen. Louis Laumen  dominates statues of sports stars in Melbourne and has also created the sculpture of John ‘Kanga’ Kennedy, 2008, at Hawthorn Football Club, Waverly Park.

There is a statue of Jack Dyer by Mitch Mitchell, 2003 at Richmond Headquarters on Punt Road. At Flemington Race Course there is a statute of Phar Lap by Peter Corlett, 1988, commissioned by the Victorian Racing Club to celebrate Australia’s bicentenary.

detail of Louis Laumen "Leigh Matthews", bronze

I don’t really care for any of these sculptures as art especially Louis Laumen’s conservative realism that reminds me of Soviet Realism. The conservative proclamation, glorifying the winners, made by these sculptures is shallow and archaic.  Less antiquated, but I don’t know if any more successful, are the non-figurative sports sculptures Simon Perry “Threaded Field”, Docklands Stadium Melbourne (2000) and Anthony Pryor, “The Legend”, 1991 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Simon Perry is best known in Melbourne for his sculpture “Public Purse” in the Burke St. mall. Anthony Pryor, “The Legend” 1991 is a dynamic steel sculpture the upper part suggesting the movement of the ball in play. I don’t think that the orange bollards were part of the original work but something had to be done for health and safety and vehicle access – the perils of not having a plinth.

Anthony Pryor, “The Legend”, 1991

Maybe Melbourne does need some better sports themed sculptures. Nick Farr-Jones will be on the judging panel for the third biennial Basil Sellers Art Prize – maybe a sculptor might win (instead of a video artist for the last two prizes). What do you think?


Art & Sport

The bi-annual Basil Sellers Art Prize (see my entry about the Basil Seller Art Prize)has made me think and write more about art and sport. It is one of the intentions of the art prize not just to have an exhibition and a prize but to encourage a dialogue about art and sport.

This is not the first time that someone has tried to bridge the gap between the arts and sports. In the USA there is the National Art Museum of Sport at Indiana University. NAMOS was founded in 1959 in New York City by Germain G. Glidden, a portrait artist and champion squash player with a strong belief in sport and art as universal languages understood and appreciated by all people. NAMOS’s collection includes paintings by George Bellows, Henry Rousseau and Andrew Wyeth. Also in August of this year there was a football themed art shoe at the Bega Regional Gallery that Megan Bottari reviewed in her blog Glass Central Canberra.

There are some notable artists who had active sporting lives: the Fauvist Maurice de Vlaminck did cycle racing, British painter Ben Nicholson was a keen tennis and ping pong player and contemporary American video artist, Matthew Barney was on his high school wrestling and football teams. And two of the most famous artists of the 20th Century, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, met over a game of totem tennis, providing an initial bond at a time when Man Ray spoke only English and Marcel Duchamp only French.

Enough of this sports/art trivia; moving on to some serious thoughts…

When I was a post-graduate student studying the philosophy of art I was presented with a problem by a philosopher. Aliens arrive on Earth, just outside Canberra. They are friendly but we can hardly communicate with them. To improve communications the aliens want to have a cultural exchange tour. The cultural exchange is a group of aliens who jump up and down for a period of time. Who should fund this cultural exchange the department of sports or arts?

Art and sport, whatever they are, is a cultural expression of excess. There are other cultural expressions that deal with the excesses in a culture from jokes to religion they come in many forms. The excess that must be dealt with is everything from an excess of time, energy, food or any other resources. If this excess is not dealt with through some cultural expression then it becomes threatening pollution. The excess of sport and art is contained within an area, within refined and controlled movements and within the idea of art or sport.

Art and sport maybe substitutes for religion and culture amongst people who have been displaced by modernization. They provide a reason, a connection with something greater and give additional meaning to life.

Time for a match of three-sided football, a sport invented by Danish artist Asger Jorn.


And the winner is…

On a cold Thursday evening, on the 5 August 2010 sport and art luminaries walking on the green astroturf carpet that had been laid outside the Ian Potter Museum of Art. Amongst the crowd was legendary football coach, Ron Barassi who turned up to support a relative, one of the finalists, the artist, David Ray. Inside the Basil Sellers Art Prize 2010 was about to be announced (see my preview of the prize and exhibition).

And the winner is… The Gymnasium 2010 by Perth video artists, Pilar Mata Dupont and Tarryn Gill. The Gymnasium is a new work created for the Basil Sellers Art Prize.

Gymnasium, 2010, Courtesy the artists and Goddard de Fiddes Gallery, Perth

Pilar Mata Dupont and Tarryn Gill’s video is fun, like a 4-minute music video clip. You can watch it over and over again. The aesthetic image of the gymnasium from an era, prior to branding with corporate logos and exercise machines, has the ironic appeal of nostalgic propaganda. The video ends of the smiling, laughing faces of the athletes with the Australian flag waving in the background.

The Gymnasium was filmed in a boy’s school in Perth; the attention to detail in the video is amazing. Along with the location, the casting, hairdressing, soundtrack and the costumes perfectly fit the era and nationalistic propaganda style. The artists have beautifully captured choreographed movement.

The Gymnasium lives up to the objective of the Basil Sellers Art Prize as it challenges the perception of sport through the use of visual arts.  It examines the link between Australian national identity and sports. The national identity of the white Australia is based on a sporting body culture and this video gets to the heart of the aesthetics of athletics.

The video is ironically inspired by Lenni Riefenstahl’s classic film, Olympia, of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The video images also have a direct relationship with one of Australian’s most famous photographers, Max Dupain. Isobel Crombie in Body Culture – Max Dupain, Photography and Autralian Culture 1919-1939, (Peleus Press, 2004) examines the fascist body culture that inspired Max Dupain’s photography. These images echo the aesthetic aspiration of ancient Greek athletes for control of their bodies, as examined by Michel Foucault in The Uses of Pleasure, the history of sexuality: v. 2 (1984). Foucault highlights the ethical relationship of this control to ancient Greeks. And the ethics of this body culture is displayed in The Gymnasium; the different athletic activities of the men and women demonstrate the use of sport to emphasise gender differences, as well as, control of sexuality.

Gymnasium 2010 Courtesy the artists and Goddard de Fiddes Gallery, Perth

Australia needs to acknowledge and better understand the history of its sporting culture in order to move beyond the nationalism and fascism. And Pilar Mata Dupont and Tarryn Gill’s The Gymnasium 2010 is part of this cultural re-evaluation.


Basil Sellers Art Prize

Challenging the relationship of art and sport.

The challenger: The bi-annual Basil Sellers Art Prize, the biggest art prize in Australia, weighing in at a massive 100,000 dollars (twice the size of the 50,000 Archibald Prize). The contenders have been narrowed down from over 350 entries to 14 artists.

Defending the perception of sport is a team of popular opinions and stereotypes. In school I learnt that there are two types of people: arty and sporty and that it had been that way forever. I wasn’t taught this in the classroom, but in the playground, on the sports field and in the extra school activities. For most of my life I have lived with the division between people interested in the arts and people interested in sport.

How and when did this happen? This contemporary division could not be more pronounced but it was not always the case. Sport was seen as a physical art; in ancient Greek sports the athletes displayed their ‘arête’. Sculpture in ancient Greece celebrated the athlete and was created to commemorate their triumph. The ancient Olympic games combined both sports and artistic activities.

The Basil Sellers Art Prize aspires to recreate a relationship between art and sport, to legitimise the topic in art, not all at once but as the prize gain momentum over the year. They even have an ambassador to the sporting world, sports media personality Samantha Lane – the division is so extensive it is like another country.

Maybe it is another country, maybe there are two Australia’s geographically identical but with complete different populations that never interact, like two alternate worlds. You would think that if you were told that sports dominated Australian culture and you then visited the NGV to find no images of sport. It is this cultural disconnect, the absence of sport in Australian art that inspired Basil Sellers to fund this art prize. There is no planned outcome, just a series of prizes designed to develop a connection over a generation of artists. Basil Sellers says, “ My hope is that this prize will take lovers of sport and art into what may be unchartered, but ultimately reward territory leading to an engagement that will enhance their enjoyment of each other’s loves”. Can the challenger defeat the current perception of sports and the arts through the use of visual arts?

Nobody is taking any bets. Nobody is taking any bets either on who will be the winner tomorrow night; unlike the Archibald Prize there is no bookmaker giving the odds on the Basil Sellers Art Prize.

The media preview was a chance to look at the art without the prize-winning status hanging over the work. So what are we looking at with art about sport? Cricket, running, football, gymnastics, netball, cycling, surfing and boxing are all represented in the exhibition. The art deals with issues beyond sport of identity, gender, corporate branding, celebrity and movement.

Dr Chris McAuliffe pointing out a change to Eric Bridgeman’s Wilma Jr. ("Blacky"), 2009

Surveying the field:

Eric Bridgeman’s life sized footballer installation. Ponch Hawkes has staged photographs of female athletes in a series addressing gender, violence, power and alcohol. Philip George’s surfboard installation mixes Islamic art with surfing culture. Glenn Morgan’s automated diorama tableaus have a folksy charm recording sporting history. Noel McKenna’s is exhibiting three paintings of sporting celebrity profiles. Richard Lewer is showing hand drawn animation of ordinary sporting tragedies. Vernon Ah Kee has both a video installation and photographs of an all-Indigenous cricket team from north Queensland. Juan Ford has five images using anamorphosis. Grant Hobson’s large digital photographs depict surf culture and the environment. David Jolly with two glass paintings of cyclists in the Tour de France. Pilar Mata Dupont & Tarryn Gill present a video with a tongue-in-cheek look at fascist-style aesthetic present in Australian’s sporting culture’s history. David Ray’s trophy made from witty ceramics in a vitrine. Gareth Sansom’s painting about spin bowling. Tony Schwensen’s video documents the artist watching of sport.

What is the ground, track conditions etc. like? Four gallery spaces on two floors in the Ian Potter  Museum of Art at Melbourne University giving the art a home ground advantage.

What are the rules? Art in all media is allowed and the selected artists are all paid a $3,000 participation fee and may present one or more works in the exhibition. The winner gets $100,000 and Basil Sellers goes home with a prize-winning work of art.

The winner will be announced tonight (see my entry And the winner is… ). Then there is the $5,000 People’s Choice Award that you can judge for yourself.


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