Parallels can easily
be drawn between the life of the artist and the sports person. Both experience
success and failure, triumphs, disappointments and crippling anxiety; and to
succeed, each are required to train and to bring to their work a sense of
discipline, dedication, commitment and resilience.
Yet one of the lingering differences between the art and sporting worlds is the art world’s discomfort with the notion of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ and with the necessity, in a prize context, of the singling out of one artist at the expense of all others. Within the world of the art prize we see an aspect that best resembles sport, the heightened anxiety to perform amongst a field of rival contenders, a triumphant winner, the disappointment of the losers, heated debates surrounding rules and regulations, grand media speculation and the spirit of competition.
Hitting the wall
In 2012 Lauren Brincat undertook a residency in Mexico City, where she researched and produced a new performance video, titled 10 metre platform. Brincat's initial plan was to lower herself over the ledge of the high diving board at the Alberca Olímpica Francisco Márquez indoor swimming pool, and hang there for as long as possible until, unable to hold on any longer, she would let go and fall into the pool. During the performance, watched by her film crew, she discovered that she was unable to go through with the task. She hit a wall. After some contemplation and review of the ‘failure’ of the performance, she writes: “It wasn’t a happy ending. At first I was devastated that I didn’t fall from the platform, but I’ve since realised the success of the piece. The one performance that depicted competitiveness and required success, resulted in failure. It truly tested my limits. My necessity to be in control.”
The prize divides him
Shaun Gladwell’s eleven-minute video work The archer (after Chuang Tzu) (2014) brings to life a character from Tim Winton’s 2005 novel The turning. The film introduces Frank ‘Jack in the Box’ Leaper, a young man on the cusp of professional sporting success in a preliminary AFL final during his second season with the Sydney Swans. In the dying minutes of the game, Frank is awarded a free kick, and lines up for a goal to secure his team a place in the Grand Final. For reasons known only to himself—and to the horror of his teammates and the crowd—Frank releases the ball from his grasp, and walks slowly from the field. Gladwell is an artist for whom the line dividing art and sport barely exists. His early reputation was forged through spare yet potent video depictions of skateboarding and freestyle BMX-riding virtuosity. He comes from a family of high-achieving athletes who have, for one reason or another, sacrificed the opportunity to excel on an international stage. It is these biographical details that account for Gladwell’s abiding interest in the stories of those on the margins of sporting triumph and glory. Gladwell’s The archer (after Chuang Tzu) was inspired by the poem of the same name by the 4th century Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu. When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill. If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous. If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets. His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him. He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting—and the need to win drains him of power.
Art and sport are not so different. Both are public spectacles that reflect society and depend on paying customers. The only real difference lies in the uncertainty of the outcome. If you attend the theatre, you will generally know, unlike a sporting event, the result in advance. The fascination with watching sport is the unknown. The drama is often in the moment of winning or losing – a remarkable turnaround, the tragic downfall of the top team or a heartbreaking career-ending injury. Sport, like theatre, can reveal so much about who we are – our fears, our capacity for resilience and our need to belong. Richard Lewer’s The theatre of sports (2016) is a compendium of twelve paintings that form one work. It represents Lewer’s sustained passion for art and sport, and examines the role sport can play in relation to mental health. His practice looks at extremes of behaviour, centring in this work on the very public moments of failure of well-known sporting figures. Fascinated by the highly publicised story of swimmer Ian Thorpe’s struggle with depression, Lewer started to investigate elite athletes who suffer from extreme mental stress. He then began to research events in which those athletes had lost, come second or been injured. Having gathered hundreds of images of images from the web, television and magazines, Lewer selected twelve that document public scenes of the athletes’ despair, anger, frustration and dejection, rendering these in paint. Lewer is interested in the person who comes second and what happens next to these athletes. It is, perhaps, not through the triumphs but the tough moments that we truly find resilience and a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Wantin’ ain’t getting
Richard Lewer has had a long engagement with sport: boxing, wood-chopping, table tennis and rugby have all featured in his art. For Lewer the connection between art and sport can be quite direct; he sees both as reactive and physical, involving responses to tasks and challenges. It is also metaphorical; the two are equivalent, he says, because both involve routine, skill, discipline, involvement, training, participation and socialisation. Sport is also about storytelling. Often the narrative structures of a sport story borrow from unusual sources – the journey of an athlete towards victory reads like an Arthurian legend. One of the most familiar structures is the tragic form. These are the stories of the one that got away, the putt that didn’t drop, the error that cost a game. Lewer’s animated work The sound of your own breathing (2010) is an exploration of such all-time lows. A melancholic tone is established by the monochrome drawings of the animation. The tales are unembellished and the tellers seemingly resigned to the hand that fate has dealt them. The stories themselves may not recount catastrophic failures but they do remind us that aspiration can just as likely lead to failure as to success. As many an acerbic coach reminds us, ‘Wantin’ ain’t getting.’
Winners are grinners
Winners are grinners, so the saying goes. And with victory comes the totems of achievements, the strangely heraldic forms of the trophy accompanied by the peculiarly telegraphic texts of engraved plaques. In trophies found in junk shops, Elvis Richardson discovers a trove of psychological and historical evocations. The accumulated horde of trophies is like the booty of Roman triumph. The recipients now represent an anonymous roll call of aspiration and achievement. Did these moments change or fulfil the lives of the winners? If so, why were the trophies abandoned? In a tribute to the fighting spirit of a lost nation of competitors, Richardson constructs an honour roll of her own. The trophy may signal the completion of a contest but Richardson focuses on the aspiration that drives the competitors; each of them wants to scale the mountain and take the prize, each of them knows that a trophy represents a title that must be fought for again next season.
Christian Thompson reflects on an inherent aspect of almost all sporting codes – that of loss. When Christian Thompson was eleven years old, he finished in first place in a breaststroke heat at his primary school swimming carnival. Post-race, breathless and dripping, he watched confused as event officials distributed cards to three other competitors indicating their respective first, second and third place. Finally, a little yellow peg was placed into his hand, signifying disqualification on a point relating to one fleeting movement of his foot. Thompson disputes the validity of the disqualification to this day. And fragments of the event—his sheer physical depletion, the intensity of his brother’s poolside cheering, the elation of finishing first and the bitterness that accompanies a victory ‘robbed’—come to him with unmitigated clarity even now. The statuesque swimmer is symbolic of the power of myth and memory, and the stubborn wound that loss can inflict.
In Australia, a nation known for its obsession with sport, successful athletes occupy a uniquely vulnerable social position. When victorious, they are venerated in ways that our political leaders can only imagine. They’re thrown ticker-tape parades, they receive glowing front-page reportage and commercial endorsements and are awarded Orders of Australia. Yet it takes only one off-field indiscretion to ignite an unresolved public debate on the legitimacy of our construction of the sportsperson as role model. Greg Creek engages with the subject of sport philosophically. He uses sport to highlight the fluidity of social structures and notions of leadership and ambition. Each of his four large-scale works in mixed media on paper are based on a series of invented dialogues between eight politicians and sportspeople. In one, Prime Minister Julia Gillard is depicted opposite Keli Lane, the former water polo champion who, in 1996, was convicted of the murder of her newborn daughter. These four works do not suggest literal relationships between two subjects, but rather form part of Creek’s ongoing exploration of moral, religious and social allegory. He has said that the works ‘collectively examine the sense of desire, idealism and aspiration that is both fulfilled and at times let down by the reality of sports figures within the competitive structures of sports and society’. Creek’s thought-provoking allegories stimulate contemplation of themes no less significant than the conflict and humanity existing in our most scrutinised public figures, and in ourselves.