The Theatre of Sport: Entertainment, Spectacle, Celebrity and Heroism

Sport plays a central role in the leisure and entertainment industries that dominate our era. This form of entertainment consists of a wealth of spectacular sporting events that are played in massive stadiums and are televised to a global audience. 

The atmosphere is electric (detail) (2014) by Rob McHaffieIan Potter Museum of Art

Sport is an emotional activity that is enjoyed by a multitude of spectators who follow the changing fortunes of the teams or individuals they support with all the accompanying high drama, ecstasy and pain. In an era of hyper-visuality the sports performer is a monumental figure. The hype that surrounds sports people sometimes exceeds even the most meretricious glamour of Hollywood stardom, for the sportsperson is the consummate celebrity – young, sexy and dynamic. Ideally, these gods inhabit a realm that transcends normal forms of life yet also have every human frailty ruthlessly exposed by the hungry media pack. This feeds into a different kind of theatre – the drama, tragedy and gossip surrounding sports celebrities. The artist is of course an active participant in such social rituals and provides insights into sport’s theatre and performativity.

Cole Classic II (the next wave) from the series Leisureland (1999) by Anne Zahalka and Sound produced by Andrew Plain of Huzzah SoundIan Potter Museum of Art

All the world’s a

Anne Zahalka’s photographs from a large series titled Leisureland (1999) hint at the curious meeting of visceral physical activity and theatrical artifice in sport. The sporting pavilion is like a stage, with all the trappings of a theatrical production; dramatic lighting, sound effects, costumes and even a script in some cases. The performers in this theatre are not always the athletes; Zahalka shows that the spectators themselves are eager to don costumes and strut their stuff on the stage. And the script can vary significantly, ranging from the complex orchestration of an AFL blockbuster through to the barely controlled mayhem of fun runs and ocean swimming races. Zahalka unearths a generality in Australian sport that ranges from Shakespeare (‘All the world’s a stage ...’) to Huizinga (‘Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life’). The striking thing is that Australians have so comfortably and consistently made sport, this unreal and theatrical activity, such a concrete aspect of both daily experience and national consciousness.

AFL match, Sydney Cricket Ground from the series Leisureland, Anne Zahalka, Sound produced by Andrew Plain of Huzzah Sound, 1999, From the collection of: Ian Potter Museum of Art
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Wood Chop Stadium from the series Leisureland, Anne Zahalka, Sound produced by Andrew Plain of Huzzah Sound, 1999, From the collection of: Ian Potter Museum of Art
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Midget versus Nat (2014) by Gerry WeddIan Potter Museum of Art

mythologies: Scrutinising heroism

Like the ancient Greek vases that chronicle wondrous mythologies, Wedd’s vessels are ascribed with detailed vignettes of anecdotes from contemporary popular culture—today’s myths-in-the-making. Wedd’s ceramic objects reflect and provide commentary on events that mark today’s society, and he cleverly uses ubiquitous domestic vessels to tap into people’s consciousness. Wedd’s four large-scale ceramic urns record moments in the careers of surfing champions Bernard ‘Midget’ Farrelly, Nat Young, Wayne Lynch, Peter Drouyn and Michael Peterson. Importantly, Wedd has chosen these individuals as much for their legendary exploits on the water as for their place within the popular consciousness of surf culture. Scrutinising heroism more than celebrating it, Wedd maintains a healthy skepticism of public persona and his work offers intelligent reflections of the construction of contemporary sporting mythologies. Wedd’s monumental urns are wry memento mori that pay tribute to Australian surfing heroes. They are a reflection on fame and myth-making, and astutely combine the endurance and longevity of the ceramic medium with the transience of the individual—an unavoidable truth even for those heroes among us.

Static no. 11 (man running) (2008) by Daniel CrooksIan Potter Museum of Art

photography, spectacle and the cinematic

Contemporary experience of sport is shaped by televisual effects: broadcasts, replays and endless media commentary. Because television so dominates contemporary consciousness, it is easy to assume that the fusion of sport, photography and spectacle is a contemporary phenomenon. In fact, the shared history of sport and the moving image goes back to the prehistory of cinema; it was the 19th century stop-motion photographic sequences of athletes taken by Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge that propelled the development of the movie camera. Daniel Crooks explores this heritage in his processed video footage. Crooks slices a video image into columns of pixels which are then spliced and staggered across a screen. In motion, the collapsed pixels become lyrical animations. Like an eerie photo finish caught up in a time warp, the video turns an imperceptible moment into an abstract ballet. But Crooks’s videos are also a reminder that modern sport is inseparable from science and technology; they are close cousins of the high-speed videos used in the laboratory analysis of high-performance athletes.

Steve Waugh’s final test (2010) by Glenn MorganIan Potter Museum of Art


Glenn Morgan focuses on the grandstands that form the vital infrastructure and backdrop for defining moments of the spectacle. More than anything, they are reminiscent of toy theatres. Structurally they often present a shallow, stage-like space. Rows of figures are arranged across a small platform in the same way that the cut-out figures of a toy theatre are moved in from the wings. Tiny voice balloons create a sense of a cast of thousands delivering their lines in a rather ramshackle play. Using the dioramic model Morgan’s mini-theatres memorialise famous events such as Steve Waugh’s final test at the MCG or an AFL premiership cup presentation. These auspicious events have their own rituals of recognition, appreciation and reward, all of which considerably enhance sport’s theatrical resonances.

Gymnasium (2010) by Tarryn Gill and Pilar Mata DupontIan Potter Museum of Art

Choreography, synchronisation
and mass-spectacle

Tarryn Gill and Pilar Mata Dupont present scenes of fresh-faced athletes performing rhythmic routines in a slightly archaic gymnasium. What makes the scene vaguely familiar is the artists’ use of the languages of the Hollywood musical review and the choreographed mass-participation spectacles of major sporting events. The technology of contemporary sports broadcasts is complex, but the aesthetics are remarkably crude. Most televised sports adopt a ‘what you see is what you get’ approach, enlivened only by pseudo-poetic slow motion montages and bombastic voice-overs. Gymnasium (2010) has the visual complexity of a Busby Berkeley musical of the 1930s. Compared with a television broadcast, there’s a lot going on: multiple athletes, diverse activities, expansive space and interwoven movements. The aesthetics of the movie musical – clockwork choreography, extended depth of field and patterned mise-en-scène – combine to synchronise individual athletes in time and space. These seductive visual effects have their dark side. Familiar to us today in orchestrated political rallies and staged events, the synchronisation of individual performers into a single entity was integral to fascist aesthetics in the 1930s and 1940s. The alluring visual effects of Nazi propaganda films suggest a sinister subtext in sport.

Allez allez allez (2010) by David JollyIan Potter Museum of Art

Televisual theatre

While David Jolly’s subject is large-scale sporting events such as the Melbourne Formula 1 Grand Prix and the Tour de France, his paintings focus on their informal and intangible elements. His interest is not in the formal structures of sport (large stadiums and carefully tended playing fields) but in the environmental and theatrical qualities of temporary spaces such as the route of a cycling race of the parkland site of an inner-city Grand Prix. The annual Tour de France bicycle race offers both landscape and theatre as it travels for thousands of kilometres. The race route becomes an informal geography lesson illustrated with seductive images of the peloton snaking through picturesque towns and scenic mountains. The tour spectators participate in improvised theatre. They camp by the road, paint slogans on the bitumen, crowd perilously close to the speeding cyclists and form a lurid backdrop to television broadcasts. Where a stadium is a contained space dedicated to crowd control, the route of the Tour of France is a sprawling, seemingly anarchic carnival. The Tour de France is also a virtual spectacle, a piece of televisual theatre in which the riders are human billboards. Jolly’s glass-painting technique seems to mimic a television screen but ultimately resists the televisual. 

Park (2008) by David JollyIan Potter Museum of Art

Anthony Mundine, world champion boxer (2010) by Noel MckennaIan Potter Museum of Art

Sport is far grander
than everyday life

Noel McKenna’s more recent watercolours based on newspaper photographs focus on athletes experiencing exceptional moments of triumph, tragedy and controversy. In the popular imagination, sport is far grander than everyday life; it’s about stirring contests, world records, heroes and legends. Grasping the extraordinary in sport poses challenges to fan and artist alike. How exactly is an extraordinary achievement defined? The most obvious method is performance statistics, as McKenna recognises in Shane Keith Warne, test record (2010). A greater challenge lies in the contemporary corruption of the idea of the extraordinary in sport. Sceptical audiences worry that, in the age of televised and commodified sport, contests have become ‘pseudo-events’; thrilling but artificially concocted media spectacles. In Anthony Mundine, world champion boxer (2010), McKenna considers that, like many contemporary athletes, Mundine’s career is propelled as much by his media performances outside the ring as his sporting prowess. This phenomena is perhaps the greatest threat to the extraordinary in sport. As McKenna suggests in Michael Pup Clarke with Lara Bingle (2008-2010), media hype places peripheral figures centre stage and relegates sporting champions to minor parts.

Spectacle (detail) (2016) by David RayIan Potter Museum of Art

Night of nights: The spectacle of celebrity

Through his ceramics, David Ray provides wry commentary on consumerism and the less celebrated aspects of contemporary society. In Spectacle, Ray turns his attention to celebrity culture and the hype surrounding professional sport. Taking as his starting point the AFL’s Brownlow Medal ceremony, along with its attendant media hoopla, Ray has created an elaborate porcelain dinner setting that captures the flashy glamour of this ‘night of nights’. Opulently ornamented and comically misshapen, Ray’s tablewares are adorned with images sourced from the internet, applied to their surfaces as decals. The tureen in the centre of the setting is flanked by ceramic figures seated in armchairs, reminding us that this spectacle of celebrity is being served up not just for attendees of the awards ceremony, but also for audiences viewing the footage on TVs, tablets and smart phones; their passive, screen-based consumption ultimately driving the cycle of excess.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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