27 July - 14 September 2012
part of Pursuit of Perfection: The Politics of Sport
South London Gallery, London
As the current fortnight of sport confronts us with a numbing amount of rhetoric surrounding the hosting of the games and the support of our home team, South London Gallery's latest exhibtion provides some interesting perspecitve and analysis on our often voyeuristic love of competitive sport.
South London Gallery is traveling down a popular route this summer with their Olympic games-themed exhibition 'Pursuit of Perfection: The Politics of Sport'. With the Tate's Olympic posters, RIBA's analysis of Olympic design, and even the Fan Museum is declaring a thematic link, the capital's galleries are nicely complementing the often-numbing amount of rhetoric surrounding the games and the support of our home team. But what makes 'Pursuit of Perfection' a stand-out response to this theme is its collective critical - rather than celebratory - look at the human need for competition and glorification of the body.
The gallery has adopted the recently vacated Southwark Old Town Hall just down the road to host part of the exhibition, and as a grand public building, with high ceilings and exposed floorboards, it makes for a pretty atmospheric setting. The works on display make incisive points about the sporting theme in their own individual rooms, complementing and contrasting each other.
Janice Kerbel's Ballgame (Pregame), consisting of audio commentary for a fictional baseball pregame projected from a single elevated speaker, works well in an old empty room. Something about the deserted, bare nature of the space being filled with the audio of a lazy, mathematically-average game is absolutely fitting. In the next room, Michel Auder's video collage is able to create a contrasting ambiance with a kind of garish disorientating soft-porn. Comprised of clips from the 1984 LA Olympics, which Auder filmed directly from his TV, the looped film shows close-ups of athletes' crotches and flexing limbs, to a distorted background commentary. The small room is darkened, accentuating the saturated colours of the 1980s TV set and resulting in a sense of delirium, watching the human body being prepared and pushed to its physical limits as a form of sexual, voyeuristic pleasure.
Arguably the exhibition's most central piece is hosted in the old Council debating chamber. Marked out from the more low-tech works on display by its use of computer simulation, John Gerrard's Exercise (Djibouti) adds some interesting depth to the exhibition as a whole, and is genuinely epic in size. The computer-generated installation sees two teams of men dressed in blue and red full-body suits running a large figure of eight in the Djibouti desert, watched over by a referee figure who occasionally sets off coloured camouflage smoke. At intervals the runners take breaks on the sidelines to rest, but always return to run the figure of eight for longer periods each time in an extremely punishing exercise. What makes this work so strange is that it follows real Djibouti time, GMT +3 hours, following a yearly cycle and incorporating the movements of the sun and moon: these figures run all day, every day, all year. What's more, Gerrard employed motion-capture technology to film the movements of real professional athletes, and travelled specially to the Dijbouti to photograph the landscape in great detail. Inspired by images of the US Marines training in the desert, he was trying to reflect the blurred boundaries between military and athletic practice - between real war and real competitive games - by creating a hugely realistic simulation that is based in the real but that remains a fabrication. Gerrard has claimed that he is looking at the Olympics through the lens of war, and this is certainly probing the different kinds of violence inflicted upon mind and body in athletic practice; the violence of competitiveness.
Down Peckham Road in the South London Gallery, Gerrard's work makes a strong contrast with Aleksandra Mir's equally grand-scale piece Triumph, which fills the main gallery space. Over 2,500 Italian trophies are lined up and piled in corners in the white-walled room, creating an impressive shiny spectacle of mementos. The much aspired-to objects of a sporting youth encourage nostalgia - these are objects that traditionally belong in awe-inspiring cabinets that line school corridors, not thrown into chaotic, forgotten mounds. Mir seems to appeal to the individual, personal relationship to sport, rather than the commercial and international politics of professional sport that the pieces in the Old Town Hall suggests. The sense of nostalgia here is a good counterpoint to Gerrard's potentially more politically, military minded piece and is a large part of what makes Pursuit of Perfection so effective as a whole.
A variety of critical perspectives on display creates a conversation around the capital's current love for sport. Particularly when we are confronted with such a hard line of enthusiasm and rhetoric, encouraging us to revel in the celebration of our athletes' success, it is an opportunity to use this to become more self aware and to gain some perspective.