27 July - 14 September 2012
part of Pursuit of Perfection: The Politics of Sport
South London Gallery, London
Stacked up on plinths, balanced in piles, heaped in corners, 2,529 trophies glitter in the South London Gallery, their collective glint nothing short of seductive. Sunlight falls through the glass roof in a wide spotlight picking thousands of little eyes of light in a pattern through the otherwise bare white room. In Aleksandra Mir’s Triumph, no two trophies are alike.
Weaving through discrete islands of prize mounds, patterns begin to emerge, categories which appear to have struck Mir over the course of the year spent soliciting, collecting and polishing the collection of Sicilian trophies: a plinth near the far wall holds only cups which display a dash of triumphant red – a chalice stippled crimson at the mouth, a tentative blush of carmine here on the base, the marble-whorled trunk of another; a clutch of trophies near to the entrance sport different shades of green, from mild to pea, from moss to mint. Deep glutinous shades of plastic enamel sit by splashes of sea-foam-light emerald and the chromatic harmony has a pleasant and calming effect in the midst of such multitude, such dissonance.
Initially it’s easier to lump trophies appearing near, next to, in or on top of other trophies as a single mass than as individual objects; but despite the interpretative resistance the clusters of cups put up in their sheer variety, superficial visual groupings give way to a more textured curiosity about the trophies themselves. Spanning some forty years, particular designs are striking for their capacity to hint at a golden, past era, now lost, of nostalgia and fairness and bonhomie. A top prize for women’s volleyball comprising a central disk with three semi-radii starting at one o’clock and ending at seven imitates in high futurist style the shock waves a ball has upon impact with a bunched fist. Avant-garde, ornate, lustrous, kitsch and chic, all shapes, tastes and sizes are present.
Yet there’s something unsettling in so many symbols of achievement being grouped together in such conspicuous excess. Ordered they may be – by material, colour, event or design – but each categorization subsumes the circumstances in which the trophy was imparted, subsumes the very occasion of its existence – for what’s the point in a trophy if there is no winner to attach the symbol to? Did the overall winner of the Torneo di Goriziana (billiards) in 1981 know the winner the following year? Were they the same person? Who won the dance cups, huddled together with identical little couples cast in plastic and bronze (his face plastic, eyes airborne, her face elastic and beaming out to an imagined audience, skirt and foot up and out, bosom grazing his dinner jacket)?
But that is exactly what is present in the display – the lonely signifier minus its partner, the title but not the name. We are invited to view pure form and experience the shared aspirations and materialist gratulation of those who push themselves to win, without examples.
Yet curiously, with patience, the spectacle does dissolve from a record of achievement to the more nuanced imaginative wanderings that the best sporting events feed. Walk round the serried ranks of metal and plastic and marble and mirror, stooping and reaching and scrutinizing and evaluating, and there is a clear message. For just as we hunger for the story behind great athletes’ performances – the sporting flair of Usain Bolt’s chicken-nugget fuelled success, for instance – so we hunger for the voices and narrative texture stitching behind these more homely prizes, and the questions to ask are essentially the same as those we ask of the sports-people who shimmer on our televisions screens today. And then there are the questions which are situated within the crucible of Mir’s enterprise but which gesture out to the larger realm; notably how long is achievement held to be of worth?
The answer, of course, is the title lasts a year and that grace is sustained until trophies become clutter and awards become ornaments on the shelf or obstacles in the attic. Yet despite its reservations about the merit of winning – or rather the complex act of bestowing honour upon a winner – the scale of Mir’s piece remains a testament to endurance, to the spirit which keeps winning, and the blind faith which keeps doling out the awards. Skeptical yet reverent, it is a lauds to fleeting fame, and like the best commentators, resounding, curt and eloquent.