Shizu Saldamando takes on Serena Williams

Saldamando La Serena

Shizu Saldamando, La Serena (2015). Oil, mixed media on wood panel.

La Serena, a beautiful portrait of Serena Williams by Los Angeles artist Shizu Saldamano, is currently on view at New Image Art in Santa Monica, CA, as a part of the group exhibition “The Thrill of Victory The Agony of Defeat: Sports in Contemporary Art.” Curated by Patrick Martinez, this exhibition also features work by Martinez, Gregory Bojorquez, Hiro Kurata, Mark Mulroney, Andrew Schoultz, Vincent Valdez, and Mario Ybarra Jr. I recommend seeing the show: all of these artists make very interesting work.

Saldamando, the only woman artist in this group exhibition, is (I understand) the only artist to take on the female athlete as a subject (I haven’t seen the show yet). The marginalization of women’s sports, as I’ve argued elsewhere, mirrors the wildly disproportionate scale of men’s sports as the subject of media broadcast and attention.* This goes to some of the things that make Saldamando’s work particularly interesting.

 

First, Serena Williams is a kind-of exception to the rule I described above. She is one of very few athletes to transcend the awfulness of mass media’s active suppression of public awareness of women athletes. The attention of a racist and sexist media, however, has mixed effects for black women athletes. The Williams sisters have been very savvy (and circumspect) in their navigation of that world, which exalts them and then tears them apart. That lifting and crushing is, of course, how mass media attention works. But the media’s wheel of fortune turns on a racist and sexist axis. Many portraits of iconic black athletes take this up, directly or indirectly. Consider, for example Keith Piper‘s installation Transgressive Acts: A Saint Among Sinners/A Sinner Among Saints (1993-1994), a twinned portrait of Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson. They are honored, here, in the style of stained glass windows in a chapel, on whose pulpit is a copy of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man.

In La Serena, Saldamando gives us a deliberately iconic image—the use of gold, for example, marks this work as hagiography. Serena is not just victorious, she is exalted. The portrait vibrates with the weird story of Serena Williams’s recent upset, however. This year, in the semi-finals of the US Open, a completely unspectacular player, Roberta Vinci, brought Williams’s supposedly inevitable Grand Slam triumph to a brutal stop. In advance of this tournament, the press was unrelenting in its presentation of Williams’s triumph as a certainty. This, of course, feeds the media economy which needs saints to burn at the stake.

La Serena’s gesture, at least for me, expresses an awareness of the athlete’s future struggle. La Serena’s composure — her calm, her strength, her power and defiance — might easily have been lifted from communist or labor movement works celebrating women workers (see below). It is, however, also a citation of the most famous sport spectacle of them all — Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s protest from the medal stands at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. This image belongs to a pool of images of defiance — portraits of resistance, defiance and protest.

tsjc

In this photograph, one of most famous and powerful images in sports history, Smith and Carlos’s hands are raised straight up, and their heads are bowed.** In Saldamando’s portrait, Serena is looking forward, toward a future that she creates. She raises her fist, but she also flexes her muscles. The artist maximizes our access to her physical power, and the metaphysical meaning of that power. La Serena contributes to an archive of images celebrating women’s power — these images differently engage and resist the ideologies of race, sex and gender that circumscribe women’s access to her own body. Some images (Norman Rockwell’s, for example, pictured below) render the working woman’s muscular body into something folksy and hypermasculine; others feminize the woman flexing her muscles (making her muscles disappear) — how and why embodied strength appears in these images is complicated. Michelle Obama’s arms, Dyana Nyad’s (captured below in a portrait by Catherine Opie), Serena Williams’s — each appearance of a woman’s muscular strength reaches from the image into the world to shake things up.

Black women, in particular, find their bodies read through a vicious matrix that pathologizes any sign of power and defiance. Her blackness appears, within racist ideology, as a disruption of gender. This form of racism flourishes around the figures of women like the Williams sisters — by which I mean black women who are among the very best women athletes alive. Their success as athletes becomes a sign of their always-already failure as women. Thus the social media trash-heap is sprinkled with videos, blog-posts that argue that Serena Williams is, in fact, actually man [I refuse to link that racist/sexist garbage]. In that world, her arms are stolen by a frightening army of fascist lunatics who see them as evidence that she isn’t, really, even human.

Saldamando’s La Serena calmly turns that shit into gold.

 

*Most group exhibitions centered on sports don’t feature any works centered on women athletes. So kudos to Martinez for including Saldamando’s portraits of Serena Williams and Kristi Yamaguchi.

**Note: Peter Norman [left] was an ally in this gesture. He is wearing a pin supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights and willingly absorbed the controversy surrounding his participation this moment.

On Holly Holm Giving Us What We Need

Jeffrey Gibson, What We Want, What We Need (2014).

Jeffrey Gibson, What We Want, What We Need (2014).

Holly Holm picked Ronda Rousey apart. An undefeated fighter is there to be defeated. We root for the upset. We relish the agony, the dark thrill of watching the takedown of a champion. We need someone who can knock the stuffing out of the hype. That’s what we got. It’s what we wanted, and what we needed.

Boxing Painting

This is what happens when you google “Jackson Pollock” and “boxing.”

CrossFit Performance

David Getsy writes about Amber Hawk Swanson’s work in “Queer Exercises: Amber Hawk Swanson’s performance of Self Realization” (in GLQ‘s fall 2013 issue, which I edited). I can’t get enough of this.

Super Slow Motion and Rocky’s Ghost

skycam view

a skycam view

While watching the 2014 FIFA World Cup I got obsessed by the cameras used in the production of the broadcast. FIFA produces a single feed for all media outlets through a company called Host Broadcast Services. There were, according to HBS, “up to 34” cameras in use at each match. The field was saturated with cameras. Sometimes we got a thrilling bird’s eye view thanks to the Skycam. But at other times it could be hard to assess the field of play: instead it was all close-ups and slow-motion. The constant use of super slow motion could sometimes squeeze a sense of agony from any gesture or action, no matter how banal. Or it could remove all force from a tackle, all intention from a dive. I’m not convinced, in other words, that more is more when it comes to visual information.

I watched the tournament with an artist who happens to be researching the development of different kinds of cameras. He explained to me that many of the cameras that define sports broadcasts were invented by the same guy—and that the story of those cameras goes back to one of the most famous sports films of all time, Rocky. I wrote about my friend’s project for KCET’s Artbound. Below are the opening paragraphs, and a link to the full story.

Rocky Balboa’s run up the wide steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the most iconic scenes in American cinema; we can easily recall his gesture, on reaching the top: hands in the air, in triumph. These steps are in the local news again: The Philadelphia Museum of Art is expanding. Frank Gehry’s design involves cutting out a large section right down the middle: straight along, in other words, Rocky’s path.

As part of an ongoing investigation of the relationship of the body to the camera, the Los Angeles-based artist Adrià Julià found himself climbing those steps. In the past year, Julià has interviewed cinematographers and camera operators in Los Angeles and Paris and conducted a series of experiments. These short films, sculptures, lenticular prints, choreographic studies attempt to pull the embodied experiences of filmmaking into his own practice.

Julià was drawn to Rocky’s ascent because that scene is associated with the origin of the Steadicam — one of the most important inventions in cinema history. The Steadicam moves with but also against the cameraperson’s body; balancing itself as that person moves. A 2008 profile in ICG magazine (the magazine and website for the International Cinematographers Guild) reviews the history of its development with reverence, tracing each step in the process as Garret Brown and his collaborators arrived at this device that seemed to have a life of its own. One cinematographer remembers, “‘in the early days, the Steadicam operator was treated like he had his own little bag of voodoo.'”

Brown has gone on to create more magical devices, including many of the cinematic tools used in major sporting events — such as the World Cup — flycams that run with the athlete along the length of a track or a field; skycams suspended by wires that can swoop over the field of play like a bird. He has even created underwater cameras, used to capture the swimmer’s body as she races down the lane. The Steadicam, however, is the device that made Brown’s career.

In 1974, Brown produced a reel demonstrating what his camera could do with the aim of bringing his invention to Hollywood. On that reel is a film of Ellen Brown, his wife, running down, and then up, the museum’s steps. (The two lived in Philadelphia.) When the team producing “Rocky” saw Brown’s reel, they decided to set the film in the city of brotherly love so that its hero could run up those steps, just as Ellen had done. Ellen, in other words, is the reason “Rocky” is a Philadelphia story.

[FULL STORY]

Sports Play (an excerpt)

Two passages from Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek’s Sports Play (trans. Penny Black):

So many people with personal drive. Then, all at once, as if the stroke of an invisible clock had smashed something in their skulls and reset them to an imaginary tune, they are ticking to the same beat. They grab their sports equipment and thrash each other, smash the bowls that previously they’d held up in front of a prettily-set breakfast table or in the pub, in order to take a swig from their neighbor’s. Well, cheers! Now they are giving him one and how! Bottoms up! Heads down! (40)

Bones crack, tendons rip, veins burst, ligaments stretch, but somehow someway they survive. In sport the human bodies are like pizza boxes or disposable cups: at first they’re beautiful, and then they’re used, even abused. Nevertheless they’re washable and easy to clean…. (52)

All in one rhythm!

FIFA, Adidas, and Marina Abramovic

Above is an Adidas-sponsored re-performance of a collaboration between artists Marina Abramović and Ulay. The original work was part of a long series of experiments in the possibilities of relation-in-performance. Many of those performances had strong durational elements to them: the 1978 performance cited here involved just the two of them moving stones around in buckets. Abramović outsources the work to 11 performers for this contribution to the Adidas World Cup campaign. We watch 11 people engaged in a pointless task. Seems pretty apt.

Folks in the art world are furrowing their brows.

The FIFA/Adidas/Abramović collaboration is grotesque. But I don’t recall art critics frowning when Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno collaborated with Zidane—and Adidas, and La Liga—in their production, Zidane: un portrait du 21e siècle (2006). That work was only possible because Adidas saw it as good publicity. A reminder of this, for me: about five years ago, I tried to develop a program on experimental football cinema to propose to the Nike theater in Hollywood: the project fell apart because the Nike folks saw Zidane as an Adidas film.

I also don’t recall there being much irritation when Kehinde Whiley produced his 2010 advertisements for Puma. LACMA has been using that work all summer to advertise its exhibition Fútbol: The Beautiful Game. You will see this gorgeous ad for Puma’s “Africa Unity” kit on banners across Los Angeles. When male artists work with the commercial structures of football, folks in the art world enjoy the chance to feel like one of the guys. But when a woman does it, she’s whoring herself?

Kehinde Wiley, Samuel Eto'o (2010)

Kehinde Wiley, Samuel Eto’o (2010)

I’m not one to give Abramović a pass. But, excepting the medium (performance-based work v. visual art), I don’t see that she’s doing anything that much more awful than what blue-chip contemporary visual artists do pretty routinely. Why, review FIFA’s expensive special edition art posters. A complete set costs $6,589.99. There you will find an impressive (shameful!) array of artists who have licensed their work to FIFA.

Marina Abramović’s recent collaborations with dumb celebrity annoy most everyone in the neighborhood of performance art. The performance cited here was developed outside the charnel house. Her collaborations with Ulay were intense. In their own way, they could be painfully sincere. The deployment of that performance history and archive (with its serious affect, black and white photography, etc) within the World Cup economy is gross, but it is perhaps no more or less gross than anything else circling this particular drain.

FIFA’s Official Poster for 2015: It’s Pretty

Canada 2015 Women's World Cup Poster

Long, flowing hair. Clearly beautiful. At the center of this poster’s story is an ambiguous relationship between a woman and a ball. Something about this reminds me of the association of women with “the land.” The beautiful game is beautiful, we are reassured, even when women play it. Especially if they have long flowing hair. Isn’t the poster beautiful? It’s is! Because I can’t see anything good in anything that FIFA does, I am a wee bit afraid of this:

pocahontas

So some things to celebrate. No ponytail, for example. Some things to furrow one’s brows over: no image of a woman in action.

A reminder of how the men’s game is pictured:

pressrelease_282663_1379007819

Not only are players figured into the design above; they are figured into the design as in competition with each other. It would be interesting to see a similar gesture applied to representing the women’s game—but, from an advertising/marketing perspective, this is one of the “no-go” zones in the women’s game. Women competing directly against each other, physically challenging each other? Not as pretty as flowing hair, pretty eyes and high cheekbones.

That said, the 2015 Women’s World Cup has the best World Cup mascot ever. EVER. Someone please make me a lucha libre version of this:

owl

The Last Minute

Godfried Donkor, SANTO MARADONNA vs SIX OPPONENTS, 2006

Godfried Donkor, SANTO MARADONNA vs SIX OPPONENTS, 2006

At the knock-out stage of the World Cup we march through 90-minute deserts, or we are teased with the possibility of another world only to have those hopes dashed by a victory which asserts the relentless stability of the order of things.

A match may take the form of a siege. Opponents wear each other down with a negative effort. Play feels slowed down or sluggish. As one gets deeper into a tournament the fear of losing overcomes the desire to win until, finally, the latter asserts itself in the form of a late substitution (Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, in the 91st minute, against the US) or cynical play (Netherland’s Arjen Robben, in the 94th, against Mexico). Did Argentina and Switzerland play a match? It was hard to tell.

The conservative smothers the creative. Is this why the stadium was nearly silent as Brazil sank into a quagmire of anxiety? For the host country, even fans are done in by this particular form of dread—the misery of the winner who is really a loser, the most spectacular loser of them all, afraid the world will suddenly discover this ugly truth. What do we do with the fact that Brazil advanced not on the back of its play, but by virtue of being the luckier party in a Russian roulette penalty shoot-out? Even the one point they scored during the match was negative: although attributed to Luiz, it was at least partially an own-goal, having been deflected by poor Jara (who would miss his penalty and thereby sacrifice Chile to the Order).

If we are lucky, we see action in the form of the save. A team strikes at the goalie, over and over again. This excites us but it also distracts us. After we relaxed into the delusion that Tim Howard’s goal line is a wall (perhaps because it is past the point at which the match should have ended)—a new player pops onto the field and shows us that all along his team was only toying with us. We—by which I mean not the players so much as the fans—were always cannon fodder. Our delusions, food for the television camera.

A More Perfect World

Daniel Lara’s An Imperfect Universe is a beautiful project. We pass by pick-up games and local league matches every day; small communities of futbolistas are a part of our lives and our sense of home. If you’ve observed these games or played in them, you know that the balls are often worn. They are worn because they are in constant use and carry the traces of their travel across packed dirt and cement. Lara exchanged old balls for new ones; he carefully dissassembled and then patched together the worn balls to make sculptures. Each is an appreciation of the local; lo-fi love for the game.

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