Review: Grit!, Incinerator Art Space
Across three videos in Angela Tiatia’s Soft Power, two figures come together in a battle for physical supremacy. The pair take turns pushing each other repeatedly against a wall on one screen, in another they pick the other up and throw them, while in the third they grind heads together like two goats. These simple activities require no additional equipment other than the participant’s bodies, the only discernable rule dictating that they repeat each action until exhaustion prohibits them from doing so any longer. Despite the intimacy of this activity, the unwillingness of each competitor to acknowledge their competitor is poignant. As much as it is a contest between two people, each individual appears locked in competition with themselves and the limitations of their own physicality.
With a focus on the body, Grit! at Incinerator Art Space in Willoughy presents work by seven artists each invested in an exploration of sporting culture as it is incorporated into social and economic patterns of living. In their varied evocations of organised competition, these works combine to present the phenomenon of ‘sport’ as a structured way of living that transcends the traditional arena of contest, and which finds contemporary representation through a superposition of the figures of artist and athlete
Modern sport is a mode of viewing and occurs when competition transforms into spectacle. Indeed, the evolution of sport events from local entertainment to display of mass participation runs concurrent to the evolution of photography, moving image and mass media. With advancements in visual technologies of dissemination, we are daily witnesses to sport as spectacle, pop-cultural phenomena and political drama. Tracey Moffatt sifted through hours of television footage of the 2000 Sydney Olympics in order to find the subject matter of her photographic series Fourth. Concentrating her focus solely on those that placed fourth in the their respective event, she draws attention to the mechanics of an institution structured around degrees of only success. There is quite literally no further room inside the frame of the camera to capture anything other than the podium, (reserved for first, second and third place) with Moffatt noting the difficulty she experienced in finding any broadcasted images of fourth. This amounts to a lack of representation of people that ‘don’t succeed’ in mainstream media, obliterating narratives in which alternative versions of success occur. To finish fourth at the Olympics should be celebrated as a tremendous achievement. Instead, those who don’t make the podium are positioned as losers, despite their accomplishment.
The ubiquity of sports in mass media enacts the permeation of sporting culture into our everyday lives, imbuing them with the values and rituals of competition. Modern sport equips us with a mantra of action and competitiveness, a vocabulary and archive of clichéd narratives and emotions that render our every action a step towards winning at all costs. 110%’s work A Summit Wouldn’t Do Without You interrogates the archetypal journey towards success as it is represented by an image of a mountain in Western philosophies. The resulting work – a mountain/tent structure including video footage of a hike through an alpine region and allusions to climbing – is at once a metaphoric and literal tool for following one’s dreams. The trio utilise the work as both a means of imagining their ascent to the top of a Swiss mountain and as a way of conjuring the occurrence of the ascent itself (this iteration of the work is just one in a series that both documents and anticipates the group’s climb.) Such an entrepreneurial attitude also belongs to the figure of the professional artist, and 110% have furnished their tent with the ashes of burnt rejection letters for exhibitions and residency applications. The group draws parallels between the role of artist and athlete and the kind of work that they undertake with a view to progress and success. One notable similarity here is the authority that both athletes and artists have over their own product (the athlete’s is her own body and the artist’s the artwork that she makes). The unique output of these two figures within globalised economic patterns dictates that the only real obstacle between an individual and success are the limits of the individual themselves, positioning each the artist and athlete as exemplary types within an economy predicated on the extraction of capital from life itself.
The emphasis on self-improvement in both fields of art and sport is perfectly compatible with the values of neoliberal capitalism that render the body as its own enterprise. Angela Tiatia’s Soft Power demonstrates the implications of such a complete system for the body. The passivity of both competitors dictates that the ‘opponent’ becomes in effect nothing more than a weight with which the other may test the limits of their own body. In order to achieve success, economic and social systems geared towards self-improvement demand more time and energy from the human body than it can possibly expend, and eventually, a viewer can observe one of the exhausted pair giving up, swapping with the other. Against this backdrop, a labor-of-the-self as a means of attaining success appears Sisyphean, and the body fails in the face of such rigor.
Other works in Grit! echo these sentiments. Louse Hearman’s ambiguous paintings of AFL players can be read as evoking the particularly dark psychology of a mind under the same regimented stress as the body. Katy B Plummer’s Beast Trinity draws attention to the simultaneous manifestation and sublimation of such trauma specific to women, through highly contrived rituals of violence-diversion and release. Destiny Deacon’s Grandstanding highlights the voyeurism involved in such spectacles. In this work the AFL match becomes a metaphor for Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in Australia. The works in the show demonstrate the ways in which sporting culture has been integrated into our economic system to such a degree that as individuals, we find ourselves at the mercy of highly prescriptive rules, logics and systems of ‘play.’ At this point Danny Morse’s works – river stones painted to mimic sporting paraphernalia – remind us of the artifice of these systems and their fragility in the face of radical change. One slight adjustment to the game, a stone in the place of an AFL ball for example, and all the rules change.
Sebastian Henry-Jones is finishing his masters of art curation at the University of Sydney and is the co-founder of performance art event Desire Lines
Grit! is presented at Incinerator Art Space from 28 February to 25 March 2018, and features 110%, Destiny Deacon, Louise Hearman, Tracey Moffatt, Danny Morse, Katy B Plummer and Angela Tiatia.