BERLIN — Today, more than ever, athletes are presented as role models. We are asked to admire their discipline in the quest for physical perfection. We are presented with the neo-liberal myth of how they have used their talent to “overcome” poverty or social disadvantage. We are taught that major events like the Olympics build community. Sports, we are told, support everything from health and social mobility to warmer international relations and peace. The broad acceptance of this story line is evidenced not only by the measurably successful self-promotion of sporting associations and events like the World Cup, but also in the societal reverberations of shock and outrage when a sports star falls from grace, as though they were not fallible and flawed in the same way as us mere mortals.
The exhibition Contesting/Contexting SPORT — spread between the glossy NGBK and the labyrinthine Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, a few minutes’ walk away — is a rare, focused critique of the self-serving mythologies that surround professional sports, as well as a celebration of the emancipatory spirit of the community, grassroots kind. Sports and art are often seen as natural enemies, mutually exclusive. But the former has an expansive global reach and broad sociopolitical impact — making it perfect fodder for the latter’s critical eye.
The first work one passes when entering the long, narrow gallery at NGBK ticks off one of the most obvious and well-publicized criticisms of the current sports landscape: sexism. Tom Weller’s video “…im Ballbesitz” (In possession of the ball, 2016) juxtaposes commentary, media coverage, and on-field performances of the German men’s and women’s soccer teams. The contrast could not be more stark. While the men’s team players are famous, adored, and richly rewarded, the women — despite winning the World Cup without conceding a single goal — mop the floors in their own changing rooms and barely make a living wage from their professional careers. This piece sets the tone for the exhibition in that it unabashedly dismantles the constructs that shelter us from the reality of how damnably unequal competitive sports is.
At NGBK, the curators (a collaborative group comprised of Mikel Aristegui, Imtiaz Ashraf, Željko Blaće, Sarah Bornhorst, Andreea Carnu, Caitlin D. Fisher, Carmen Grimm, and Stuart Meyers) make good use of the white cube to showcase several high-production-value sculptures. The dominance of these works effectively reminds us that this is an exhibition about the body — and we are never allowed to forget the manifold identity politics and social implications inherent in bodily pursuits. Take, for example, the gleaming pole installed by Saúl Sellés, at the base of which is a video monitor. The piece, titled “Blando” (2015), expounds on the gender imbalance laid bare in Weller’s work but adopts an entirely different point of view. “Blando” documents a male athlete performing a pole dance routine. The extreme exertion required of the obviously in-shape male body underscores the way that female physicality is always defined in terms of sexuality, regardless of the skill or power involved in an activity. The muscleman audibly huffs and strains through the routine in front of a live audience, offering a succinct commentary on the double standards placed on women to not only perform feats of physical strength and endurance (whether as exotic dancers or simply as people navigating the world in high heels) but to do so silently, without exposing the effort required. Contrary to the ideology sold by the capitalist industry, these works demand that there’s nothing neutral or innocent about the ways we engage with each other or with our historical moment through sports.
Meanwhile, Marisa Maza’s “freie intervalle” (Free intervals, 1997/98) explores the blurring of the supposedly immutable sex/gender divide in elite sports. “My bodily hair grew rapidly. My sexual behavior changed. … I ceased to menstruate. My clitoris took on embarrassing proportions,” reports the subject of Maza’s video work, a professional speed skater. The tone or emotion of the delivery of these intimate details is obscured; the information is presented as text against a blurred close-up of powerful legs, lycra-clad thighs pumping in a speed-skating sprint. The work underscores the irony of a system that’s predicated upon a binary definition of sex identity but also promotes practices that engender the breaking down of this artificial dichotomy. The anonymization of the skater and the avoidance of emotional cues mirror the sense of dehumanization in this process.
Similarly, in David Miguel’s “In God We Trust” (2013), it’s what is absent from the piece that carries the most weight. A basketball hoop dripping with gold chains floats above a pair of high-top basketball shoes with a conspicuously large nail through the toes; these elements immediately resolve themselves into the shape of a cross. Miguel’s wall work prompts a long train of thoughts and associations. Referencing African American rap and basketball culture on the one hand and the crucifixion on the other, “In God We Trust” is about the racial divide in sports, the way athletes of color are both revered and constantly on the precipice, the media and public ready to condemn them for perceived or real misdemeanors, while white athletes are far more swiftly forgiven. Just look at the plentiful examples from the current Olympiad: the fuss about Gabby Douglas not putting her hand on her heart for the national anthem or the plight of Caster Semenya versus the lying of Ryan Lochte and his teammates and the backflips and contortions required to justify, or at least minimize, their actual wrongdoing and illegal activity.
In contrast to the critiques of the professional sporting world that resound throughout NGBK, the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien space is devoted, for the most part, to a survey of community groups and associations that use sports as a tool for empowerment and emancipation, or a metaphor for broader social inequalities. Lola Lasurt’s humorous The Match; Married Women Against Single Ones (2014) presents video documentation of a soccer-match-as-group-performance and a series of painted sketches; the work is biting in its casting of the competition between women for the attention of men in an absurdly literal way. Several rooms are given over to photo documentation of and written statements about such groups as the Box Queers in Berlin or the Aquahomo association in Paris, who use sports to bind and strengthen their dedication to political causes (in these two examples, the fight against homophobia and transphobia). The mood is celebratory; there’s a sense of rejoicing in these groups that are usually rendered invisible and the strength in community they’ve built for themselves.
The Kunstraum exhibition has the approachable, unpretentious feel of a community museum, which, in a way, it is. But this does mean that some of the more imposing works, like Cassils’s “Fast Twitch// Slow Twitch” (2011), an incredible video projection capturing the artist’s extreme bodybuilding process, or Marc Ohrem-Leclef’s Olympic Favela (2016), a poignant documentary and photo series about the fisher families who were callously displaced by the preparations for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, feel a bit watered down. They could have used more space to allow for the full impact; Ohrem-Leclef’s works, for example, are crowded onto one wall of a small room.
Contesting/Contexting SPORT is ambitious, and for the most part, it fulfills its ambitions. The exhibition is a timely analysis and critique of the world of professional sports, which has consistently proven itself to be in need of an overhaul. It also celebrates the redeeming — communal, amateur, noncommercial — aspects of sports, as well as the relationship between the body and politics, something that in the cerebral world of art is often ignored. The show’s two sections are sides of the same coin, but Contesting/Contexting SPORT demonstrates how one of those sides has been allowed to grow out of all proportion — just like, one might say, a sports star’s ego.