Encountering a boxing match projected on the wall of a darkened room is pretty unlikely while roaming around Chelsea galleries — unless you’re at a Paul Pfeiffer show. The Hawaiian-born artist dissects the power dynamics embedded in competition, demonstrating an unconventional aesthetic through digital manipulation and editing techniques he applies to sports footage. Appropriated TV footage, in which individual players or teams vie for victory and affirmation, convey the human condition through fundamental notions such as gain, loss, and survival.
In the heart of Pfeiffer’s current untitled exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery is “Three Figures in a Room” (2015–16), a two-channel immersive video and audio installation that absorbs the audience into one of the most hyped and invested boxing matches in history. Fought between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather in May 2015, the match was broadcast live from MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas and grossed $410 million solely from pay-per-view sales. Concluding with Mayweather’s victory, the duel, despite having been relentlessly promoted as the “event of the year,” failed to meet the expectations of the myriad fans who anticipated a ruthless battle. It was later mocked with the expression “better never than late,” referring to the years-long efforts to lock two fighters into the ring. While depiction of failure through sports culture has always been a prominent theme for Pfeiffer, this particular match, remembered for its disappointedly low-key dynamic and inability to fulfill its massive buildup, allows the artist to examine contradictions attributed to dual battle: victory and defeat, power and impotence, agony and ease.
Performed on such a testosterone-fueled stage, displays of physical competence and demonstration of the survival instinct infuse both players’ movements amid a massive crowd avidly clamoring for their combat. Pfeiffer has stripped from the footage its actual audio: the sound of leather gloves smacking into skin, audience cheers, and the chatter of the commentators. Instead, he uses the work of professional Foley technicians who create sound for films using mundane objects. The second channel shows the recording studio where these technicians use similar boxing gloves and other, more unexpected objects to add an audio component to the otherwise muted fight. The video switches back and forth between two screens, so the monotonous artificial sound of the cutthroat battle is disturbed by the technicians’ comments about their work rather than that of the commentators regarding the match. The two men ardently fighting are plunged into an abject quiescence in which carnal motivations encapsulate the yearning to destroy.
Demonstration of masculinity through violence and physical competence is challenged by the unauthentic texture of the fighters’ abrupt footsteps, exhausted breaths, and battered skins. The absence of the roar surrounding the stadium helps the joust between the two men command the 48-minute video. The rawness of the human encounter, primarily relying on physical combat and a performance of masculinity, is epitomized within the confines of two bodies oscillating between sharp harmony and futile struggle. The two famed fighters, who are known outside of the boxing ring for domestic violence accusations and homophobic slurs, through a performance that is peeled off to its core, render the human condition with its flaws and wounds. Throughout the piece, Pfeiffer scrutinizes the patriarchal voice and macho rhetoric — which has been extensively promoted and normalized during and after the recent presidential election, particularly through Donald Trump’s numerous comments to and about women — while complicating its visual and audio codes. Popularized by the mainstream media, these codes span from macho gestures to sexist jargon, and eventually pervade into the mundane through repetition.
Pfeiffer’s subversion of such codes through digital manipulation expands to the next room in the gallery, where a set of videos are screened on custom-made chrome televisions in various sizes and forms. Resuming the artist’s ongoing Caryatid series from 2004, these slow-motion videos present excerpts from different boxing matches where one fighter has been digitally removed, illustrating the loneliness and destruction embedded in one half of any two-person battle. Invisible sources of blows bursting on the boxers’ bodies and the visible fighters’ resistance against an ethereal force depict mankind’s tragic commitment for survival and endorsement.
Paul Pfeiffer’s untitled exhibition continues at Paula Cooper Gallery (521 W 21st street) through December 7.