- Museum Victoria, ‘First football?’, Museum Victoria, Melbourne, viewed 29 May 2012, <http://museumvictoria.com.au/about/mv-news/2007/ first-football/>.
- Harry Allen (ed.), Australia: William Blandowski’s illustrated encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2010, p. 116.
The finalists of the Basil Sellers Art Prize are currently displayed at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne. This exhibition gathers together works which depict various artists' interpretations of sport and the influence it has had on both past and present Australian culture. This year, $100,000 will be awarded to the finalist who has produced the most outstanding piece of work. Below is a small selection of the finalists' work and a brief description of their pieces.
The exhibition will run from the 3rd of August—4th of November 2012 at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne. For further details visit the Basil Sellers Art Prize website.
The ancient Greeks were zealous in their pursuit of healthy bodies and athletics, staging the first Olympic Games in the eighth century BCE as part of a religious festival in honour of Zeus, the king of the gods. Traditionally, young athletes competed naked, enabling artists to study the human form in action. Numerous black- and red-figure vases are decorated with scenes of competitions and athletic victories, trainers and athletes.
For Sangeeta Sandrasegar, the goals of the athlete and the artist are linked. Both are found at the metaphorical boundaries of society, and each seeks a ‘divine’ aspect within the fullest possible human experience. Like the Greek god Dionysus, who existed on the borderline between the human and the divine, the athlete and the artist harness a restless to and fro movement at the very edges of human achievement.
Dionysus, or Bacchus as he was known to the Romans, was the child of Zeus and a mortal mother. Dionysus’s duality, his capacity to represent one thing and its opposite simultaneously, and his status as ‘outsider’ god, provide the philosophical framework for Sandrasegar’s new videos and paper cut-out work.
Her first video Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal, takes its title from Keats’s Ode to a Grecian urn. It features Sandrasegar, clothed anonymously in black, as a lone figure running through an Australian bush landscape, perhaps being chased or in search of escape. The silhouetted figure and pink-hued mise-en-scène echo the design of archaic black-figure vases, which often featured Dionysian iconography.
Sandrasegar’s second, related, video is titled enthusiasm, a word that comes from the Greek, meaning literally ‘possessed by God’. It was filmed early this year from the vantage point of an unseen runner looking backwards on a path in the lush Keralan countryside in South India. The video is saturated with colour and light, which has the effect of focusing our attention on the sky and the narrow, sun-dappled path.
Viewed together, the two videos present a circular course where the runner and meandering bush path in Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal are mirrored by the shadowy path in enthusiasm. Sandrasegar quotes Socrates:
Then it seemed like falling into a labyrinth; we thought we were at the finish, but our way bent round and we found ourselves as it were back at the beginning, and just as far from that which we were seeking at first.
When Christian Thompson was eleven years old, he finished in first place in a breaststroke heat at his primary school swimming carnival. Post-race, breathless and dripping, he watched confused as event officials distributed cards to three other competitors indicating their respective first, second and third place. Finally, a little yellow peg was placed into his hand, signifying disqualification on a point relating to one fleeting movement of his foot. Thompson disputes the validity of the disqualification to this day. And fragments of the event—his sheer physical depletion, the intensity of his brother’s poolside cheering, the elation of finishing first and the bitterness that accompanies a victory ‘robbed’—come to him with unmitigated clarity.
Thompson, an interdisciplinary artist of Bidjara (from the Kunja nation of central west Queensland) and European heritage, often acts as the subject of his own work. He poses in meticulously constructed portraits that play with the tensions within gender and cultural categories; between past and present, feminine and masculine, real and imagined, loss and regeneration. Thompson’s recent practice reflects a subtle shift from his earlier interest in the destabilisation of existing notions of cultural and sexual identity, towards asserting the presence of an essentially hybridized and ambiguous one.
The haunted figure of To make you feel this way is impossible to categorize. He is placeless, pictured against a pink but featureless background. Poised like a classical Greek sculpture, and wearing 1950s costume swimming cap and clashing hot pink lipstick, he cannot be circumscribed by era. He is androgynous. A slew of medals is pushed to one side of his neck, and his blacked-out eyes, as if observing the flag from a dais, gaze upward in a confounding blend of stoicism and regret, bitterness and pride.
Thompson, like many regular swimmers, uses the vast and isolating space offered in water for meditative, constructive thought. The head of the swimmer that he role-plays in To make you feel this way has been engraved into a series of gold medals in an accompanying work. Here the swimmer is symbolic of the stubborn wound that loss can inflict.
Brook Andrew has been working with ethnographic material from museums for over fifteen years. Australia 1 (2012) is based on an image from William Blandowski’s nineteenth- century album of sketches, titled Australia in 142 photographic illustrations from 10 years’ experience. Prussian-born Blandowski led a government expedition to the Murray and Darling river junctions in 1856–57, amassing a large collection of natural specimens and, aided by the expedition artist, documenting the traditions of the local Nyeri Nyeri people. Blandowski was a controversial figure in mid-nineteenth century Melbourne, and in 2007 his work was the subject of contention once more when an image from his expedition was used as proof of the origin of Australian rules football in Aboriginal culture.1
In the years since European contact, the successes of high- profile Australian Aboriginal sportspeople across the breadth of codes have contributed inestimably to a sense of empowerment and positive esteem within Aboriginal communities. Andrew is interested in sport as an avenue for promoting cultural pride and aspiration. Australia 1 is one of a series of works in which Andrew reanimates Blandowski’s archive through reproduction in large scale on a reflective surface of gold foil. The printed canvas evokes the romance and beauty of the classical landscape tradition. Andrew’s research has uncovered an intriguing aspect of the social life of one particular Aboriginal group. In notes attached to the original sketch on which Andrew’s Australia 1 is based, Blandowski wrote the following account:
When the Aborigines hold big meetings, they often pass the time with athletic games. The capturing of the emu feather is a popular game. One team gets a bundle of these feathers and one or two men from the other team try to take it off them. In the end both teams get help from all able men and the game develops into a big scuffle.2
By implication, Andrew’s work points to a history of sport that was silenced as a strategy and legacy of colonisation. The diverse sports developed by, for example, various south-east Australian Aboriginal groups, were integrated into their respective social customs but largely erased in the wake of European settlement. This refers not only to the athletic prowess, competition and pride engendered by traditional hunting methods, but also to games played for the purposes of social bonding, and for camaraderie.
Collectively, Hunter, Monument 4, and Australia 1 reflect Brook Andrew’s ongoing interest in traditions and stereotypes as well as the mass media and communication between cultures. They are stylistically diverse, but conceptually unified by Andrew’s interest in celebrating traditions of Australian Aboriginal athleticism.