Hard Targets: Masculinity and Sports @ LACMA

On October 8th, LACMA opened Contemporary Projects 11: Hard Targets–Sports and Masculinity, a survey exploring the intersection of masculinity and sports in contemporary culture and artistic practices.

Curated by Christopher Bedford (himself a player of rugby and American football), the show poses athleticism not in diametric opposition to artistic expression, but rather as a kind of male-dominated theatrical spectacle of gender performance. In Bedford’s accompanying exhibition article, he noted, “This new interest among practicing artists in the imagery of and materials associated with men’s sports can be traced to the increasingly polymorphous depictions of star athletes in the media. More and more often, popular magazines such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine publish portraits that lavish as much attention on the bodies and apparel of male athletes as has traditionally been accorded female models and celebrities endorsing cosmetics, clothing, and perfumes.”

This hypersexualization, or offering up of the male body and identity for consumer culture, is on the one hand liberating, yet also a cause for concern. While women have long been objectified as a means to fuel commercial desire, now it appears men are subjected to the same unflinching, and unattainable vision. Yet the implications of imposing such unattainable ideals upon masculinity are apparently a new subject for consideration, the implications of which still as of yet unknown.

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Works within the exhibition included a composite kaleidoscopic sneaker sculpture by Brian Jungen, and a Jeffrey-Koons style talisman-like homage to a soccer ball by Mark Bradford. Artist Joe Sola created a video that explores the psychic struggle to realize strength and repress weakness through a fantastical metaphor. Harun Farocki displayed Deep Play (2007), a twelve-channel, multi-perspective, video-based deconstruction of the 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy.

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Collier Schorr offered up spectacularly visceral images of high school wrestlers and their training environment in an exploration of male adolescent sexuality and performance. In his exhibition text, Bedford notes, “Unlike the other five exhibition artists discussed, who use strategies such as performance and appropriation to confront and reframe the question of masculinity in sport, Schorr suggests that the same depth‚Ķ it is evident in the raw subjects alone if observed closely and captured at the right moment.”

In an email conversation with Bedford, Schorr herself noted her creative process behind capturing the male wrestlers: “Perhaps fifty kids were present at any given time. I would bob and weave between some twenty-two pairs of wrestlers, always within inches of being knocked over. Moving around in that 100-degree room, I could almost feel like I was mirroring their activity, so the very act of photographing felt like dancing or fighting. With that body of work I wanted to position the viewer within the situation rather than outside it . . . The performers in that project were wrestlers, but they were aware of the camera’s ability to further activate the heightened sense of reality in the room and the abstract ways in which they experienced space and motion.”

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Perhaps the most adrenaline-inducing work of the night was a live performance by Shaun Leonardo. In keeping with his previous performative explorations into male gender identity within the context of athleticism, Leonardo re-enacted a brutal drill he used to participate in during his ten years of playing American football, as an arena to explore conceptions of male gender identity, sexuality and popular culture.

Entitled Bull in the Ring, the practice itself entailed a group of ten players encircling Leonardo, and rotating one by one, charging him unexpectedly. The experience was surely comparable to being jumped by a gang- with attacks coming from any angle, and little hope of defending yourself. Leonardo was severely hit again and again, and even knocked to the floor in one instance. Leonardo noted, “The radius is only ten yards. Even if you are quick enough to see the oncoming player, you’re lucky if you get a few steps forward and are able to hit back with some of your own force to defend yourself against the oncoming player at all.” In a move that can only be described as brave, Leonardo and his gallery, Rhys Mendes Gallery, hired a team of semi-pro football players- some with stats of 6’9, 295 lbs- to tackle him in the entirely unscripted drill.

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“Though the tactic was supposedly designed to increase awareness and alertness, often times the guy in the center gets so frightened, it really becomes a practice that functions in an opposite manner from its purpose‚ĶIt’s really designed to prove a person’s toughness in a vicious manner, or isolate the weak. There’s a part in the drill where if the middle man moves aside to dodge the oncoming player, people will snicker and scream ‘Ole,’ as if he is a matador, meekly evading the bull rather than taking it on head first,” says Leonardo.

Leonardo’s impetus behind the drill was to highlight it, and in a larger context, American football and athleticism, as a beautiful metaphor for the process of gendering and shaping the male identity. “Isolating male individuals is pervasive in the work force, in the military, fatherhood… the idea is that you become part of a group, but to encompass a true sense of manhood you must also prove your own authority.” In a larger sense, the practice also seems true of the American isolationist tendency to place emphasis on an individual above the group.

Leonardo’s interest in the particular drill is rooted in a direct personal narrative–when he was in high school, he performed the drill and survived nearly every member of the team’s attack–until the very last player completely destroyed him, flipping him horizontal in the air. In some ways, Leonardo’s gravitation towards the exercise was also a nostalgic way to re-enact the past.

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By engaging in a fight that is at once both fictive and actual, detested and fondly remembered, Leonardo highlights the sport as a kind of spectacle of hyper-masculinity, and examines his own tenuous and complicated relationship to his own gender identity. Leonardo notes, “Inherently in all my work I tell people half of it is critique, half of it is desire‚Ķ but there is a certain nerve in my body that is looking forward to it in every single way.”

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This bipolar attitude towards athleticism within contemporary culture–at once rife with desire, and replete with critique–seemed particularly apt to describe the artist’s attitudes towards the rituals, regalia and spectacle of athletic activity. While the works did offer an alternative understanding of the archetypical male athletic as aggressive, overtly heterosexual and hyper-competitive, they still displayed a certain longing to be the hypermasculine hero that increasingly smatters our contemporary cultural landscape. Though the selection of artists were brief in scope, Bedford’s foray into athleticism as an avenue to examine male gender identity succeeded in bringing the issue to the fore as an interesting grounds for exploration.

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