Sports, Illustrated

An exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts explores the transformation of sports from leisure activity to mass spectacle

Harold Edgerton’s stroboscopic photograph Football Kick, 1938.


Curator David Little says the inspiration for “The Sports Show,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, came when he saw a Paul Pfeiffer exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. “I walk into this completely spare gallery with just these beautiful wood floors and barely perceptible speakers around the room, and the sound of this crowd,” he says. “Without being corny, it was one of those spine-chilling moments.”

Little had just discovered The Saints, a 2007 sound-and-video installation about the 1966 World Cup battle between West Germany and England. A video played footage of a lone English soccer player running around while the audio put the listener in the middle of the action. “It was really primal, in the way that sports becomes this ritualistic, political event,” says Little. There was only one microphone on the pitch at the actual game, so Pfeiffer outsourced the roar of the crowd to the Philippines, filling the actors with Red Bull and firing them up with video of Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. He then had them chant, “We won the war.”

Opening February 19, “The Sports Show” hosts the U.S. premiere of The Saints, along with other photo and video works that explore the transformation of sports from leisure activity to mass spectacle. Standard action shots à la Sports Illustrated don’t make the cut here, leaving room for Richard Avedon’s 1963 photo of a stoic Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) on a New York playground and Kota Ezawa’s 2008 digital animation of a brawl at a Pistons-Pacers game that ended with Ron Artest fighting members of the crowd. The show also features works by Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol, Wolfgang Tillmans, Martin Parr, and Stanley Kubrick.

“For millions of people, a lot of the exposure they have to issues of politics and race” comes through sports, says Little. One classic example is the Black Power salute given by two African American track stars while standing on the medals podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, represented here by a famed Associated Press photo. But often the cultural interplay is much subtler, as in Roger Welch’s O. J. Simpson Project. Three screens show footage of Simpson playing football and being interviewed; facing those images are projections of Buffalo Bills fans booing and cheering to the game. “One of the things that make it so enveloping is that the crowd, at least the people in front, are life size,” says Welch. His piece hasn’t been seen since its 1977 premiere, when the name O. J. Simpson no doubt carried different connotations than it does now.

“In the art world, there’s such an incredible prejudice against sports that it’s not taken seriously as a cultural form,” says Little. “I’m not trying to advocate in this show that sports is the source of all artistic work, but it’s a really fascinating subject.”

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