HOWZAT!: An Australian Spin on Sport and Art

The Basil Sellers Art Prize
The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne
3 August – 4 November 2012

Basil Sellers exhibits all the ambition, long term strategy and sheer bloody mindedness of an elite athlete. In 2008 the businessman and philanthropist, with the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne, instigated a ten year program of biennial prizes dedicated to art about sport. Offering $100,000 prize money, one of Australia’s richest art awards, the Basil Sellers Art Prize is squarely aimed at making sport a more prevalent subject in contemporary Australian art. The championing of sport as a subject for the arts is nothing new. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin set about establishing the modern day Olympics at the close of the nineteenth century, he was adamant that it follow the precedent of the ancient Greek Games by instituting artistic competitions as one of its central activities.1 Although Olympic art competitions officially ceased in 1948 their legacy lingers in the gargantuan cultural events that accompany each instalment of the games, as in the case of the recent London 2012 Festival.2 

What distinguishes the Basil Sellers Prize is its national agenda. Australia, as a nation, has a particularly rabid infatuation with sport in all its forms. For evidence of this we need only think of the hordes of sleep deprived people stumbling about with bleary eyes and a newly acquired passion for the world of cycling during Cadel Evans’s herculean efforts to win the 2011 Tour de France. The abundance of government, corporate and private resources dedicated to a dazzling array of domestic and international sporting events points to sports special status within the national psyche. In 1962, social commentator Donald Horne argued,

Sport to many Australians is life and the rest a shadow. Sport has been the one national institution that has had no ‘knockers’. To many it is considered a sign of degeneracy not to be interested in it. To play sport, or watch others and to read and talk about it is to uphold the nation and build its character. Australia’s success at competitive international sport is considered an important part of foreign policy.3

The utter dominance of sport in public discourse in modern day Australia (fostered through a plethora of television shows, radio segments, newspaper columns and websites dedicated to the subject) suggests that not a lot has changed in the fifty years since Horne made these observations. In light of the slavish media attention afforded to sport, we might ask if more representations of it are needed. Beyond Basil Sellers’s rather optimistic rationale that the subject of sport will make art more palpable to the general public and in turn engender a long term passion for it, what is to be gained by promoting sport as a subject for art?4 

It is precisely because of sport’s central role in Australian culture that it warrants the attention of contemporary artists. Artists are in a unique position to engage with the social and political contexts in which sport exists. Director of the Ian Potter Museum, Chris McAuliffe, is keen to advance a broad definition of sport, encompassing ‘complex social agendas (public health campaigns, early childhood development, community-building strategies) and the elaborate network of technology and capital that underpins the global entertainment spectacle of professional sport (television, satellite communications, internet gambling, celebrity endorsements, merchandise)’.5 This expanded notion encompasses a diverse range of historical and contemporary experiences and circumstances. 

Since its inception, the Basil Sellers Art Prize has presented the work of many high calibre finalists, the majority of whom have taken a critically sophisticated approach to their subject. The last prize, exhibited in 2010, included a number of provocative reflections on the more sinister aspects of sporting cultures. Tarryn Gill and Pilar Mata Dupont’s spectacular video work of gymnasts executing a mass choreographed routine made allusions to the politically charged dangers of ‘mob’ mentality; while Ponch Hawkes’s photographic series explored the endemic misogynism, substance abuse and sexual misdemeanours within Australian sport. 

The fifteen finalists in the 2012 prize tended to display a more positive, in some cases openly affectionate, approach to their subject. This was nowhere more evident than in the winning work by Jon Campbell, Dream Team (2012), which memorialised his top twenty-two Australian Football League (AFL) players of all time. Evoking the inventiveness and form of homemade banners and placards, Campbell painted the players’ nicknames in an assortment of playful scripts on small scale boards. In one, Captain Blood (Jack Dyer) was fashioned from comical ‘haunted house’ script; in another Daisy (Dale Thomas) appeared in chunks of disjointed text as though constructed from disparate magazine prints; while Wow (Warren Jones) broke up the picture plane into delectable gelato coloured segments. 

Evincing Campbell’s ongoing fascination with the codes, symbols and vernacular of suburban culture, Dream Team embraced the lexicon of a shared sporting community. Ian Potter Museum curator, Joanna Bosse, notes, ‘Campbell reflects on the agency of language to define the heavily fetishized threshold that distinguishes a true fan (or initiate) from a mere spectator’.6 With an astonishing economy of means he deftly articulated tactics embraced by fans to cultivate a sense of belonging in an increasingly fractured and fluid society. 

Brook Andrew’s Australia 1 (2012) similarly suggested the power of sport to generate a sense of proud collective identity. The large scale work re-presented, in metallic grandeur, a sketch of a group of men from the Nyeri Nyeri community energetically engaged in a game. The original sketch was produced by William Blandowski on a government sponsored ethnographic survey of the Murray and Darling River junctions in 1856-57, and has subsequently been used as evidence of the origin of AFL in Aboriginal culture.7 Australia 1 was accompanied by a neon wall work showing an Indigenous hunter and a solemn wooden monument mounted with an enlarged boomerang. 

Aboriginal athletes have experienced ongoing success and acclaim in AFL and it has subsequently become an important source of cultural pride for the broader Indigenous community. Andrew’s allusion to the potential Aboriginal genesis of the game signals the beginnings of a new history for a culture that has seen many of its traditions erased. The work thus operates on the fault line between cultural inclusion and exclusion, belonging and ostracisation. Andrew’s references to the boomerang and the hunter speak of other traditional forms of Aboriginal athleticism, and call us to consider the social customs and knowledge that has been lost through the massacre, displacement, and suppression of Indigenous people through colonisation. 

Christian Thompson explored the themes of cultural estrangement more overtly in To make you feel this way (2012). Using himself as a model, he created a confounding photographic portrait which conflates normative cultural categories. Situated in a ‘placeless’ pink studio, Thompson adopted the pose of a classical Greek sculpture, adorned in a decorative 1950s swimming cap, hot pink lipstick and a swag of fake gold medals swung around his neck. If the confusion of traditional gender signifiers was not perplexing enough, his body was covered with flaky gold leaf resembling diseased metallic skin and his eyes had been completely blacked out. This meticulously crafted image worked to unsettle and perplex. The figure presented by Thompson is an ill match to the clearly articulated model of the elite athlete so venerated in Australia. The work coyly parodies a culture in which competition and physical prowess is celebrated above all, but also hints at the violence of suppression experienced by those who do not readily fit or aspire to these kinds of cultural moulds. 

Richard Bell took a broader historical view in his series of paintings on Australians that have displayed the principles of courage and fair play, so prized within sporting communities, in the political realm of race relations. A White Hero for Black Australia (2011), a collaboration with Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, provided a pop inspired depiction of the well known incidence in which two black American runners, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists in a ‘black power salute’ at the award ceremony of the 1968 Olympic Games two hundred metre sprint. Peter Norman, a white Australian who had run third, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge at the ceremony in support. All three athletes suffered serious repercussions for their actions; Smith and Carlos were stripped of their medals, while Norman was prohibited from representing Australia at the Munich Olympics in 1972, despite qualifying. In Foley vs the Springboks (lone protester) (2012), Bell depicts Aboriginal activist Gary Foley holding a placard with the words ‘Pardon me for being born into a nation of racists’, a protest against the 1971 Australian rugby tour of the South African Springboks, a white-only South African team targeted as a symbol of apartheid. 

While the paintings memorise the brave actions of specific individuals, they also shine a light on Australia’s position and responsibilities within transnational political networks. In doing so they provide a powerful counter model to the notion of sport as an escapist retreat or a tool for bolstering blinkered nationalism. This is a sentiment that can be expanded more broadly. Both sport and art have the potential to act as conduits between peoples in a global context, helping us to reflect on the values that define us, the things that unite and divide us, and encouraging us to aspire to perform at our very best. 

Christian Thompson, To make you feel this way, 2012. Type C photograph, 120 x 120cm. Edition of 10. Courtesy the artist, Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne and Chalk Horse, Sydney. 

Jon Campbell, Dream team, 2012. Detail. Enamel paint on plywood, 22 paintings, installation (variable) 300 x 300cm. Courtesy the artist, Kalimanrawlins, Melbourne and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney. 

Brook Andrew, Australia 1, 2012. Mixed media on canvas, 200 x 300cm. Courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne. 

notes: 

1. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, 1931 cited by Raymond T. Grant, ‘The Cultural Influence of Pierre de Coubertin. A Contemporary Context’, Arts Management Network, October 2006, http://www.artsmanagement.net/index.php?module=News&func=display&sid=828 (accessed 15 Aug 2012).

2. Running from 21 June to 9 September 2012, the London 2012 Festival was the finale of the London Cultural Olympiads, showcasing over 12,000 cultural events and performances brought together in celebration of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

3. Donald Horne, The Lucky Country, 3rd ed., Penguin, Melbourne, 1977, p.37. 

4. See Basil Sellers AM, ‘Benefactor’s Welcome’, Basil Sellers Art Prize 2008, cat. ex., Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2008, p.4.

5. Chris McAuliffe, ‘Life, Shadow and Spectacle: An Overview of Art and Sport in Australia’, Basil Sellers Art Prize 2008, cat. ex., Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2008, p.7.

6. Joanna Bosse, ‘Jon Campbell’, Basil Sellers Art Prize 2012, cat. ex., Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2012, p.15.

7. Suzette Wearne, ‘Brook Andrew’, Basil Sellers Art Prize 2012, cat. ex., Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2012, p.9. See Museum Victoria, ‘First football?’, Museum Victoria, Melbourne, http://museumvictoria.com.au/about/mv-news/2007/first-football/