Shortly after the opening of Fútbol: The Beautiful Game at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) I had the opportunity to speak with the exhibition’s curator, Franklin Sirmans. It was actually three days after the exhibition opened to the public, to be precise, and I’m grateful to Sirmans for scheduling a walkthrough with me during what is a busy time in the life of a curator.
After reviewing the exhibition for Africa Is A Country there remained a number of questions I had about the position of politics, money, and representation of race, nationality, and gender in the game and the exhibition. The following transcript of my conversation with Sirmans is illuminating on these and many other issues related to the practice and pleasure of football, art, and its many intersections. The interview has been edited only for clarity and (when possible) brevity. Note: you can click on all images, courtesy of LACMA, to enlarge.
My first question is an obvious one – what was the impetus behind the exhibition?
Franklin Sirmans: Really, thinking about the World Cup coming up and the opportunity that it represents, thinking about that space as being, well, it’s one of the few spaces… I don’t hear, at least in my world, not everybody is talking about Sochi. In my world, people are waiting for Brazil! For me, as far as what we do here with contemporary, it’s contemporary [art] within an encyclopedic museum. So, we’re always thinking about other departments, other points of time, and how do we speak to our audiences in different ways? It felt like this space, this space of an exhibition that pulls its theme or subject from something that is usually outside of the museum, it felt like a really fertile space to think about it.
And then on a personal level I had been interested for a long time in any artwork that happens to touch on football. I just keep a kind of mental directory of that sort of stuff, and really had certain things in mind from the very beginning and that’s what I pitched to my colleagues. Things like the piece on Zidane by Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) – they are two artists that we talk about a lot. We just acquired a piece by Parreno called Marilyn (2012) last year, so he’s an artist we’re talking about. Or even the Warhol at the end [Pelé, 1978] – these are anchors I could see that make at least an outline, and then you’re amazed by what keeps coming up and what we keep seeing. And I think there’s always something new. Every four years there’s a different way of addressing [football]. So then it comes down to, ‘well, if you have those anchors like Nelson Leirner,’ which we’re here in front of now, then you also can look deeper and think about younger artists who have made things in the last few years.
So the impetus was on the one hand thinking about Brazil, on the other hand thinking about us in contemporary art and what we can offer from this encyclopedic museum.
In that vein, there’s been a lot of praise for the inclusion of the Self Help Graphics & Art work, commissioned by Evonne Gallardo, and featuring local artists – there are other local artists in the exhibition as well – how did the idea come about to collaborate with Self Help Graphics on this?
I’ve known Evonne for more than 20 years so it seemed too perfect! [laughs] I don’t even remember exactly how it came up. We had met for breakfast maybe, not so long ago, and I told her about [the exhibition]. It seemed too easy and too obvious. I think when I was in the studio, I had seen something of Dewey [Tafoya]’s that related to the game in some way, so that was a big trigger. Evonne came up with five prints altogether, and it just made it perfect.
Also, the sense of… graphically, there’s a language that’s about prints and about the process of printmaking. It’s about the multiplicity of images that are drawn from that first artwork, and the way that they’re distributed as a multiple that is important to this space. There’s always an icon or poster that’s associated with the World Cup. For us, these are those in some ways. You can see the graphic character that comes out of that relationship. Particulary in the case of Nery Gabriel Lemus’s piece [Thank You for the Game, 2013], which has that this black and green ‘70s aesthetic and then the ball made out of leaves. It’s a political statement at the same time. The tradition of printmaking and posters has lent itself well to that idea. It was perfect.
Ana [Serrano]’s piece here – this is something that isn’t absent but perhaps isn’t as highlighted as it could be as frequently – is portrayals of the women’s game and women in the game.
Could you talk about representation, the thought you put into who is showing and what particularly is showing?
It was more so who was in the exhibition, and Evonne did an incredible job with that. For me, those past works – what were they? I think what I was trying to allude to in the beginning was not only are there artists that we’ve been looking at for a long time, artists we’re collecting, but a certain familiarity with the subject matter. I think we have some artists who are addressing soccer for what could be their first time, and you have others who have made 10 works about the same thing. So in terms of thinking about representation, it was about the work first and foremost, and then about what you’re bringing to the table – ‘what I know.’
So I would say the other thing that centered us was the idea that it was for Brazil and for the coming World Cup in particular. There could be more of a lot of things, you know? I think someone was saying the other day “Oh, there’s no Orozco in the show” and I’m like, “No, there’s not! You’re right, and he has done a lot of work in the game.”
In a way it’s refreshing to see a lot of work coming from artists who aren’t canonized within what is still a small genre of work on football.
Absolutely – I mean hear we have Nery and Ana, here’s Ami’s [Amitis Motevalli] piece –
I love Ami’s piece!
– Oh yes, it absolutely brings in other elements. And then Dewey [Tafoya]’s piece [Olmeca 1370 BCE, 2013, pictured above], I think particularly in the relationship with the Leirner stadium, the nationalist treasure stadium of Brazil, and then the national reference [in Tafoya’s piece] to Mexico 1970 when the final was in Azteca stadium.
Something Africa Is A Country and Football Is A Country contributors and readers are really critical of despite their love of the sport is of course the political dimension – the commodification that George Afedzi Hughes’ work addresses, but also the violence that’s inherent in the sport.
You know, it’s funny, for the first time I had a feeling walking by this [Andreas Gursky, Amsterdam, EM Arena 1, 2000] because I had to look back at exactly when it was. It’s a Euro qualifier from 2000 and the Dutch ended up winning this match against France in Amsterdam. It just reminded me of some of that sense of diversity of nationalisms. Of course these are the national teams but some of these guys play for clubs together. [Dennis] Bergkamp and Sylvain [Wiltord] are playing together, [Edgar] Davids is over there – it’s the team that wins the Euro and then wins the World Cup. And it’s a very celebrated team for its diversity and for its ways of re-examining what’s happening in France at that time. But yes, the two paintings by George Afedzi Hughes are very much about his relationship to the game in Africa, and being from Ghana he is talking about this piece [Parallel] with the striker, with the background lettering referring to what could be the position in the game, but then this sniper rifle and a hint of something else going on, of violence, of a different situation.
The other painting is also quite specific to Africa, in which he’s referring to Pelé saying that an African country should win by the end of the 20th century, and him saying, ‘Well that didn’t happen but I think 2030 is a more realistic kind of timeframe.’ And Satch [Hoyt]’s piece is really about this in many ways – George’s piece is called Made In The Colonies and Satch’s piece [Kick That, 2006] is the presence of Africa in Europe, and some of the issues that have gone along with that. So the commodification of the game, the commodification of people – with the Euro sign on the ball, sitting on these bananas that have been thrown at people. And part of the soundtrack relates to that in some ways too.
Well, in a way an African country did win the Cup in the 20th century if we count France.
I love the juxtaposition here of Hoyt’s bananas right across from Lyle Ashton Harris’ series, if only because I remember him – a while ago, maybe in 2009? – I saw him speak on a huge painting based on a cartoon of Zidane getting his feet massaged by… who was it? Eto’o? [Edit: I was referring to Harris’ Blow Up IV (Sevilla), 2006) – and the massage is definitely not from Eto’o.]
I don’t remember either.
But it was clear that Harris has obviously observed football but I don’t think he necessarily has a relationship with it because he neglected, in his particular reading, the racial dimensions that Zidane also faces. And here we have Italian fans whom are ostensibly also throwing bananas on the pitch.
Right, and these are in particular – he did the Rome residency – two of the contested images are from Verona, which is well known for its Ultra fans. You get this sort of fascist salute thing happening almost as part of your representation for your team, which is quite… a trippy thing. Also suggested is that sort of military presence or police presence that is also a part of the game. I mean, for me, I lived in Milan for two years at a time when George Weah was there and Ibrahim Ba was there, and they’re world celebrated super stars. Weah goes back and runs for president, right? But having a certain feeling that I don’t know if I’m going to the Meazza to watch that, in that environment, and watching on television and seeing Paul Ince playing for Inter at that time and seeing bananas being thrown at him. How do we reconcile all that? So we know that we call it the beautiful game but it’s not always beautiful.
And then I think there are two video works in here that go back to a sense of innocence that is not in the works we just talked about. Oscar Murillo’s piece from Columbia [Perreo] is really just a portrait of a childhood friend. This guy [in the video] with the kit that says Parreo on the back, he’s an old friend of his, and he periodically does these videos that are extended self-portraits. But it’s also about the vitality of daily life and how the game insinuates itself very casually, just part of living. You have some people that are off to the side, not looking at anybody, talking to themselves. Some people who join the game, play for a minute, and then come off. It’s just part of the fabric of life.
And also with Robin Rhode [Hondjie, 2001], also suggestive of the possibilities of something out of nothing. Like, in Nery’s piece where he’s got the ball cobbled together from natural material, in this piece there is no ball. Robin is making this active juggling by drawing directly on the wall and I think it’s suggestive at the same time of the simplicity of the game and the beauty of that simplicity.
And that’s the most common sight you’ll see in any football loving country – some kid with a ball just juggling by themselves. Or, you know, in downtown LA!
That’s something to me, having moved to LA from New York and being part of an Egyptian family, growing up with the game… when I came to LA it was really hard to locate soccer. You know it’s happening, obviously, it’s not as present or as daily – finding a bar to watch a match in is almost impossible.
So I think this is a big deal in that way, that LACMA would feature a sport that for all intents and purposes is kind of pushed to the side in the city.
That’s the thing that I’m trying to discover after living here for 4 years – there are so many different parts of LA and if you don’t know, you really don’t know! I know it’s there, and obviously, it’s a language. You go to MacArthur Park? It’s there, all the time. You see it in these places, but I agree – it’s not the same as being in the sort of urban space where you’re all bunched up against each other. It’ so much more spread out.
I’ve seen mentions of the show on soccer sites from all over the place. How has the reception from Angelinos been so far?
So far it’s been great. We’ve had wonderful press, people having a good time with the opening, having music there and trying to suggest other possibilities of going to the museum and of what you might see. I think that’s our strength – to be able to walk into Calder and look at mobiles from the 1930s and then come over here to the second floor and immerse yourself in the atmospheres of James Turrell, where you don’t know what exactly you’re looking at so you experience it with your body. And then to come in here and have a different kind of experience through painting, video, photography, print. It’s that sort of balance and thinking about ways in which – you know we came in through the BP Pavilion – a lot of what we think about is how do people go about daily life, like we’re talking about, and use this space as a space for thinking, talking, sharing ideas. I think the game represents that to a lot of us, obviously, or we wouldn’t be talking.
[to Stephanie Sykes, LACMA Communications Manager] Are you a football fan?
SS: I don’t mind it… [laughs] I’m a rugby person! But, I just want to say that I think he’s being very modest, because people who have seen the show are obsessed with it. I haven’t seen so much social media buzz about an exhibition since I’ve been here. I think there’s really this populist appeal to it that people love. And lots of people are on board – like, our relationship to the LA Galaxy, they’ve been sharing it across their network, and Univision… so there’s this huge new constituency that’s been getting more exposure, which breaks down that barrier of elitism that tends to be associated with museums without having been to one. So it’s things like this that bring people in and let them discover that they have a voice here, and trying to serve them as opposed to alienate them.
FS: Exactly, and that’s the thing with the exhibition design, just wanting to suggest something different. The last show I did here was a very sort of austere show of works from the 1980s, and they were made that way with the sort of white cube space in mind and very sterile… but we tried to play with that idea a little bit so that when you do come into the space not only do you have the crazy figurines of the Nelson Leirner piece but you also have these sort of visual design elements that are playing off the walls that reflect the Brazilian flag but not trying to replicate it by any means. It’s not only about looking at painting…
The first thing I think of when I see the gallery space are football banners.
So who’s your favourite team? We can go off the record if you want.
In England, Tottenham [redacted banter]. It gets complicated! I have issues… you know, I was in Milan… I’m complicated. I grew up in New York with a family that was staunch New York Mets fans but I lived within eyesight of Yankee Stadium, so it got complicated. It’s tricky. Brazil is a favourite national team, Netherlands is the other. And I grew up on the New York Cosmos, which is now more or less defunct but they do have a club team in New York. So hopefully they’ll come back into MLS somehow but…
So now we’re here in front of Stephen Dean’s Volta [2002-2003, pictured below] – what has been reverberating since we’ve been in the gallery – which makes it feel like we’re in the game, which is great.
This is another one of those pieces that I knew very well and imagined it as an anchor piece, to be a sort of conversation juxtaposed with the Zidane piece, where the Zidane is that individual portrait and concentrates on him as the artist, and then this piece more about us as the spectator and the collective.
Spectatorship: I like the focus on that in multiple pieces – whether it’s a game with friends or in the stadiums, I think looking at this – getting the excitement of the game, you’re getting that clearly through the show, but there’s also… I’m really captivated by Paul Pfeiffer’s Caryatid (Red, Yellow, Blue). That, I stood in front of at the reception for a while, it was intense.
He’s another one of those artists – he’s dealt with the fanatic many times – and has made work in stadiums in London, and has made several art works that revolve not only around football, but also in other sports and using them as an arena for wider conversation.
The sort of anthems that come through… in a way, being a fan is joining the team. It becomes sort of a choreographed moment and performative exercise for a lot of people. So you understand being a fan in so many ways is not ever really about the team itself but the performance, the social aspects.
Exactly, it’s the ritual!
And you focus on that in the curatorial statement in the front, that’s definitely – it’s very uniting in that aspect. Oh I love the Hassan Hajjaj, I also love him as an artist.
Yeah, he’s great.
You know, but I’m also thinking about what I noted in the brief review that I did for Africa Is A Country that there is maybe a bit of a gap between the celebration of the beautiful game and again, the lead-up to Brazil, which, as with most sports tournaments, is resting on huge social movements in the country that it’s happening in.
That was an issue in South Africa, that was in issue with the Super Bowl… a lot of the pieces speak to that. And can I just ask – I’m not familiar with the process – from the statement in the front to the exhibition, can you maybe fill in a little bit of that gap?
Sure, I can try to. Which part of the statement, from the philosophical –
I think, the focus on the beautiful game and how it does draw people together from all over the globe, but it also does sort of a wresting apart in some circumstances, specifically around the politics that exist outside the game.
Oh yeah, Absolutely. I mean the Nelson Leirner for me really is very much about that. It’s from 2003 so it’s not a direct commentary on now, but I’m sure some of the things that are happening now could be in the back of his mind when he made the work. What I sense when you walk into that space and that being the first space was this idea of fantasy and this idea of myth and how do we use those things to propel ourselves further in some sort of meaningful way or some sort of meaningful discussion. I mean you look at those things and it’s one thing, the power rangers and the Hulks, you know which clearly comes from a sort of commercial space. But then you look around the stadium and the diversity of human beings is really interesting. And even social spheres among them – you have some who are clearly in a military, some who seem to be from what you could say is a ‘lower class’ by their dress, you have many different colors and all that. So it’s this piece that gives you a lot of different representations and I think could be open to a lot of different interpretations about commodifying effects on people, as well as the way that we look at ourselves in a big world.
But the idea of ‘the now’ and how it relates politically to ‘the now’ is something that we flirted with, and we flirted with the idea of using, like, Facebook images from different people from around the world. I had somebody that was compiling stuff – in Brazil in particular – but it became, like, what part are you illustrating something as a document as opposed to letting the art run the conversation. And at a certain point we let go but it was a big, big discussion. I have a dear friend who is a curator who was in Belo Horizonte and was part of many of the demonstrations that are going on right now and those things are important, and I hope they’re coming up in other discussions. Another piece of that was watching what was happening in Turkey last year and speaking very specifically about how the supporters, as we say – not just fans, but supporters – of the three biggest clubs were coming together all in the name of some sort of political solidarity. Wearing their colours, but declaring themselves to be unified in that moment as a political gesture. And so that happens, and that’s a big part of the beautiful game that opens so much for discussion.
It’s true. I’ve written on the Port Said massacre in Egypt – two of the biggest teams, Al Ahly and Zamalek, they called a truce for the purpose of addressing the situation. I think this comes through the work here, there are a lot of political conversations that are happening between pieces, so it’s interesting to see. And of course, the sort of devotional artwork is still here! Generic Art Solutions [pictured above, left]– these pieces made me laugh.
Yes, these are great. It’s also kind of playing with ideas of Italian nationalism and this more dramatic expression. Also leaving room for interpretation for abstraction to some degree, like with Mark Bradford who is someone known for being a painter and here is more of a maker [Soccer Ball Bag, 2011, above left]– using paper instead of paint. And here, the catharsis in the painting of George Best [Chris Beas, And Number One Was Georgie Best, 2013, above right]. So these are really different, and open up some space. Or even Stephen Dean – you never see a pitch or a player, it’s just the fans. At times the smoke fills the screen and you don’t even know what you’re looking at. Even with Petra Court, this pink blob! So we also have these spaces that are not voids but encourage your eyes to pull back a little bit and feel as opposed to a “this is what it is.” I think that’s a thing we deal with a lot in this museum – is ceding that territory to the artist and letting it be about artist interpretation as opposed to us documenting and trying to interpret events through documentation. And Mary Ellen Carols here is talking about – well, she has a series of work that is about things that aren’t supposed to go together, so the basketball becomes the soccer ball and then I like how that gets refracted or reflected in this piece here by Gustavo Ortiz who did this work on the border where he had two basketball teams from San Diego playing against each other at the same time as two soccer teams from Tijuana, which is crazy! And his way of saying, “yeah, we can coexist, we can do this together if we really want to.” It’s amazing, you see no one gets in any one else’s way. And I wanted to end in a sort of way with a kind of an icon.
[walking past Kehinde Wiley’s "Samuel Eto’o", 2010] Made by an LA artist, an LA born artist, Kehinde Wiley.
Well, I think Brooklyn’s claimed him pretty thoroughly.
Yes! Oh, and here is Miguel Calderon making the impossible happen [in Mexico vs Brasil, 2004]– Mexico over Brazil, 17 to nothing. [laughs]