New Exhibition at LACMA Devoted to The Beautiful Game’s Global Significance

Today the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Fútbol: The Beautiful Game opens to the public. An exhibition curated by Franklin Sirmans, it is devoted to football’s global position as a “common human experience shared by spectators from many cultures,” and features contemporary and classic contributions of some 32 artists ruminating on the sport’s political, social, and economic significance.

Just inside the exhibition gallery is a fantastic and chaotic pitch, work by celebrated Brazilian artist Nelson Leirner. In Leirner’s “Maracaña” (2003), figurines of Buddha, white knights, dwarves, and cigar store ‘natives’ are the audience of a match between squads of Incredible Hulks and red power rangers – a fitting fan base for what I imagined as an Arsenal v. Saint-Étienne FIFA 14 fantasy match. Saint-Étienne as Hulk? Formidable (I still love you, Wenger).

The immensity of the football stadium is captured by Andreas Gursky’s multiple plate shot of Amsterdam’s EM Arena. The proportions Gursky captures are breathtaking – we’ve watched the sport on televisions, from the stands, and even while on the pitch, but really glimpsing how little space each player occupies compared to the size of the field is a worthwhile perspective change. Likewise, photographs from Lyle Ashton Harris’ Italia series (2001) muses on masculinity and the predominantly male bodies (“ragazzi del calcio”) in contact – and conflict – at Italy’s league football matches.

Undergirding the devotion and love of the game, of course, is the incredible commodification of football’s most basic elements. Africa (the country) is largely represented by Ghana’s George Afedzi Hughes, who joins several other artists in addressing the economic power, and often violence, endemic to the sport. In “Masked Goalkeeper,” from his Layers project, the goalie’s internal organs reveal the meat – and money – that the bodies of footballers are composed of and produce. Viewers are reminded that these bodies are also products, and products that may go bad at any moment. Additionally, “Made in the Colonies” (2008-11) and “Parallel” (2009-11) – the latter an Adidas cleat above the silhouette of a sniper rifle – speak to the function of football in (post)colonial nations as a potentially reconciliatory – though never quite – practice. In a more irreverent take on soccer commodity, Morocco’s Hassan Hajjaj (we’ve covered him on AIAC before) frames an image of many stylishly clad feet balanced atop a football with brightly coloured Arabic letter tiles.

By far the greatest strength of the exhibition, however, is the inclusion of Los Angeles based artists, in no small part due to the collaborative efforts of East Los Angeles’ non-profit visual arts center, Self-Help Graphics & Art. SHG’s Executive Director Evonne Gallardo commissioned prints from artists Carolyn Castaño, Amitis Motevalli, Ana Serrano, Nery Gabriel Lemus, and Dewey Tafoya for the exhibition. Iranian-American artist Amitis Motevalli’s serigraph “Gooooooooal!” is unapologetically mind-bending: a group of children play football while the expulsion from the foregrounded figure’s rocket launcher explodes behind them.

Amitis Motevallie and her serigraph, Gooooooooal!, 2013
Amitis Motevalli and her serigraph, “Gooooooooal!,” 2013 | Photo: Drew Tewksbury

The gallery space also boasts Andy Warhol and Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of Pelé (1978) and Samuel Eto’o (2010), respectively, amongst its many other pieces. These fan favourites, as it were, unwittingly emphasize a striking contextual silence in the exhibition’s written self-realisation. At the admittedly lovely opening reception, Brazilian music and dance was performed for a captive audience of art-goers. The vibe was celebratory, this year’s World Cup clearly centered at the reception, if not in the exhibition as a whole. However, given the amount of artwork in the show speaking to the often violent, racialized and gendered aspects of football and football culture, it was disconcerting not to see a more explicit statement on football as a beautiful game, as well as a damned one.

Paul Pfeiffer, Caryatid (Red, Yellow, Blue), 2008
Paul Pfeiffer, “Caryatid (Red, Yellow, Blue),” 2008 | Photo: Drew Tewksbury

Paul Pfeiffer’s 2008 iteration of “Caryatid” is particularly relevant to this relative obfuscation. On three television screens, injuries sustained on the pitch are played on a loop in slow motion. It’s a sobering insight into the precarious nature of the game and the consumption of the bodies tasked with carrying it out. Far from the loving adoration of Manchester United in three photo-based pieces created by L.A.-based artist Chris Beas, Pfeiffer’s video display joins Carolyn Castaño’s portrait of the late Colombian defender Andrés Escobar in highlighting the violence surrounding the sport, on and off the pitch.

For those unable to view the exhibition, housed on the 3rd floor of the Broad Contemporary building at LACMA until 20 July of this year, a treat: Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait” (2006) is one of the two massive video installations in the show and can be viewed here and below for the time being. It is truly a piece for fans of the sport. At once minimalist and expansive (it was filmed with 17 cameras during a perfectly typical La Liga match in 2005), the film immerses its audience in Zizou’s movements and creativity, his stoic focus on the ball even when it is out of his possession.

Joga bonito, as our Brazilian friends declared long before Nike put a price tag on the phrase: being a football fan in Los Angeles has garnered new charm through this exhibition.

All photos are courtesy of KCET Artbound Managing Editor and Producer Drew Tewksbury. For more photos from the exhibition, please visit Tewksbury’s article here.

Further Reading