[Critical Analysis] Paul Pfeiffer - Thomas Dane Gallery

Boxing Stare Downs [+Joyce Carol Oates - Reading the fight ]

Ritual : "a religious or solemn ceremony of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order". When you look at this definition of a ritual it is clear to see that boxing aligns itself with that of a solemn ceremony. The crowd hysteria surrounding a boxing match is similar to that of a religious cult, the pre-match rituals undertaken by fighters become part of their ceremonial routine and the training undertaken by a fighter is both relentless and disciplined. The boxing ring which sits in the middle of the crowd is like an alter of sacrifice, the glamour of immortality surrounds both fighters and the referee lodges between the two providing a moral conscience (like that of a priest.) 


Is sport our new religion?

My recent intrigue towards boxing (from which the 'Boxing Stare Downs' series has evolved) has left me wondering why boxing? 

Although the writer Joyce Carol Oates talks about the fight itself (rather than the moment before the fighting begins, as depicted in my videos) it has been interesting to gain an insight into her analysis of the sport. In her writing, Oates says 'the opponent is you, you are in a physical and mental battle with yourself more than the person in front of you'. So these two men fighting are in some sort of highly condensed violent encounter, on an elevated platform enclosed by ropes for the entertainment of a paying crowd. Oates is suggesting that the drama is merely psychological, in which case the fighters are putting themselves in a really vulnerable position. They enter the ring near naked and potentially endure punishment to the body, mind and spirit. They may succeed in winning the fight, in which case they 'seem temporarily immortal' to the crowd, but they may also fail: "like the Saint he gives the impression of having arrived at his redemption by unflagging solitary effort....akin to those severe religions in which the individual is both free and determined - in one sense possessed of a will tantamount to God's in another totally helpless." 

I think that with my videos I have inadvertently tapped into this vulnerability. Boxing is so intimate, it is ego-related and emotional and although it encourages violent delirium from the surrounding crowd (like that of a Roman amphitheatre watching gladiators fight to the death) the two individuals are so very alone. With 'Boxing Stare Downs' perhaps this immortality is questioned and the human underbelly of the event is revealed. 

Oates says that the fight should be worthy so that the crude paraphernalia of the setting (ring, lights, ropes, onlookers) are erased and forgotten, like in theatre and in church the settings are erased by some form of transcendental action. This is interesting in relation to my 'Boxing Stare Downs' videos; when the image is slowed and reversed and looped, the two fighting protagonists are obviously the main focus for the viewer but the setting and figures in the background also play a part. In the first video from the series [available to watch on the right] Tommy Hearns and Wilfred Benitez stare continuously into each others eyes (for a comical length of time) but if the viewers eyes drift to the entourage behind them more narratives can be found. In the words of Oates "a boxing match is a unique and highly condensed drama with no words" and the sheer excitement and playfulness can be seen in the eyes of the men behind the fighters. There is an almost theatrical goading of the stare off as threats are shouted and the king of boxing promotion himself, Don King circles the two fighters before gently pulling and pushing Benitez back towards Hearns. Unlike Oates' theories on the background becoming unimportant in the midst of a captivating brawl my videos are gently insisting that the background is also interesting and humorous. 

I was excited to catch Paul Pfeiffer's show at the Thomas Dane Gallery in June and it happened to coincide with my making of the 'Boxing Stare Downs' video series. The show consisted of a number of video pieces and photographic work (which I felt was quite unnecessary - it seemed as though the artist had been forced into a sellable 2D sideline.) 

The first room featured his perhaps most recognisable video work 'Fragment of a Crucifixion (after Frances Bacon)' which depicts a celebrating sports hero on a basketball court, seemingly wildly tormented as he moves back and forth (pre-Instagram: Boomerang), caught in an endless video loop. This 'monumental moment' of heightened elation is referred to continuously in my 'Slice of time' section of the Arc but this piece also seems hugely ritualistic and God-like to me. All surrounding elements have been digitally erased (there's no line markings, advertisement, no referee or even a ball) and all that is left is a perpetually hypnotised crowd, amongst camera flashes, fixated on a lone sporting hero, screaming indefinitely as if trapped in a state of immortality. I also really liked the fact that the video was projected on a  small scale from an old miniature video projector. This scale, for me, questioned the players' untouchable predatorily essence and brought in an element of vulnerability. Though it may feel like pure ecstasy at the top, its a long way to fall.

Link to video of 'Fragment of a Crucifixion (after Francis Bacon)' 

Overall, the exhibition's presentation was well considered. The 'Long Count' series lacked impact for me but the apparatus of the work emphasised and asserted the video onto the viewer. Each video (of the four) was shown on a tiny four inch screen, which protruded absurdly a meter from the wall towards the viewers eye line, "mimicking the thrust of Ali's glove...and foreseeing the invasive reach of this type of apparatus (iPad) and spectacle (boxing) into our daily lives."


I found his most recent work, in the back room, gripping but equally difficult to watch. Part of the series 'Caryatids', Pfeiffer had selected scenes of boxing where world famous fighters were being beaten aggressively by their opponents, who had been digitally erased. Our gaze, as the spectator, is unflinchingly squared on the body and suffering of the fighter being beaten to a pulp. The primal brutality of the sport is plain to see. Referencing religion and ritual the lone boxer appears as a saintly martyr who, as the work's title suggests, stands as solid as a column taking punch after punch and meeting his fate.   

Joyce Carol Oates
Whats the big idea?
Raglan Road

'What's the big idea?'

When thinking about a new piece for the Crypt show I had been experimenting with the cardboard marathon heads and realised I was already accidentally playing with this idea of decapitated heads (which coincided with St Pancras who was beheaded for his faith at the age of 14.)

The kinetic sculpture ended up compiling very simple elements to lightly (and humorously) question our contemporary world and its relationship to faith, religion and ritual. 

The work consisted of a battery powered disco ball motor, a hand-drilled metal connector, a battery powered light bulb, piano wire and cardboard heads. Because of its placement in the Crypt its main source of light was the piece itself so from the far end of the corridor you could only catch glimpses of floating faces looking up towards the light. I wasn't entirely happy with the outcome technically (because of the conditions down in the Crypt the paper began to crinkle and change shape) but I liked the simplicity of the piece within its context. 


At first the idea of dealing with questions of religion made me uncomfortable, although previous works like 'Raglan Road' may have skirted across my Irish Catholic background it's not necessarily a topic I'm interested in addressing. Keeping the idea simple gave the piece room for humour, always nice down in the Crypt, and the movement of the piece proved really effective in an otherwise static space. As it hung there at the end of the corridor it reminded me of some sort of strange baby mobile or homemade disco lampshade. 

Again, subconsciously, the number of male heads outnumber the number of female heads in search for the 'light.' Pope Francis is hidden amongst the heads in acknowledgement to my upbringing. The inclusion of Trump is a subtle nod to our planet's current moral compass and the overall relationship humankind has with this idea of faith. That isn't to say that religion isn't still an integral part of American society. Maybe, in some form, everyone is religious. The (battery powered) lightbulb may represent the light of God, it may represent a computer screen or it may even represent a cartoon Eureka moment, as always with my work the interpretation is up to the viewer. Whatever this light may symbolise these human heads are looking up towards it in a moment of contemplation, spinning and searching for something. Previous works have looked at less obvious examples of modern-day rituals, specifically in the sports world, whereas this piece is much more literal (and so perhaps less effective.)