The Strangeness of Sports
Haig Aivazian’s multi-piece installation FUGERE at Sfeir-Semler, Hamburg
There is something deeply disturbing about the work of the Lebanese artist, curator, and writer Haig Aivazian. This realization does not necessarily hit the viewer at first sight, but manifests itself with a slight time lapse. Hidden strata unfold behind the surface appearance of oddly clipped images and model-like objects, leading into highly volatile territory. Aivazian is not a creator of solitary statements, more a compiler of visual and conceptual bits and pieces, where the whole has more impact than its parts. Drawing upon visual material discovered in the vast image pool of the media or from his immediate environment, Aivazian employs a broad range of aesthetic genres including performance, installation, sculpture, drawing, and video. Usually working in series, the artist addresses diverse geo- and socio-political issues ranging from the investigation of personal traces of existence and the construction of identity against the backdrop of the nation-state's demise, to an illumination of the intricate power structures of global capitalism, institutionalized violence, and the machinations involved in the creation of historical myths. Architecture and design are consistent fields of his research, as is the economically steered, emotionally charged world of sports. His puzzle-like scenarios comprised of juxtaposed images, texts, and three-dimensional sculptural elements invite viewers to fill in the gaps and to continue incomplete narratives in their own words.
Aivazian was born in Beirut in 1980, where he also presently resides. He studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and earned an MFA for art practice and theory at Northwestern University in Chicago. He recently presented his first major solo exhibition at the Hamburg venue of Andrée Sfeir-Semler (November 2, 2013 to January 5, 2014), who also operates a gallery in Beirut. Extending his series FUGERE (A series of Olympiadic Events), ongoing since 2009 and named after the Latin verb 'to flee', Aivazian composed two multi-layered, intertwining narratives for his presentation in Hamburg. The artist himself described his project FUGERE as 'an exploration into the strangeness of the realm of professional sport: a loaded intersection of franchise deals and the disenfranchised, nationalism and statelessness.' It is a realm where a Brazilian shoeshine boy, like Pelé, kicking around a grapefruit in the street with his pals, can become a soccer god. It is also the realm of fleeting fame, where players are stars for 15 minutes before sinking back into oblivion. It is the realm of big business and high hopes, of equal opportunities and global enterprise. Where the game of life is played out in miniature wars between rival teams. Where the peaceful coexistence of national and cultural heritages is no longer a dream but, for the duration of a match, happens in real time.
In his new works (all from 2013) assembled at Sfeir-Semler, Aivazian revealed these ambiguities, which in his view are intrinsic characteristics of the dialectical sphere of sports. While loosely referring to basketball and soccer, the two ensembles the artist installed in the gallery spaces were not limited to one particular type of activity. They served as intricate systems of reference conflating politics and economics, the double-edged nature of hero worship and of media-promoted spectacles as well as the interrelationships between the individual and the collective, freedom and control, inherently played out in the sphere of sports today.
In the ground floor gallery space of the exhibition was the installation Parting Kisses, a superficially quaint, yet in fact rather treacherous theme park, at the core of which was an ensemble of four bronze statuettes perching on marble pedestals. The figures evoked the slightly tacky trophies awarded to members of sport clubs all over the world. But the material they are made of also recalled the sheen of corporate foyers and bank lobbies, gravestones and monuments. Flanking the sculptural group on three walls of the space was a mirror bearing a poetic sandblasted line in Arabic ('They know / that were the sun to rise / they would melt / and so, in order to extend their solid state / they wished to extend / their presence in the shade'); a marble slab in which a weirdly contorted English text had been chiselled (the inscription of the Michael Jordan statue in Chicago as seen through a camera lens pointed upward), and a mute video film presented in a small frame. The video followed a boy wading through a deep puddle and climbing over obstacles in a bleak terrain recalling a war zone, a restricted construction site or boundary area with barbed wire, high-rising fences, and debris of destruction. The boy appears to be collecting soccer balls that are being flung into this no-man's-land from outside by invisible protagonists. Aivazian found the footage on the Internet. It depicts a scene that was filmed by American soldiers in Baghdad, who are apparently throwing the balls to the boy, who continues his solitary quest to secure the displaced objects of a game to which established rules no longer apply.
The title of the ensemble Parting Kisses was derived from the utterance, 'this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog', which Iraqi television journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi hurled at former US President George Bush in Baghdad in 2008, together with his shoes. Its various parts were bounced off against one other, while the contexts kept shifting from the arena of sports to politics, and from personal achievement to public impact. A recurring topic was the cult surrounding basketball star Michael Jordan along with his famed Nikes. Aivazian reduplicated and minimized a large statue located at the United Centre in Chicago that depicts the legendary basketball player literally flying through the air high above an abstracted group of opponents. In the artist's version, the airborne Jordan figure is omitted leaving only a raised hand clutching at a non-existent ball and some upturned faces, which thus appear as if they were awaiting a miracle. The artist furthermore depicts the famous 'Air Jordan' footwear, disembodied and afloat like a pair of phantom shoes. He also cast a shorthand version of the Baghdad shoe-flinging scene in bronze, depicting only the arms and hands of the journalist getting ready to throw the shoes as if they were flying discs. The fourth bronze represented the remnants of the statue of Saddam Hussein on Firdos Square in Baghdad toppled during the 2003 invasion of Iraq by US forces. Again, the only remains of the statue were the figure's shoes. Exuding a sense of melancholy and absurdity, in their reduced, fragmentary shape, Aivazian's sculptures point to ephemeral moments – Jordan's soaring dunk-jump, the tumbling of the Hussein statue, the hurling of the shoes – that have become inscribed in contemporary history.
All of the pieces of Parting Kisses are in some way cut off, broken, fractured, and shifted, so that they function like ciphers of a visual code in which each image serves to alter the meaning of the representation that it is subject to it. This double strategy of simultaneously encoding and decoding images and systems of reference could also be observed in the second part of the exhibition, which was continued in the first floor spaces of the gallery. There, four large charcoal and pastel drawings formed a series of semi-figurative, semi-abstract images of brightly illuminated nocturnal sport stadiums. Indeed, isolated arrangements of floodlights glowing eerily in an otherwise unfathomable darkness take the place of the stadiums, thus becoming metaphors for the ambivalence of this site as such, evoking not only mass spectacles, frenzy, delight, and aggression, but also the notion of surveillance, persecution, and captivity. In this sense Aivazian's drawings, which have an incorporeal, surreal time and placelessness, are also reminiscent of the unsettling fragmentary paintings of the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, who distributes sparse visual information like disparate clues at a crime scene.
The Hamburg exhibition climaxed in Aivazian's 26-minute video How Great You Are O Son of the Desert! (Part 1). Revolving around the French soccer hero of Kabyle Berber descent, Zinedine Zidane, the film conjoins references to Zidane's glowing career, his status as a role model and also the infamous head-butting incident that led to his exclusion from the penalty shootout at the World Cup Final in 2006. Also referenced was the wave of social upheaval in France in 2005, including the terrible deaths of two French immigrant teenagers who were electrocuted while trying to flee from the police. Here, Aivazian combines found footage, animated drawings and other material creating a collage with a profoundly political message. Still, the artist's works evade comprehensive interpretations. Their power lies in their capacity to set off detonations in the mind of the viewer through fragmentation, omission, poetic condensation, and a rerouting of the entrenched patterns of perception, unlocking one's awareness to the underlying interconnections between places, times, and people that do not immediately catch the eye.