Spectator Sports

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Julie Henry, You’ll Never Walk Alone, 1999. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Photography

What if we were to scream at artworks the way we yell at football on TV? What if the number of people who attended the Whitney Biennial rivaled the number of people who watched the Super Bowl? These questions bubble up in Spectator Sports (at the Museum of Contemporary Photography through July 3, 2013), the latest exhibition to attempt a synergistic pairing of an odd couple: art and sports. The arranged marriage is a bold move in Chicago, a sports and art town whose fans are more like addicts of the gallery or the game—but rarely both. (Bad at Sports is the name of a long-running art podcast hosted in Chicago.)

Both the art world and the sports industry are built on foundations of fantasy, faithfully maintained by legions of fans. With photographs, drawings, film, video, and a video-game by ten artists, spanning the years 1978 to 2013, the exhibition elaborates on the postmodern conceit that to watch a game is also to participate in it. To that end, Michelle Grabner’s seven untitled cell-phone pictures of a televised football game magnify the hall-of-mirrors experience of watching from multiple sidelines (the living room, the gallery). But they still embody the thrill of being on an extended team of players and spectators, in that Grabner’s football photos are a nod to Nancy Holt, who, as a girl, was told by her parents she could not watch televised sports because she was a girl. Later in her career, Holt snapped photos of televised football games in reflective revolt. Grabner revives Holt’s project with her own images. This is what it feels like to be on a team with people whom you may never meet.

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Vesna Pavlovic, Untitled, from The Watching Project. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Photography

The exhibition also claims that athletes are artists. Their skill, grace, and musculature are willed into intention, like artworks. While the athlete-as-artist analogy is not especially a game-changer for contemporary art discourse (or for the sports industry), it can lead to an exhibition of dynamic artworks. A gallery of ancient Greek sportsmen in marble or glazed ceramic definitely gets the heart racing, as does a video installation by Julie Henry, titled Going Down (1999). The video is close-cropped on rows of spectators at a stadium game, and looped. They cheer and chant for the home team, and sulk when scored on. You walk in-between these two large video projections, and you feel elated, like a player.