Sunday, 28 August 2011

On Football & Art

Jeff Stelling cranks out the bad news for the distant. "...And Stranraer have just added a sixth at Montrose in the Scottish Third Division"
It really is hard to escape from football these days. I actually feel sorry for people who are indifferent to, or actively dislike, the sport. It seems hard to credit now, but twenty five years ago, a declared interest in football was met with suspicion, or incredulity. These were the days when hooliganism in England, and on the continent, was rife, and Mrs Thatcher, an avowed disliker of the game, was proposing the introduction of ID cards at football matches. English teams were banned from Europe after the Heysel disaster in 1985, and whilst their Scottish counterparts (notably, Dundee United in 1987) performed gallantly in the second half of that decade, success was elusive.

"Is this a line-out, Kevin? Am i doing it right?"
 Nowadays, it seems almost impossible to function socially without some declared interest in football. Famously, Tony Blair delivered a badly scripted eulogy to his "love" of Newcastle United, and was photographed heading a ball with Kevin "wor Kev" Keegan in the run up to his triumph in the 1997 general election. Alex Salmond is a little bit more credible as a Hearts supporter and talks intelligently about the sport. David Cameron allegedly follows Chelsea, although I'm sure he'd be more comfortable on the subject of the Eton Wall game.

King Kev and Emlyn Hughes hedge their bets in 1980 with Mrs T. Oooft.
Whilst politicians may have rushed to embrace football and football people in their scrambling for electoral success, the relationship between football and art has always been much more complicated. In the UK, particularly, there seems little crossover. Of course, the official line is that the Italia '90 World Cup, and then Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, via the medium of opera and literature, won over the skeptical social-butterfly hearts of the middle classes. Famously, during USA '94, Nick Hornby hosted a panel discussion in which he turned to avowedly highbrow English novelists Martin Amis and Julian Barnes for vindication of his opinions on the game.

Hornby, by focusing on personal biography, and his relationship with Arsenal, managed to circumvent the insoluble problem of it being very difficult to write a decent book about football. Fiction about the sport is very tough, as teams have to be invented (Roy of the Rovers "Melchester Rovers", and their Scouse rivals "Everpool"; Michael Hardcastle's "Scorton Rovers"), opposition and players have to be invented- a strange, unsatisfying, suspension-of-belief parallel world to the real thing.

The two authors who have come closest to writing a good football book under the constraints of fiction are Robin Jenkins, whose The Thistle and the Grail, published in the late 50s, pretty much still tells you all you need to know about Scottish junior football, the many fragile and difficult personalities in the average home dressing room, and the relationship between those players and the small communities of a now long-vanished industrial Scotland.  Brian Glanville's Goalkeepers are Different is also superb, in charting, for a young audience, the relationships, tensions and frustrations of a fictional 70s first division side, through the blinking-scaredly eyes of its teenage goalkeeper.

Glanville, of course, was famously lampooned in the sadly defunct Scottish football fanzine The Absolute Game as "Bruno Glanvilla", a pompous, cigar-chewing oaf who never used one clause, when seventeen would do. Writers and journalists who have attempted to write intelligently about the game have struggled. Take Graham Spiers, who started at Scotland on Sunday and now has a berth at The Times; his thoughtful pieces have attracted quite staggering levels of odium from readers, on the grounds of pretentiousness, assumed poshness, and a stubborn insistence in using words with three or more syllables in them. In other words, he's not "real", not "one of us", not really "a football person".

Roddy Buchanan's AC & Inter photo series
 The interactions between contemporary art in Scotland, and football, rarely attract such attention, simply because they slip beneath the radar of most. The artists associated with the "Glasgow Miracle" period of the early 90s had a regular kick about on a blaes pitch in Cowcaddens most Saturdays. (for non-Scottish readers; blaes is a kind of red sharp-edged shale, a common material for bone-hard pitches in Central Scotland, on which only the insane and the nerveless can perform a sliding tackle, and a dive can shred the goalkeeper's jersey). Two of those artists, Douglas Gordon and Roderick Buchanan, have gone on to produce significant bodies of football-related work; Buchanan, in his photographs of himself, friends and amateur wearing largely Milan jerseys; Gordon, in his epic film involving Zinedine Zidane, first shown in Edinburgh in 2006-7.

"Sporting Art"

However, the very ubiquity of the sport these days mean that artists intervening in this area can often meet with indifference, if not hostility. Buchanan's work was unique fifteen years ago; Gordon has always strongly located part of his practice and artistic personality on his interest in the game.  Despite these precedents, for some in the art world, there may be a questioning of sport as a "proper" subject; indeed, the term "sporting art" connotes images of ghastly, lumpy paintings of horses, greyhounds and terriers. From many in the world of football, the relevance of art to the production and consumption of the game seems at best tenuous, at worst downright unwelcome. This despite both spheres of activity being moved in recent times to play with "nostalgia" and "retro" themes; in recent football shirts, and in the endless trite hankering after popular TV of the late 70s and early 80s, that characterised yBa.

Nostalgia means thinking fondly of a time past, that wasn't very good when you were living through it. Here's a photo of Charlie Nicholas.
Which is why Friday night's durational performance piece / five-a-side football match at Generator Projects in Dundee, entitled 24 hour football, was a bold move intellectually, and no less so physically. Fraser MacDonald, Catrin Jeans and many participants, ranging from local artists to seasoned fives players from Dundee, Perth, and Glasgow, established a realistic five a side pitch and dressing rooms in the gallery space. Kicking off at 7pm on Friday, the game continued non stop until 7pm on Saturday, and broadcast live on the internet, accompanied by gallows humour, in-jokes and references ranging from Colin Hendry to Fred Dibnah on the live commentary. There are only two events that I regret missing by being abroad; participating in this was one of them (the other is missing Janey Muir's opening at AXO / Coup Red in Leith a week today).

The game that will never end: action from early on in the performance
On one level, this was an exhausting physical challenge, in which the participants had to challenge and overcome their physical limits, all within the constraints of the rules of the game. As such, it can be located in the long tradition of durational performance, stretching from Vito Aconci and Marina Abramovic through to Kevin Henderson and Keith Burden. On another, it overcame many of the difficulties that performance art can face. Audiences for performance art in the UK have become vanishingly small in the last twenty or so years; performers work in a very small and, to the uninitiated, seemingly impenetrable milieu. However, this was as much a community performance, a physically unco-ordinated outpouring from the diverse ecosystem of Dundee art collectives and individuals.

On the footballing side of things, the best and worst of the Scottish amateur game was there for all to see. The most memorable example was the lanky process artist Neil Scott, being booted six feet up in the air by a quite dreadful challenge, in the last ten minutes of the game (the brutal Lochee Harp-ness of the tackle was mitigated by it being an accident, and he seemed all right); woeful finishing; sclaff after sclaff, particularly in the wee small hours; set against that, sheer dogged persistence, sheer endurance, some good goals (a shot on the turn from Stuart MacAdam), and a couple of fine saves. The moment of the whole event, though, was the euphoric, exhausted celebrations at the end, at 7pm on Saturday, when the marathon finally ended, with over 1,000 goals having been recorded in twenty four hours. In a final absurdist touch, MacDonald, as the captain of the winning "Blues", was presented with a trophy- a cast Adidas Samba- that he'd actually made himself.

The event generated quite a bit of press attention, from STV, the Dundee Courier and the Sunday Post (surreally, the game briefly stopped to allow a Post photographer to snap the players at about 11am on Saturday morning), and will hopefully begin to generate a new wave of interest and discussion on the relationship between art and football. Both spheres of activity have changed unimaginably in the last twenty years, fro being rather obscure and limited-audience activities, into both becoming key facets of the culture industry. Despite this parallel narrative, football and art have rarely intersected or worked together; maybe this epic encounter will help begin to change that. If it does, then the no doubt agonised and exhausted limbs around various living rooms in Scotland today, will have paid a worthy price for it.

My next post will be about my time in Ohrid, after I've had some tea. Honest.

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