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Art is Not Soccer

by Sean O'Toole / 18.09.2009

Football is the beautiful game. It is also a professionalised ball sport that allows us to marvel at the innate prowess of young men (and increasingly women) in their physical prime. Art, conversely, is not a game, even if its best practitioners possess all the audacity and grace of Cristiano Ronaldo running at a centre back.

Art is a finely tuned balance of craft and thought, the mental reverie it involves now increasingly viewed as the defining element in the equation. Let me simplify. Artists, unlike the masterful footballers Fernando Torres or Samuel Eto’o, are not defined by their prowess of making anymore, not singularly. They can subcontract the physical labour of sweating. This is a magic act not even Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola could hope to conjure.

To summarise then: art is not soccer, and soccer is not art. Whether you’re a fan of Orlando Pirates or Club Atlético River Plate, this potentially tautological piece of wisdom is pretty much self-evident. Undeterred by amateur Wittgensteins such as myself, artists, curators, entrepreneurs and plain old hucksters are readying themselves for the first whistle of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, on 11 June 2010.

Only last week I was summoned by an aging hippy who has dipped into his pension and sponsored his daughter’s travels across the continent. Her brief: to photograph young African children playing ball. I use the word ball advisedly. After guiding me through the photos, predictable scenes laced with sentiment and poverty, this retired London ad exec showed me some of the crude balls that give impetus to hours of fun on makeshift pitches across the continent. The balls are compelling to look at. Expect to see them displayed in an art gallery near you in 2010.

The assault continued this week. I received an invite to a press briefing for The Artists of Africa Exhibition, a group show that opens at Museum Africa in May next year. There are enough reasons to start yawning already, what with the involvement of the City of Johannesburg and moribund Department of Arts and Culture, never mind the strained connections made between “space” and “pace” by co-curator Thembinkosi Goniwe. Sure, I’m cynically pre-judging this art event, but remember the two-bit affair hosted by Johannesburg during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002?

There are a lot of reasons to feel glum about the current jockeying for position around the pigskin. One of them is Craig Mark, proprietor of Umhlanga’s Kizo Gallery and FIFA approved licensee of art product. Mark has made a tidy profit selling torrid couch art to the new rich living in Mount Edgecombe Golf Estate and its environs. He also continues to market the utterly dubious – if not legally, then certainly ethically – Mandela handprint editions.

Mark’s 2010 Fine Art Collection includes the uninspired product of, amongst others, painter Gavin Rain and photographer Clint Strydom. Like Anthony Wakaba Mutheki, a self-styled “African Van Gogh”, Rain and Strydom apply a modicum of craft and no real thought to their visual evocations of the beautiful game. The net result is a bouquet of silly illustrations for a sport involving a ball.

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It hasn’t been all gloom the past few weeks. Artist Simon Gush is currently showing a soccer-themed work at Cape Town gallery Michael Stevenson. Titled In the Company of, this projected film shows a five-a-side soccer match played on a criss-cross of railway tracks in Belgium. The 32-minute film depicts a game of skill ratcheted up a few notches. Players gingerly tread across the pitch to poke at the ball, which bounces erratically. Occasionally one of them manages a volley shot. Much like the make-up of Royal Antwerp FC, Gush’s teams include a fair helping of immigrants.

While recalling aspects of a scenario concocted by Mexican artist Gustavo Artigas, who in 2000 coordinated rival games of football and basketball on the same pitch at the same time, Gush’s work is entirely original. It also benefits from a consummate sense of production (or craft). Gush, a former Jozi amajita, has established a necessary benchmark. Likely though, many artists will happily canter beneath it on their panicked hunt for a quick buck.

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