The Rules of Basketball: Works by Paul Pfeiffer and James Naismith’s “Original Rules of Basket Ball”
September 16 – January 13, 2013
Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin
In an unlikely combination of history and psychology, this exhibit pairs basketball inventor James Naismith’s 1891 document “Original Rules of Basket Ball” with contemporary artist Paul Pfeiffer’s basketball themed digital works. In hindsight, the Naismith material seems like it’d be merely a passing curiosity for most, and only significant for true sports geeks and devout basketball fans, as the real philosophical and entertaining meat of the exhibit is the collection of work by Paul Pfeiffer.
This basketball-specific compilation of pieces is dominated by enormous C-prints of mostly vintage and notable game photographs whose removed logos, names, and team colors imbue them with the ghostly hollow silence of a haunted house. Interspersed among these are tiny viewing vessels affixed to the walls, where short-length video clips run in fast highlight-reel styled loops. Pfeiffer’s knack for selecting just the right 3 seconds of game footage to convey his symbolism is evident in the same unexpected walk-through-a-graveyard, eerie feeling they impart. Some of the images and video border on absurd, utilizing the unreal juxtaposition of blanked-out team jerseys with highly memorable sporting moments. Taking all of this in, I found myself suppressing alternating fits of amused, snickering laughter, chest-vibrating tension, and fond childhood sentimentality.
Like nearly all contemporary art, this work is primarily conceptual, deeply embedded within the theoretical realm of symbolism rather than in the organic lineage of traditional craftsmanship…what most tend to quickly appreciate as “skill.” As such, sadly, only the most informed viewers are likely to truly appreciate the full significance of what the artist has made (“Some photoshopped video clips–so what?”). And this, of course, embodies so much of what’s wrong with art in postmodern society, and isn’t necessarily the average viewer’s fault (but that debate gets complicated, and needs its own future blog post or 7).
But, as guest curator for the Blanton exhibit Regine Basha insightfully describes, “Paul Pfeiffer frames media, spectacle, and masculinity [and, I’d add–race] in a way that sheds new light on the game of basketball.” His clever digital work “adopts today’s frenetic visual language in order to consider the role that mass media plays in shaping consciousness,” according to the exhibit’s press release. As such, Pfeiffer’s retouched photographs and manipulated video clips are sneakily at the epicenter of some of the most pressing and pivotal conflicts smoldering, unresolved, in the heart of our first-world empire of consumption and spectacle.
In Germany in 2000 the Kunst-Werke Berlin e.V., Institute for Contemporary Art, presented the first comprehensive one-man-show of Paul Pfeiffer, offering a beautiful description of his symbolism and process:
Pfeiffer’s digital videos are “moving still-lives,” challenging human perception as well as exploring long-standing issues of painting. Due to the accelerated repetition of short sequences, the essential codes of perception, such as the instant recognition of fore- and background, depth and surface, motion and unmoving, blur or cease to be of relevance. For example, in JOHN 3:16 Pfeiffer took found video footage of a basketball game and re-edited it in order to place the ball in the central foreground of the screen with the play swirling around it. The seeming fluidity of the image belies the painstaking nature of the production process: over 5000 individual video frames have been enlarged and repositioned to create the moving image of a ball in play.
As a lifelong sports fan, artist, and cultural deconstructionist I had three inherent and unlikely leverage points with which to appreciate this exhibit. Having long ago dissolved the barriers of the self-limiting, culturally-reinforced disparity between “jock” and “artist” stereotypes/archetypes within myself, I felt as though Pfeiffer’s work was made for–and was speaking intimately to–me. I was thrilled to stumble upon these eerily-altered iconic sports images on my recent museum trip, having planned my visit around the Blanton’s simultaneous exhibit of classic Western Americana paintings.
In one short video clip that’s both instantly terrifying and hilarious, digital editing and repetition turn the post-dunk celebratory scream of a basketball player into an unnerving, awkwardly aggressive expression of rage. What gives this art added significance to me–perhaps belying the original intent of the artist, who has purposefully removed any team, league, corporate or personal identifiers from the scene–is that I know the basketball player is former college and pro star Larry Johnson, who in Pfeiffer’s video was playing for the Charlotte Hornets, and whose promising career was disappointingly cut short due to injury. I used to watch him enact that primal ritual on live TV as a child, reveling in his athletic prowess, imitating it in my makeshift driveway basketball court, and collecting his basketball cards. It’s in this sentimentality that the work touches a deeper human chord within me, and I feel like a participant in Pfeiffer’s visions, embodying a small part of the very unresolved conflicts that his work calls forth.