Lighting an old flame is the second component in a body of video work generated for my PhD research project, The paradox of failure: sport, competition and contemporary art, in which I set out to restage a 50-year-old swimming race from the 1968 Mexico Olympics: the final of the women’s 400 metres individual medley.
The 1968 Mexico Olympics was the first time that the Olympic flame was lit by a woman. Beautifully captured in Alberto Isaac’s documentary, the young Mexican hurdler Norma Enriqueta Basilio runs into the stadium with the Olympic flame, completes a lap and then – effortlessly – she bounds up a long flight of steps to the very top of the stadium where she symbolically lights the cauldron. This was the signal for the start of the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games.
I resolved to restage this moment in suburban Wellington. I scouted around for a suitable site, finally opting for a long flight of steps that stretch up from Lyall Bay, a southern beachside suburb of the city. These steps are tough even for seasoned runners, being something like one hundred and fifty steep steps. A friend sewed a white running outfit to match the one worn by Basilio – we joked that you couldn’t tell us apart. I made an Olympic flame out of coloured cardboard, and a fake cauldron from heavy card that I spray-painted metallic silver. I bought half a dozen helium-filled balloons from a party supply shop (six was the most that would squash into the back of my old Beetle), and I hired a couple of camera guys with a drone. Heads popped up over the neighbouring fences and kids turned up to watch the drone taking off and landing. At first, they thought I was a real estate agent. “What are you doing?” they asked. “It’s art,” I said. Suddenly they looked at me differently.
The end result is Lighting an old flame, an amateur theatrical performance: the badly made cardboard props, the not-quite-right replica of the running outfit, the cheesy yet satisfying moment when the fake flames suddenly appear in the ‘lit’ cauldron, the underwhelming balloon release at the end, the voice-over copied from Alberto Isaac’s documentary, but, most of all, here’s this crazy older woman still striving to live out the fantasy. The whole thing is precarious and amateurish – but in its complete absurdity, it portrays a total and optimistic belief in the fantasy of an ageing woman who never stopped dreaming of making it to the Olympics. And who is determined to play it out.
Publicly performing Lighting an old flame was also a means of countering the invisibility of the ageing female body. Through postmodernism and poststructuralism, it is well established that the body is constituted socially, and that the ageing body is never simply a body subjected to biological decline: inscribed and re-inscribed by society and culture, and regulated through the youthful crosshairs of the aged gaze – as argued by age critic and theorist Margaret Morganroth Gullette, “we are aged by culture.” An example of this in the popular media is the presenter Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain in 2016 pretending to vomit upon viewing a clip of Madonna twerking, proclaiming, “I loved Madonna when she acted her age … but you can’t be 58 and prancing about.”
Art critic Hal Foster, writing about the practice of artist Thomas Hirschhorn, states: “To give form to the precarious, is to attest to the ‘fragility of life.’” And certainly, in Lighting an old flame, precariousness is less to do with the junk aesthetic of cardboard props, and more to do with fragility, humanness and making visible an insistently defiant, relentless bodiliness. In Lighting an old flame I intentionally set out to take control of this narrative, using humour buoyed by a bodily precariousness as a means of subverting the invisibility of the ageing female body.
Alberto Isaac (dir.) Olimpiada en Mexico, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVsQYRZgb10.
Margaret Morganroth Gullette, Aged by Culture (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
Cathy McGlynn, Margaret O’Neill, and Michaela Schrage-Früh, eds., Ageing Women in Literature and Visual Culture: Reflections, Refractions, Reimagings (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 1–2.
Hal Foster, “Toward a Grammar of Emergency,” in Thomas Hirschhorn: Establishing a Critical Corpus, ed. Thomas Bizzarri and Thomas Hirschhorn (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2011), 170.