Recalling Tui is the first 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.

To restage an event with the same competitors some 50 years later re-introduces incertitude and irresolution into a certain and resolved situation: there is no guarantee that the results – or indeed, the event itself – will be the same. To undertake an activity such as a sporting event is to risk failure. But what if the same action were to be framed through a contemporary art filter? Might the potential meaning of failure be recast or short-circuited?

My childhood hero Tui Shipston was a 17-year-old schoolgirl from Christchurch when she represented New Zealand at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, coming seventh in the final of the women’s 400 metres individual medley. Inspired by a desire to offer Tui the chance to race again and maybe to win gold this time, I set off on a quest to enlist all of the eight original competitors in an attempt to re-race that final 50 years later, and in the same Olympic swimming pool in Mexico City. I could already envisage those eight women lined up on the starters’ blocks; much older of course but still strong, vibrant and powerful.

First, I called Tui on the phone – I nervously introduced myself; I should have been more alert to her hesitancy. I asked if I could talk to her about her experiences swimming at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. But she firmly said “No” – actually what she said was “I don’t do that sort of thing.” I tried my hardest to keep her on the line, but then she was gone. I didn’t even get to mention restaging the race.

My heart was thumping hard when I put down the phone. In that awful moment of utter and dismal failure, I gained my first startled glimpse into the depths of precariousness that underscored this project, and I knew that this meant trouble with a capital T. It was unravelling right before it even got started. Enter ‘contingencies’.

Later, I kicked myself that I hadn’t documented the phone call. Too late, I realised I’d need it for my research. But given it had been such a brief encounter, I felt sure I could remember it word for word. Easy, I thought, as I set up a video camera a couple of months later in my lounge. I didn’t worry too much about the busy traffic noise outside, or fussing over the framing or the focus – I simply sat down in front of the camera and started recalling the conversation. Except that I couldn’t. Recall it, that is. Suddenly it was gone, as absent and elusive as Tui had been. I made a start, thinking it might take me three or four goes to properly recall the conversation so I kept the camera rolling. Instead, it took shape as a single 10-minute video made up of repetitions, half-started and unfinished sentences, pauses and some really awkward silences.

An unexpected outcome of this experience was the degree to which the attempt to recall an otherwise mundane phone conversation activated a humorous response. My anxious efforts to replay the conversation activate what could be described as an uncomfortably dark humour that exploits uncertainty; a human earnestness at once both comic and despairing that becomes more and more painful and embarrassing as I stumble through endless repetitions. This was, in many ways, a turning point for the project and brought about a profound change in the way I was thinking about exploring newness and difference. Recalling Tui is framed by and references the original phone call but is subverted through a strategy of displacement – in this case, a configuration of anxiety and humour – that first locates the familiar, and then makes it strange. Certainly, my anxious efforts to replay the conversation activate what could be described as an uncomfortably dark humour that exploits uncertainty; a human earnestness at once both comic and despairing that becomes more and more painful and embarrassing as I stumble through endless repetitions.

According to Gilles Deleuze, repetition is not simply the same thing occurring over and over again but, rather, repetition should be thought of as an inherently transformative, creative process that produces difference.[1] Repetition is also identified by Henri Bergson as one of the techniques for creating comic effect[2] and as Recalling Tui unfolds, through my repetitions, I am activating a set of registers from dark humour to pathos. In his study of laughter, Bergson is interested in the incongruity between expectations and what actually takes place in a joke, but there is no joke telling in Recalling Tui and no overt intent to make people laugh. As such, while Bergson acknowledges that humour reveals much about being human, the real humanness of this work calls to mind Samuel Beckett, whose all-too-human protagonists “are prisoners of obsessive, repetitive behaviour,”[3] espousing a kind of humour that is both unsettling and troubling. I suggest that it’s here in this troubled zone that humour is activated in Recalling Tui, accentuated by my own self-consciousness and Woody Allenesque anxiety – echoing scholar Gillian Pye, who observes that “[humour] tends to operate on sites of anxiety.”[4] The humour in Recalling Tui resides within the quietly unrehearsed uneasiness between the spoken text and the wished-for outcome, “epistemologically troubling, drawing insecure boundaries,”[5] as it moves back and forth between the states of anxiety and absurdity. As such, paraphrasing Pye, in Recalling Tui, I contend that the structure of the spoken words combined with my facial gestures variously masks and unmasks sites of anxiety, “the way a text is structured by the interweaving of comic and non-comic elements.”[6]

Over time, the video builds to a denouement of sorts: no matter how hard I try, from whichever persuasive angle I attempt, repeat, or discard, I’m not going to be able to change the outcome – Tui is not going to say “Yes”. My failure and disappointment at never having made it as an Olympic swimmer and now the double dismay of not being able to enlist my childhood hero is etched on my face. And in a further indignity, it is seen by the audience as being absolutely hilarious.

  1. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 71.
  2. Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (London: MacMillan and Co., 1911), 90.
  3. Felicity Lunn, “The Pathos of Distance,” in When Humour Becomes Painful, ed. Felicity Lunn and Heike Munder (Zurich: Migros Museum Für Gegenwartskunst & JRP Ringier, 2005), 29.
  4. Gillian Pye, “Comedy Theory and the Postmodern,” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 19 no. 1 (2006): 60,
  5. Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai, “Comedy has Issues,” Critical Inquiry 43 (Winter 2017): 235,
  6. Pye, “Comedy Theory and the Postmodern,” 60.

Performer: Sandy Gibbs

Camera: Sandy Gibbs