Stadium walk (opening ceremony) is the seventh 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.
Walking into that Olympic stadium was like walking into a myth. It was eerily quiet – the kind of emptied-out quiet that only big stadiums can muster when no one is there. By contrast, every sound I made was amplified: my ragged breathing, the crunch of footsteps on the track, every flick and ripple of the flag, and the swish-swish of my arm as I waved at the empty seats. I was living the dream, my childhood fantasy of making it to the Olympics!
So why was I crying? How is it that an empty stadium can hold so much? I was doing my damnedest to keep smiling and waving, but the tears kept welling up. Come on Gibbs, toughen up. Oh no, don’t cry, not here. Wave. Smile. Walk. Hold the flag up, it keeps drooping. Fuck it, why am I crying? I just can’t seem to stop … this was actually supposed to be funny … just keep waving …
“Is there anyone who has not, at least once, walked into a room and ‘felt the atmosphere’?” So Teresa Brennan challenges her readers, arguing that the transmission of affect is not only social and psychological but is also responsible for physical and biological changes. Affects are also, according to Rebecca Schneider, “feelings and emotions … [that] can circulate, bearing atmosphere-altering tendencies, in material remains or gestic/ritual remains … shifting in and through bodies.” Scholar Sarah Ahmed refers to emotion as visceral, or sticky, assigning it bodiliness, and there was no doubt – throughout my entire body, I could sense a powerful atmosphere in the stadium.
Through the act of restaging the opening ceremony – itself also repeated in cycles of time – I could feel the pull and jump of time, connected by gesture’s insistence on repetition. In this, Schneider points us towards the temporal slippage inherent in the gesture, asserting that, through the repeated gesture, “the past is an ongoing performance of re-emergent actuality, full of performance’s potential,” thereby drawing our attention to that which a gesture holds across time, and to the potential that a gesture might contain. She posits:
An action repeated again and again and again, however fractured or partial or incomplete, has a kind of staying power – persists through time – and even, in a sense, serves as a fleshy kind of ‘document’ of its own recurrence.
In Stadium walk, the ‘fleshy document’ becomes a portrait of my face, tightly cropped and large on the screen. Facing the camera, exposed, brutally honest, my self- awareness is a counter to the aloof beauty of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane – capturing the footballer’s unremitting focus on the game and not the camera, as if, in the words of Michael Fried, in “a sustained feat of absorption.” In my unwitting riposte to Zidane, even I am transfixed by these close-ups: by my facial gestures, my attempts to smile, trying hard not to cry, a denial of vulnerability, and then finally – losing the battle – I cry. Caught off guard, I’m embarrassed that I look so very old, and I’m embarrassed by my exposure, my failure to control my emotions. Artist Tim Etchells articulates this vulnerable, painful moment, writing:
You betray yourself. You show more than you wish to. You slip. You stumble. You show something just other than that which you had intended or hoped. It is simple more or less: you stand there, and you fail.
The ‘jokey’ façade has cracked – unexpectedly, these are real tears. But, claims academic Jennifer Doyle, “tears in art are suspect whether they are represented within a work of art or produced in a spectator.” Instead, real tears in an artwork, she asserts, present “an uncomfortable allegory for the difficulty of ‘real’ feeling (which the film director Krzysztof Kieslowski called the ‘fright of real tears’).” The sudden appearance – the fright – of unmediated reality represented by my tears exposes the uneasiness and suspiciousness that accompanies portraying supposedly ‘real’ tears in an artwork. For instance, the induced tears in Marina Abramović’s The Onion (1995), in which the artist eats a raw onion in order to produce the artifice of ‘real’ tears; or the faked glycerine tears in Hayley Newman’s Crying Glasses (An Aid to Melancholia), a staged documentation of a fictional performance that never took place. However, in Bas Jan Ader’s I’m Too Sad To Tell You (1971), the artist really is in tears. Although the work is clearly staged for the camera, we never find out why he is crying, therefore his performance is isolated from any narrative context. However, we are ready to accept his tears as real, counters Doyle, “in part because there is a tradition of sad, melancholy white male artists that supports this response, a tradition Ader deliberately and ironically engages.”
Herein lies the difference: my tears are real, however I am not sad. Instead, my display of emotion is poised on a cusp between pathos and absurdity, for written on my face is also the tearful delight and relief of finally fulfilling my fantasy of making it to the Olympics – albeit too late, too old, too past-it, but buoyed by my enduring and optimistic belief in the fantasy. “Traversing the fantasy,” in the words of Žižek, “[is to] fully identify oneself with the fantasy, to bring the fantasy out.” In other words, an escape from the real is an embrace of the artifice and the inauthentic through collapsing the real into the fantasy. Here, the enclosed space of the stadium is complicit, designating its interiority as an ‘other’ kind of space, as Steven Connor observed: “Anything canhappen in a space like this.” Indeed, something magical had happened – in the inauthentic and ‘exceptional space’ of the stadium and this restaged opening ceremony, for a brief moment I lived my fantasy and my experience in the expanse of the stadium was profoundly moving. This took me by surprise, as I’d expected to experience it as another humorously inflected work, one that might offer up yet another aspect of humour for analysis in the research. However, while the other restagings thus far had maintained varying levels of critical distance, it transpired that in Stadium walk (opening ceremony), it had startlingly and unexpectedly shortened the distance that had hitherto existed between me, Tui and the 1968 Olympics.
Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY & London: Cornell University Press, 2004), 1.
Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (London & New York: Routledge, 2011), 36.
Sarah Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 89–90.
Rebecca Schneider, “That the Past May Yet Have Another Future: Gesture in the Times of Hands Up,” Theatre Journal 70, no. 3 (September 2018): 300, https://doi.org/10.1353/tj.2018.0056
Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains,
Michael Fried, “Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane.” In Douglas Gordon Superhumanatural [exhibition catalogue] (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, November 2, 2006–January 14, 2007): 106.
Tim Etchells, “A Six-thousand-and-forty-seven-word Manifesto on Liveness in Three Parts with Three Intervals,” in Live: Art and Performance, ed. Adrian Heathfield (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 12.
Jennifer Doyle, Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2013), 84.
Slavoj Žižek, Event: Philosophy in Transit (London: Penguin Books, 2014), 29.
Steven Connor, “Playgrounds: The Arenas of Game,” Bartlett School of Architecture International Lecture Series, 2008, http://stevenconnor.com/playgrounds/playgrounds.pdf
Performer: Sandy Gibbs
Camera: Katri Walker and Claudia Becerril
Producer: Catalina Bojacá
Support crew: Chris Williams
Costume: Sandy Gibbs
Milliner: Liza Foreman
Editor: Ro Tierney
Sound recording: Carlos Fernandez and Uriel Duran, Yellow Tree Studios
Shot on location at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México UNAM, Mexico City.
Thanks to Dirección General del Patrimonio of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México UNAM, and the Estadio Olímpico Universitario team, Juan José Ugalde García, Manager and Sergio Juárez, our guide.