Monday, August 11, 2008

The Square Circle: Boxing in Contemporary Art

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2003

Boxing, provocatively called the red-light district of sports, has often provided white-hot inspiration for artists interested in the essential dramas of race, class, sexuality, (homo)eroticism, gender, politics, nationality, and civilization often staged in the ring. Films such as Raging Bull, Rocky, and Girlfight as well as literary works by authors including Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, and Kevin Young further demonstrate the world's collective obsession with this emotionally, psychically, and physically complex sporting endeavor. If, as Oates writes, boxing is "a knot of sorts, tightly, cruelly knotted, there to be untied," the exhibition The Squared Circle: Boxing in Contemporary Art attempts to untie boxing as metaphor, as spectacle, and as poetic yet slightly absurd dance of dualities--violence and beauty, triumph and failure, life and death.

Including artworks from the past 33 years, the exhibition is loosely bracketed by Muhammad Ali's reign in the early 1970s and the current glory of his boxing daughter, Laila Ali. The Squared Circle features more than 40 works by 30 international artists in media ranging from painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography to video, film, and sound installation. Casting both boxers and boxing fans as protagonists, this show restages the journey that takes some people from the gym's punching bags to the ring, and others to vicarious fantasies of violence, grace, and triumph through the fists of fighters like Ali, Dempsey, and Tyson. Like the sport itself, the artworks resonate with ambiguity, contradiction, and unexpected outcomes.Teasing out the tangled dynamics of male vulnerability and female empowerment, The Squared Circle provides a new and reinvigorating context for a broad and diverse artistic conversation on the subject. While some artists investigate the pervasiveness of the sport's racial, gender, and power issues, others focus on ways that politics, popular culture, and class are played out in the spectacle that boxing offers. A significant nuance is added to the exhibition by the focused inclusion of several women artists whose works engage themes of desire, femininity, physical strength, and gender expectations. Just as these complicated concepts that permeate public consciousness are confronted in the ring, the exhibition sheds light on boxing as a potent if unexpected vehicle for art.

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