May 29 – August 1, 2015
Spending time with Karen Kraven’s Flip Flop, Punch Front at Mercer Union, I find myself processing the installation through a staccato rush of action words: vault, stretch, twist, bend, sweat, push, chafe, snap, split, flip, flop. In part, I’m guided through this stream of consciousness by the clusters of notecards bundled in colourful hair elastics that sit in one corner of Mercer Union’s Back Gallery, each displaying the gestural loops and spikes of artistic gymnastics shorthand. Roundoff, Full Twisting Double Back; Switch Split, Flip Flop to Handstand: a percussive lexicon of movement that maps out a gymnast’s routine across the floor. I am also currently writing in the wake of Toronto’s 2015 Pan Am Games, where the language of sports was mobilized in a different way: fight to win, raise your game, capture gold, do your country proud, be at your physical peak. What does it mean to exist at your body’s “peak”? Do the body’s physical limits have a material, textural, cultural equivalency? A peak, a spike, a climax, a stretch, an edge. Kraven’s installation explores the pushes and pulls of an athlete’s form, and the limits—both social and physical—it encounters.
On the large, royal blue platform that takes up the majority of Mercer Union’s back gallery, there is a series of human shapes that pose, vault, and twist across its breadth. They are flattened and distorted, their limbs emerging at odd angles, and entirely lack faces, hands, and feet. Without these chief indicators of a gymnast’s identity, we’re left to rely on other visual cues—namely, costume. Each “body” wears a gymnastics suit sewn in various iterations of bright and sparkly spandex: blue and silver metallic, neon circles, black glitter, and perhaps most whimsically, colourful Froot Loops. They don’t fit perfectly the angular bodies that bear them; at various points the fabric puckers, stretches, drapes, and pools across the blue platform. In certain moments the stitches seem loose, the fabric occasionally fraying at its edges. These fragmented bodies are surrounded by an assortment of gymnastics paraphernalia: spray bottles, hair elastics, loose sequins, sockettes, and the aforementioned notation cards.
Kraven is interested in the visual vocabulary of female gymnasts, the details that transform a uniform into something unique, and the acute pressure (or singular pleasure) for female athletes to display their gender through sport, which Cait McKinney describes in the exhibition essay as “the adornment-politics that haunt female athletes.” Significantly, these politics are at play on the gymnastics floor, where the bodies of women are seen to exert grace and delicateness alongside muscle and force. Kraven does not discredit female athletes for performing through gendered norms. Rather, while her ambiguous forms denote an understanding of how the bodies of women are manipulated under patriarchy, she considers how adornment can provide self-awareness for all athletes ready to compete. Put your game face on, wear your lucky scrunchie, grow your playoffs beard, paint your nails the team colours. These ritualized forms of affirmation are familiar to athletes and amateurs alike, regardless of gender.
There’s a figure watching over this disjointed band of gymnasts: an enlarged Sports Illustrated Magazine cover featuring the sweaty and triumphant face of Florence Griffith Joyner—or Flo-Jo for short—the currently unmatched American track-and-field legend, made memorable by her speed as well as her sartorial flair. She’s wiping a hand across her forehead, her skin wrinkling slightly under her palm in a manner that visually echoes Kraven’s folded spandex throughout the installation. But the main event is her manicure, her long fingernails painted a vivid turquoise with a tropical horizon of palm trees and birds. Flo-Jo’s presence epitomizes the “adornment-politics” that govern Flip Flop, Punch Front: her body is recognizable for its fashion as much as its function. Even her nickname almost merges into the staccato rush of language of the installation’s flipping, flopping, switching, and splitting.
Yet, as McKinney notes in the catalogue essay, Flo-Jo’s long, adorned nails signal to her blackness as well as her femininity in the public eye. The treatment of black bodies in the visual culture of sports has a long and fraught history, yet these adornment-politics remain crucial in the present. Like the 2011 uproar surrounding the white Université de Montreal business students who donned blackface at a school event to collectively dress as Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, it is troubling when black skin becomes reduced to another form of adornment in the visual culture of athleticism, rather than something lived and experienced with the immense weight of history. Flo-Jo’s image, its enlarged and pixelated flatness, gestures towards these uneasy moments in the adornment-politics of sports culture: when the identity of an athlete is jostled between personal affirmation and public consumption. Likewise, the forms vaulting across Flip Flop, Punch Front could be seen to embody the difficulties of this push-and-pull. Are these bodies flattened and distorted, or are they stretching to new and unforeseen limits?
These deliberate ambiguities sustain the deeply felt rhythm of Kraven’s installation, where languages of gesture (both visual and linguistic) overturn otherwise traditional frameworks for talking about sports. It’s a strange and engrossing arena where performance is measured in texture and feeling, where bodies can sparkle, sweat, stretch, and fray, seemingly all at once.