John Neylon examines The Summation of Force from Trent Parke and Narelle Autio, finding what might be the first work of art to truly dig into the heart and soul of cricket.
Why hasn’t the game of cricket produced great art? Sure, there have been some outstanding individual contribution such as Francis Bacon’s 1980s contorted male figures sporting cricket pads. One suggestion is that this was motivated by a keen interest in the golden-haired David Gower. On a visit to London in the 1890s, the Impressionist Camille Pissarro painted Match de Cricket à Bedford Park. Like a true Frenchman he kept his distance — a very long view over a hedge — from this curious English ritual.
There are numerous commemorative sculptures such as Robert Hannaford’s heroic depiction of the Don smiting the ball to the boundary near the Victor York Richardson Gates at Adelaide Oval. But where is the art that engages with the psyche of the game? Cricket’s dark side of the moon is all about the subtexts that take us to the heartland of what it means to “Play up! Play up! And play the game” — even if the “Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead and the regiment blind with dust and smoke”.
Yes, Victorian England left a legacy of cricket being a metaphor for how life should be truly lived. More than a game. For absolute confirmation check out James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to appreciate how sex and cricket are common bedfellows. In this context why hasn’t cricket been rewarded with decent art? It has the optics — green swards dotted with flannelled fools, ‘how’s that’ gestures worthy of a Greek tragedy, rhythmical run ups, classic catches of the highest athletic order and the visual majesty of a Brian Lara cover drive. But that’s just surface noise. Artists Narelle Autio and Trent Parke know that – and it shows.
The Summation of Force is a multi-screen filmic experience.
Those familiar with the artists’ work will recognise trademark touches — Parke working the narrow corridors between flash-light glare and extreme darkness and Autio’s gimlet eye for moments that mean more than all the others. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Force is about cricket. There is a narrative of sorts — a rite of passage for lads (played by the artists’ sons) from innocent play to competitive performance.
Other lads swell the ranks of performers, moved around like Olive Cotton teacups on the great table top of life. There is an audience — parents arranged like mute spectators at an Alabama electric chair send off. The setting is primarily a backyard. At times this morphs into spaces that might be basketball court, a sports laboratory or simply the cosmos.
In the darkness of the gallery space scenarios appear and disappear like events in a shadow puppet show. Turf is dug up and literally pressed into service as a cricket pitch. The boys play backyard cricket with enthusiasm, tonking balls onto roofs, into windows and over fences. Then pads and helmets appear. The bowling becomes more aggressive. There is close up capture of that whiff of fear. Adult rituals impose themselves. A boy is padded up and walks through the laundry door into the glare of floodlights. A tossed coin spins out of the darkness. The heat is on. Dozens of lads subject themselves to standardised testing to identify potential. Like Mitchell Johnson flipping a car tyre, one boy runs down the beach trailing a small parachute. He’s wired up. He breathes into a mask. No weak heart, lungs or legs if you want to be an elite athlete. Only when plotted as a light sensitive robotic does a sense of freedom prevail and the young athlete becomes a manifestation of pure energy.
Trent Parke and Narelle Autio chat about what inspired them to create The Summation of Force
That this complexity of symbolic narrative can function in such attenuated and fragmented formats is due to both artists’ eyes for what mystifies and intrigues. Add to this the capacity to orchestrate so many visually compelling vignettes in such a way that the viewing experience ebbs and flows like the shifting fortunes associated with a five-day test match.
There is an extraordinary game going on here — call it magic realism — in which the viewer is invited to believe that something so ordinary as playing backyard cricket then translating this experience into a mirror on the adult, mass-media world of sports entertainment — has the capacity to go the heart of what cricket means in contemporary life. At one level it is about the crucible — the backyard — well captured by Steve Cannane in his 2010 book First Tests: Great Australian Cricketers and the Backyards that Made Them. At another it touches on the darkness of passion and extreme competition that dogs the dreams of all who would push themselves to the limit.
The Summation of Force is a remarkable experience — cricket’s Platonic Cave in which the spectres and shadows of what is dreamed, adjudicated, achieved and valued in the name of sport come out to play. An elite performance.
Trent Parke and Narelle Autio: The Summation of Force
Samstag Art Museum
Until Friday, September 1