14 April- 8th May
The paradox of failure: sport, competition and contemporary art
I seem to have spent large chunks of my life in swimming pools and changing rooms. Together with the pungent odour of chlorine, it’s a reminder of my 1960’s childhood dream of being an Olympic swimmer – along with my adolescent hero-worship of Tui Shipston who, as a 17-year-old schoolgirl from Christchurch, represented New Zealand at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games. Idealistically, I believed in the hard-working, democratic rightness of Tui Shipston to win a gold medal – and, more importantly, as a scene-setter for my own future and indisputable swimming glory.
But I was destined for disappointment – she didn’t win.
Of the four events that Shipston competed in at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, she qualified in the finals for only one: the women’s 400 metres individual medley. My hopes were high, and I remember waiting eagerly for the results, only to discover that she came seventh. Seventh… my eyes glazed over in disbelief. Marked by Shipston’s failure to win a medal, it was as if my own failure had also been acted out in that swimming pool in Mexico City. Olympic success was not to be mine. Bloody-mindedly resistant to acknowledging Shipston as the seventh fastest in the world – in itself an act of herculean proportions – I’m ashamed to admit that my hero-worship crumbled and fell away as my own medal-winning fantasy collapsed.
Years later, I resolved to offer Tui Shipston the chance to swim that race again – and maybe win this time.
This was the starting point of this project: an optimistic proposal to restage the original swimming event in the same Olympic swimming pool in Mexico City, the Alberca Olímpica Francisco Márquez, and with the same eight competitors – all now in their 60s.
I rang Tui – but she said no!
This moment dramatically shifted the project from being about failure to being a project that was itself constituted by failures — and in doing so forced a paradigmatic shift in both the framing of the project and its methodology. Contingencies, happenstance and precarious optimism opened up possibilities, and I seized upon opportunities to expand upon restaging as an overarching methodology by obsessively enacting the central character and using my own ageing body along with the language of sport, performance and humour in different ways and modalities as a tool of investigation with which to produce a body of video artwork.
As such, each of the video works is a restaged ‘micro-event’ made in response to the unfolding research journey as I doggedly and somewhat obsessively attempted to track down all of the original competitors – all the while, operating within the contingencies of an ongoing durational project moving towards restaging the final swimming race in Mexico City.