Jackie Brown, Leonie Cronin, Laura Moreton-Griffiths, Kim Thornton
The Olympics is a coming together of nations to celebrate the power of sport and human achievement, attracting athletes and spectators from all over the world. Yet. The Games invites controversy. As nations vie for the greatest success, and the winners achieve Gold, its reputation is sullied as successive countries use it to cynically boost economies and further their political purposes; reports of whole communities moved on, human rights abuses in host countries, doping and huge national indebtedness abound. The apparatus seemingly mirrors the current global political climate of fear, introspection and the control of free movement across borders. Far from opening up, nations are closing down and the exchange of different beliefs and cultures is increasingly censured, and it is telling that the principle of equality of gender that The Olympic Charter aspires to is not shared by all competing countries. From when the modern Olympic Games began in 1896 there is a history of women barred from the Olympic Stadium. It was only in 2012 when women’s boxing was at last included in the Olympic programme that women were permitted to compete in all disciplines.
During the 2016 Rio Olympics four London based artists: Jackie Brown, Léonie Cronin, Laura Moreton-Griffiths and Kim Thornton collaborated on a project inspired by everything the spirit of the Olympics represents – courage and tenacity, friendship, peaceful competition and internationalism, inclusivity and equality, history, political ambition, propaganda, and art. Undertaking residencies at Crystal Palace Athletics Stadium and Ladywell Arena the artists worked together to each produce their own individual work exploring their own particular interest and working methodology set within the context of Olympic Dreams.
Nostalgic for the lost golden age of ancient Greece and the original Olympics, poet Panagiotis Soustos wrote Dialogue of the Dead. Writing in 1833, he inspired the first modern revival of the Olympic Games in 1859. In his poem, Plato’s ghost sees his county Greece suffering economic and political hardship and says:
Leave your petty politics and vain quarrels
Recall the past splendour of Greece
Tell me, Where are your ancient cultures?
Where are your Olympic Games?
As the world watched the 2016 Brazil Olympics, we sat and watched and cheered; we clapped the winners and commiserated the losers, we forgot about global crises. It did for a short while feel that we are capable of setting our petty politics and vain quarrels aside, that we could all fly, not held down by prejudice or intolerance. For this project, Jackie Brown’s sculptural work Held visualises what it feels like to be held down. In the image, the athlete’s trainers are tied to the track, the sporty legs anchored to the ground, there is no possibility of her moving across the earth. With Flight Jackie celebrates Fanny Blankers-Koen who, in 1948, won 4 gold medals. Aged 30 and the mother of 2 children, she was discouraged from competing as it was a widely held belief that as a woman she was not physically capable of competing. Blankers-Koen spectacularly proved her detractors wrong, successfully tackling the high jump, long jump, hurdles, sprinting, and middle distance running earning the moniker ‘The Flying Housewife’. The feathered wings of Jackie’s Flying take flight, carrying dirt and soil – the stuff of housework, and the earth that carries all nations.
Alongside the Olympic Rings, brightly coloured flags fly freely at the Olympic Stadium. More than decoration, they convey the Olympic brand, rooting the games in Ancient history and symbolise the coming together of nations. Every competing country is represented. Each flag displayed or carried with pride. Flags represent the marking of boundaries, ownership of land and sovereignty of people. Using flags to explore territory Léonie Cronin is interested in how territory is marked, ritualised measures of distance and the legacy left behind by lines drawn in the sand, and whether these divisions exist within the Olympic Games today. With the flag used as a symbol of patriotism, draped on the body, used as team colours, even painted on nails, she ponders the duality of the personal pursuit of excellence and a country’s own uncompromising pursuit of patriotic gold to claim superiority of its nation’s people.
Laura Moreton-Griffiths couldn’t help but look to 1930s Europe and events leading up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics – another period of time defined by political turmoil, economic crisis and desperate poverty. Budapest, Hungary was particularly troubled and in the grips of a suicide craze. Professor Jeno, a psychotherapist and Binczo, a hypnotist, jokingly started ‘Smile Club’ to teach people to smile like Hollywood stars. They believed that the physical process of smiling would enhance mood and counteract the problem. Somehow it caught on. Though the problems didn’t go away. Laura’s series of photographs Machine For Winning documents a performance made wearing a replica of real fake smiles that reference Jeno and Binczo’s ‘Smile Club’. Laura did stand and sit in all the positions, so each figure is real and located in space but the image has been digitally composited to become a mass of people, marching, watching – the narrative pushing at questions of authoritarian power, the individual, and psychological control.
Competing under the race number 11 Kim Thornton humorously suggests ways in which women can overcome some of the barriers they face in their quest to participate. The fitting label is taken from a headline that appeared in the New York Evening Times in 1928 ‘Eleven Wretched Women’, in which journalist John Tunis reported that of eleven women who ran the Olympic 800 metres for the first time, only one finished the race – a fiction that resulted in women being barred from the race for the next 32 years. So inspired by the history of women barred from competing, for this series, Kim performs feats of athletic endurance using adapted domestic tools, dressed in a costume fashioned from striped dishcloths. Her Domestic Heptathlon disrupts stereotypes and creates surprise narratives; the image titles are borrowed from the history of poetry from poets such as Yeats and Tennyson.
Look out for the Zine at London venues including the Whitechapel Gallery, South London Gallery, Marion Goodman Gallery, Photofusion and Tate Education.