Onside

Curator: Toni Bailey Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre 9 February – 24 March 2013

Jenny Evans Portrait of a Boxer 3 2011, pigment print on premium photo paper, 126.5 x 89 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

The issue of women in sport is similar, historically, to the issue of women in art; both have been faced with inequalities in public recognition and representation, disparity in pay and are grouped under the general assumption that their work is not as relevant as their male contemporaries. Sport is without a doubt at the centre of our nation's cultural fabric. The Australian government even groups art and sport together under the same cultural umbrella. This coupling, to form a generalised greater cultural sector within Australia, has always puzzled me. How, if anywhere, do these two areas cross over? Without moving into fully-fledged gender politics, there is an underlying awkwardness in this marriage of women, sport and art.

Onside takes this challenge head on by examining the role of women in sport as reflected in the visual arts and cultural sector. This exhibition combines photomedia, video, and installation to present a comprehensive approach to the theme. Two distinct methods have been applied to explore the complex issues surrounding women, sport and art; historical and documentary-style imagery, in the form of photographic portraits of the handful of well-known female athletes (Cathy Freeman, Dawn Fraser and Louise Sauvage) loaned from the National Portrait Gallery and more conceptual artworks from Australian and international artists.

There is an undeniable political agenda underlining this exhibition. The honour board-type-list of female athlete’s achievements since 1900 appears as proof, alluding to the relevance of this topic. However, it is disappointing that the documentary component of the exhibition focuses on the often-hyped success of our Olympic athletes, rather than the lesser known achievements of other sports.

The distinct pragmatic and didactic approach of the exhibition is evident, with an emphasis on raising awareness surrounding women’s participation in sport and encouraging physical activity. The reality of women’s involvement in mainstream sport is contextualised by the photojournalistic style of Portrait of a Boxer by Jenny Evans. This intimate and personal depiction of a female Indigenous boxer who trains at the Mundine Gym at the Block in Redfern identifies the adversity, passion and dedication of many female athletes and the realisation that, despite their success, it will never be celebrated.

In contrast, Tarryn Gill and Pila Mata Dupont’s video, Gymnasium and photographic series, The Heart of Gold Project 5: The All Australian Surf Lifesaver epitomise the absurd sexism that surrounds many female athletes who face the pressure of marketing a physically appealing image to enhance their career. The modest hyper-styled imagery of mid-century female glamour, in this case, resembling wartime pin-up propaganda, has simply been replaced by the racy swimsuit photo shoots published in men’s magazines.

Elvis Richardson’s anti-monument sculpture, The Field, momentarily detracts from the gender-based focus of the majority of works. The vast collection of gold plastic trophies is overshadowed by the sheer size of the inverted model of Mount Everest they are amassed on, hence diminishing the perceived importance of winning.

All the artists are Australia-based, except American Angela Ellsworth. Her nationality aside, her work, Seer Bonnet Lucy Anne, seems out of place within the framework of the exhibition. The familiarity of this work from the 2010 Sydney Biennale unavoidably solicits a collective of Mormon sister wives, rather than activity and sport. However, the handmade bonnet covered in pearl corsage pins is nevertheless spectacular.

The video works in Onside are especially pertinent; perhaps it’s the familiarity and its resemblance to watching sport on television. Two of the videos by Jodie Whalen and Richard Lewer particularly demonstrate the confronting reality of elite training. Jodie Whalen’s endurance performance, When the Going Gets Tough, is an agonising and emotional experience obviously reflective of the intense training regimes of elite athletes, but also the scrutiny and expectations of women to look their best. Richard Lewer’s black and white line drawn animation, Skill, Discipline and Training, initially appears to be the well-known tale of young female gymnasts training hard to reach the top. However the story takes a turn to expose the predatory behaviours often entrenched across all levels of women’s sport.

Combining sport, women and art in one show makes Onside a bold exhibition that raises important issues surrounding the representation of women, but also the relationship between art and sport.

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