SQUASH! is a new performance work by Adelaide-based artist Meg Wilson. The set is a full-sized squash court, built in the Hart’s Mill warehouse in Port Adelaide, with the audience seated on a balcony overlooking the action. Over the course of 2.5 hours, Wilson competes in a tournament against “The World”, represented by a roster of guest players. With the artist playing the lead role of “WILSON” she is joined by long-time collaborators Josephine Weir and Ashton Malcolm, who play the roles of umpire and commentator respectively. The work was presented as part of Adhocracy, the annual festival of new experimental work at Vitalstatistix. SQUASH! is the outcome of a two-week residency, and weekend of performances in development, culminating in a final presentation that took place on a cold Sunday night, with WILSON facing off against five opponents before finishing with a game against herself.
From the outset Wilson’s character is aggressive and cold. Dressed in black, she has her hair slicked back and wears reflective aviator-style sunglasses throughout the performance. While Dominaty Katie, her first opponent, is introduced with a few simple sentences before she bounces excitedly onto the court, WILSON enters to the accompaniment of a lengthy video tribute. All the usual tricks are employed: close-ups of a stern, emotionless face, slow motion shots and power poses. The voiceover recounts the many professional honours and achievements WILSON has enjoyed. As the tournament proceeds, WILSON is harassed by the umpire and heckled by the commentator. She flaunts the rules despite the warnings of harsh consequences: throwing down her racket, grunting and screaming and wasting time with power poses to intimidate her opponents. In the third game, her squad runs onto the court each time she scores, performing a celebratory dance over the objections of the umpire. The penalties mount, beginning with warnings and ending with WILSON tethered to a volunteer outside the court.
The steady stream of comment is relentless. WILSON is criticised for her appearance and the decision to pursue her athletic career rather than have children, amidst the rising approbation that her next opponent is a man (increasing the stakes and the spectator appeal). There is a subtle exchange between the two supporting roles: as the commentator praises WILSON for “showing some surprisingly good sportsmanship”, the umpire cuts in with “I’m going to have to give you a warning for timewasting.” WILSON cannot win. As a member of the audience I have to laugh, while privately questioning my own position in the world – the decisions I have made around family and career. Given that the commentator, umpire and the majority of the performers are female, there is a double edge to these concerted attempts to undermine the central protagonist.
Throughout this tournament Wilson and her team create a portrait that critiques the representation of women in sports. Squash is a game associated with high-powered white, male executives in the1980s world of business excess. In order to compete in this world, WILSON as performer and brand is a hyper-masculine character; the artist has amplified the aggressive, arrogant aspects of her own character, and dulled her softer, empathetic side. While this is acceptable for men in sport, WILSON continues to be criticised for her behaviour and appearance. This performance draws attention to the double standards under which female sports stars labour; they are seen as either too masculine to be a woman, or too feminine to be real contenders. It also highlights the pressures that are placed upon women, the choice between family and career that is not required of men. Wilson often demands endurance in her performance works, from both herself and the audience. This was no different. The performers enacted these circumstances over and over, escalating the tension and ridicule.
While the audience was able to come and go, those that stayed experienced the relentless and aggressive feedback of the name-calling and judgement, reflecting the stress and strains that public figures in the real world endure. And, while humorous, it became grating, eliciting responses like “no, not again!” Public displays of sexism in sport and other public contests is exhausting to endure and maintain the fight. The audience, like the performers, were worn down by the sheer effort required to hold their ground. Wilson and her creative team have built and enacted a microcosm of the larger world of sports and competitive advantage. The sexism and double standards are played out as entertainment, but also to raise awareness. This is pulled into sharp focus when we realise that the script is compiled from existing editorial and commentary, a case of art replicating the facts of life.