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The FIFA world cup will be held in Germany this year. As this soccer nation gears up for the event, Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau has mounted an exhibition on the aesthetic and ritual qualities of the sport.


Ball magic

by Thomas Medicus

Dorothea StraussDorothea Strauss
It's not often that the PR for an art show is more at pains, or you could say painful, than it was here. Emails, phone calls "Can we ..., may we..., would you like ...". The press conference at the opening was all about how "wonderful" it all was, and before you even had a chance to steal a glance at the show you were forced to sit through a power point presentation by curator Dorothea Strauss of at least 13 of the works. A tedious warm-up like this is obviously well intended, but it does put you on your guard. Why, you ask, do the organisers and the curator have so little confidence in their undertaking?

So it is with substantial scepticism that you finally enter the exhibition and set eyes on that object of desire the creators of the exhibition have been trying to bring to your attention with such sullen coyness - in the form of Markus Lüpertz's football of 1966. As if we were never going to be able to accept that art and football could be united, as if we were unaware – to paraphrase Clausewitz – that football is not a science but obviously an art form, and a fine art at that.

But if football is art in itself, why try to boost the importance of this game of all games through art? Because we will gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of the global culture of football, of why we love this game at least as much as we love our own kids, of why it's as important to us as women, lovers, girlfriends and friends. And that's what makes this exhibition so intoxicating: it not only explains our fascination, it strengthens it. It even manages to excite passion in people who neither read magazines like Kicker, watch sports TV, know what offside means nor spend their nights dreaming of the "Kaiser's" long passes.

All doubts about this exhibition (the official contribution by the government's art and cultural programme to the World Cup 2006) proved redundant: what awaits the visitor is 2000 square metres of ball magic. By the end, you are not only feeling joyous, purified, and in love with the ball all over again, you also understand why homo ludens is closer to the gods than all those lazy bums on seats, why in the beginning all art was magical- religious and fetish worshipping. No coincidence then that the London artist Satch Hoyt has constructed a life-size player from the black tongues of Adidas football boots. The obsession with the leather ball, almost to the point of turning into one, is something that unites all men and, as the exhibition does not neglect to mention, women too.

SAM & BEN © by the artistSAM & BEN © by the artist
The destruction of a cult location, like the tearing down of the Bern Wankdorf stadium where the German team won the World Cup in 1954, constitutes an act of terrible sacrilege. Luckily the artists Ralf Samens und BKH Gutmann were able to visit this place of origin and photographically conjure up the god, the spirit and the miracle that is football. "Rundlederwelten", (round leather worlds) the title of this exhibition was coined by the recently deceased Harald Szeemann who also developed the idea and concept. Round leather worlds – these words sound like a secret password to a universal culture full of magic, mystery and mythology – even if artificial fibres have replaced leather since the World Cup in 1986.

Lose yourself a while, for example, in the table football game by Uruguayan artist Federico Arnaud. The pitch is a perfect blue sky with white fluffy clouds, the players are angels, saints and Jesus figures. One glance at the Futbolito altar and you have a rough understanding of the Christian-heathen meaning of football on the entire South American continent. The same goes for Stephen Dean's cinema-sized video projection which shows neither players nor balls, but the ritualised and spontaneous choreographies of Brazilian fans going mental.

© Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual ArtsFranz Beckenbauer © Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual Arts
Many of the exhibits deals with ephemera that could never be captured on TV. These are mostly the sort of things that you've always wanted to get a closer look at. Roderick Buchanan's video shows a line of football players of various nationalities singing their national anthems. The missing sound thrusts the players' gladiatorial physiognomies alarmingly near. You grasp the archaic nature that is still lurking, despite all the regulations.

Over seventy artists from 20 nations are showing in the Martin Gropius Bau; sixteen created new work for the exhibition. All together they address the themes of ball, players, grass, rules, fans, media, emotion and business and in the midst of all of this, Franz Beckenbauer in Andy Warhol's blue silk screen emerges as some sort of key icon. At the end of the seventies sportsmen became pop stars, footballers rose up into the leagues of profane demigods and assumed the status of saints, enraptured, encased in the nimbus of eternity. Posterity, though, weaves wreathes for but a few. As victory faded, fame diminished with it in most cases.

"Collected Heroes" is the name of a work by Volker Schrank produced between 2003 and 2005. Eighteen large colour portraits show the players of the World Cup German team of 1974. But these pictures were taken 30 years after the final match (Germany 2: Holland 1). The shirts are replicas, cut from the original materials; only the faces are old and lined. It is as exhilarating as it is frightening to identify the players. Uli Hoeneß comes over best. Like Franz Beckenbauer or Günter Netzer the manager of FC Bayern has never disappeared from the screen. Most of the players are unrecognisable, their photos are a vanitas vanitatutum of a very particular kind. Others have frozen into memorials of themselves, but the camera's view from below creates only a pseudo transcendence and points to the fragility of heroism. Wolfgang Overath who looks more like Clint Eastwood than the man himself, seems to be waiting to be carved into Mount Rushmore. But one look at most of the other heroes of the day makes you want to avert your eyes in shock.

© Stefan Banz© Stefan Banz
Andy Warhol is one art godfather of "Rundlederwelten", the other is revealed in the video installation by Swiss artist Stefan Banz. A boy writes "Hitzfeld" in black paint on a white wall. It's not hard to guess that the next name to appear will be Duchamp's. Could there be a better Readymade than a football? Andy, Marcel, we thank you for the inspiration you lent Rundlederwelten. This is why it's so good that there's a catalogue, that after the exhibition is before the exhibition, after the game, before the game. The illustrated glossary is like a thrilling iconographic journey through the cultural trappings that make up the world of football. And there are even artist's pictures to stick in. The whole thing couldn't be more round.

Rundlederwelten runs in the Martin Gropius Bau Berlin until January 8, 2006.


The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on October 21, 2005.

Thomas Medicus, born 1953, is an author and editor of the Feuilleton section of the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european