The Football Art Mob

Che Guevara said football could be more than just a sport, it could be a revolutionary weapon. Here's how art can make that happen.
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Football and art have never quite got on. Maybe it’s just too much of a stretch - no artist can ever really hope to capture the essence of sport, its great drama; not just on canvas, but on the big screen, on the page or in the recording studio. Traditionally figurative art was always happy to give it a go; the recent England’s Glory 2010 show in London was a wonderfully romantic celebration of a post-war golden age of centre-partings and shoulder barges. Stirring stuff, but pure nostalgia and little to do with the pop-cultural behemoth that is the modern game.

It’s been the conceptual crowd, artists working with video, installations and sculpture, that have been best equipped to get in a decent challenge early doors on the big issues of contemporary football: the mass media, celebrity, spectacle, identity, sponsorship, commercialisation, globalisation, politics and, just occasionally, the role of the holding midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 system. The One Shot! exhibition over in Charleroi, Belgium, is an excellent showcase for all this international arty punditry. Andrea Mastrovito, a native of Bergamo in northern Italy (and presumably an Atalanta fan), offered up the magnificently-titled Brescia di Merda (Shitty Brescia), while British artist Julie Henry knitted some rather fetching cardigans and Peruvian sculptor Jota Castro created a marble football, naming the work Break a Leg (see what he did there?)

My particular favourite though was Ne vous laizzez pas consoler (Do not allow yourself to be consoled), a witty collaboration between a French ultra group and the Spanish art collective Democracia. In September of last year, during a game between Bordeaux Girondins and Rennes, the home side’s Ultramarines fans displayed banners and scarves adorned with revolutionary slogans and philosophical bon mots (“No idols”, “The truth is always revolutionary”, “We have nothing except our time”). Merchandise was sold outside the stadium and a video made of the event (see link below).

"No artist can ever really hope to capture the essence of sport, its great drama; not just on canvas, but on the big screen, on the page or in the recording studio."

Democracia approached supporters of the local football club about a possible link-up after working in Bordeaux earlier last year. Pablo Espana, one of the artists behind the project, explained that the ultras were chosen for their frequent flirts with politics, their controversy and love of putting on a show. The artists wanted to explore the way fans would defend their space within the stadium, how they create their own rituals within the larger ritual of the game. Something the Ultramarines were instinctively in tune with: “We’d tried something similar with football fans in Chile a year or so before,” said Pablo. “There’s always been this attempt to suggest that politics and sport are separate things, but it just isn’t true. Che Guevara always used to say that football could be more than a sport, that it could be a revolutionary weapon. We found an ideological language in common with the Ultramarines.” Us Brits have generally always scoffed at the idea of politicised football supporters, but the ultra movement, certainly in its original Italian guise, can trace its roots back to the political street demos of the late 1960s and early 1970s; all that choreographed spectacle, sloganeering and organised chanting, megaphones and all.

In Bordeaux, the Ultramarines generally consider themselves apolitical, but have traditionally been of a liberal bent. Certainly they were quick to appreciate the concept of what the artists were looking to achieve: “It was a total collaboration, even to the point where, when we suggested that we would pay for these huge banners, they insisted instead that they would cover the costs; mainly because the local council was funding the project and they wanted to stay independent. They were very conscious of the fact that through our project they were at the core of a cultural event that would be relevant to their city.”

Any of that merchandise left by the way? “Ah no, sorry. They’ve all sold out.” Shame. I was quite looking forward to waving a Les Idoles N’Existent Pas scarf around on my next trip down to Selhurst Park.