Tucked away in the downstairs projection room at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, I found Shannon Plumb’s 2005 video Olympics (Track & Field)—eighteen minutes of unadulterated amusement. While the gallery’s main exhibition of sculptural works by Valerie Hegarty evokes a sense of cosmic doom, we are faced with less existential concerns when watching Plumb’s one-woman showcase of track and field competitions in a mock summer Olympics.
Heavily referencing Buster Keaton’s silent slapstick films with the video’s deadpan humor and clumsy characters, Plumb single-handedly acts out a variety of quirky individuals who are competing, viewing and commenting on the Olympic games she established in a deserted farmland. The artist also cites the influence of Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial 1938 documentary Olympia about the 1936 Berlin summer Olympics. It is regarded as the first in a long tradition of documentaries that lionize the games and is acknowledged for its groundbreaking filming techniques.
In the video, Plumb acts out a competition between two females and one male in several sports including discus, 100-yard dash, and hurdles. Since Plumb is the sole performer, the characters’ color-coded, scant attire and overstated wigs and accessories differentiate them. This is a sad group of athletes, who turn the gravity of the Olympics on its face with their repeated failed attempts in every contest they undertake. Even the medal ceremony is the epitome of anti-glamour, with the athletes sporting a thorny laurel and a slightly confused look. The “drama” of Plumb’s mock competition is played out silently—save for the absurd commentator, who mumbles his thoughts on the athletes’ performance into a flashlight-cum-microphone while eating a sandwich and sucking on a giant lollipop. Instead of dialogue, Plumb constructed a soundtrack from various national anthem segments chosen at random for their musical affect. These grandiose and moving compositions further enhance the exaggerated and erratic behaviour of the characters.
Since the Olympics have steadily maintained significant economic and cultural weight around the world, Olympics (Track & Field) is a work that will remain relevant well into the future. Plumb has found the humor intrinsic to this serious and “sacred” ritual, and thus levels its intensity in a most disarming way.
On Monday, April 5, 2010 at 8PM, IFC will be hosting an evening with Shannon Plumb in which she will screen and discuss this work and others. For more information: http://www.ifccenter.com/events/an-evening-with-shannon-plumb
Images: Shannon Plumb, Stills from Olympics (Track & Field) (2005), Single-channel DVD, 18 minutes. Courtesy Sara Meltzer Gallery, New York.