Fifth Test, Day 5: Sophie von Hellermann’s Cricket

What a difference a day makes! Since moving to the US and becoming a baseball fan, I haven’t stopped being obsessed with cricket and amid all the other differences between the two sports, the way that time works is especially significant. For baseball, of course a game can go into extra innings, as we saw with the excruciating (for this Cleveland Indians fan, at least!) 10th inning of game 7 of the recent world series, but with a 5 day test match, cricket draws out time in a different way. While the heroics of one game of baseball can be quickly forgotten amid the following day’s play (e.g. the same player can score 4 RBIs one day and go hitless the next day), cricket is cumulative. If you have a bad day yesterday, today is going to be tough (as England saw yesterday losing the 2nd of a five text series against India on the 4th day, having gone 5 wickets down late in the day on the 3rd). Like baseball, cricket is called boring by the uninitiated, but what other sport entertains you through the day, from lunch to tea, ignites heated conversations at nights at the pub and elongates your weekend into the working week? Sure, neither team may end up winning, but the drama has done nothing less than transformed your sense of time.

It was this connection between drama and time that led the great Trinidadian writer and activist C.L.R. James to compare Test cricket to ancient Greek tragedy in his wonderful book Beyond a Boundary (1963).

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James compares the agon of the tragic play, when two characters face-off in dispute, with the contest between bowler and batsman, both surrounded by the chorus and the fielders respectively, awaiting the outcome of the duel. But he also compared the general social and cultural function of drama and cricket for their communities – the way that the Athenians celebrated for 6 days with the dramatic contest at its centre at the City Dionysia, compared to the 5-day format of cricket at the heart of West Indian culture, community, especially in its ability to resist colonial history and its oppression from within. Conversely, thanks too James, I could compare the process of reading the texts of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, alone in my campus office, to days watching cricket in bed on my laptop.

The latter scenario is the subject of Sophie Von Hellermann’s 2001 painting Cricket.

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This seemingly simple painting shows a man, remote in hand, lounging in bed, with the image of the three stumps of a cricket match in a television before him. The bland palette of colours and the mundane action depicted, however, perfectly grasps the tensions within the game of cricket itself as well as its unique temporal quality. While in other works, Von Hellermann takes on the epic sweep of history (e.g. her huge wall-painting about British history for the Colchester museum First Site in 2013), Cricket shows a minor drama.

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Maybe the grand proportions of the Athenian theater or the cricket ground has been whittled down to size of a room, and the agon now constituting the man and the match, the bed and the television, still the tension is still there and the sense of time continues to be disturbed by the game and its spectator. Another way to look at this painting, could be to focus on the lonesome figure, naked in bed, in a characterless hotel room, without a partner to join him, idling away the hours with a tedious game. This would make the work an acute, if minor, tragedy of about contemporary isolation. Could the Classicist reading ancient Greek drama in his office be considered a similar scenario?

The main reason I’m writing about these themes (time, cricket, tragedy, solitude) is of course a way of processing what happened here at Ohio State yesterday. I was meant to deliver a talk to our London Honors program (students who are preparing for a study abroad trip to London over the winter break) about British sport culture, with an emphasis on cricket. I’d spent the evening preparing the talk, finding my favourite clips from the 2005 Ashes series, preparing to recount my glory years as a less-than-medium-pace bowler for Downing College MCR. However, the active shooter alert and ensuing canceling of classes meant I was not able to give my lecture. Furthermore, now we know more information about what happened – that it was a car and knife attack and not a gun attack, perpetrated by a Somali student – I have had to spend the time since my last post reprocessing the event. I am still opposed to guns on campus and I think that it would have caused confusion and mayhem if multiple vigilantes tried to intervene rather than a trained campus police officer. Furthermore, while I sympathize with the victims and am worried for the impact on those who witnessed and have been affected by this violence on their campus, I am also fearful for the backlash that may happen for the Muslim and specifically Somali population in town and at the university. These are frightening times for our whole community and these are complex issues that need care and time to process. During this time, violent verbal backlash on certain members of our community needs to be resisted as much as acts of violence themselves. I am here reminded of another work by Von Hellermann, Cold as a Witch’s Tit, also exhibited at the Firstsite 2013 exhibition, in which she creates a bonfire structure with multiple portraits of the women slain by Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne during the witch trials in Essex at the height of the English Civil War in the 17th century.

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This work both reminds us of the longevity of acts of violence and scapegoating, at the same time as reclaiming the individual tragedies at the heart of them. In this post, I admit that I’ve strayed somewhat from cricket, ancient tragedy and contemporary art, but that is symptomatic of the test I have set myself to blog every day and this means to blog as an engagement with the everyday, even on days after my life and community hits the international headlines for all the wrong reasons.

2 thoughts on “Fifth Test, Day 5: Sophie von Hellermann’s Cricket

    1. Minus Plato

      Thanks Natasha – it was good to meet you too! I’d love to know more about your work. Can you send me a link to your website? Richard

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