When we think of sport in the ancient Roman world we are immediately confronted with the image of epic gladiator contests in the Colosseum.
Yet during the Roman Republic, such contests were held in an area called the Forum Boarium and then, eventually the Roman Forum itself, the epicenter of Roman political and social life. For these make-shift arenas, spectators would watch from temporary wooden stands and, as Pliny the Elder (Natural History 19. 6) tells us, in 46 BCE Julius Caesar covered the entire Forum with awnings to protect spectators from the sun:
Caesar, when Dictator, covered with a linen awning the whole of the Roman Forum, as well as the Sacred Way, from his own house as far as the ascent to the Capitol, a sight, it is said, more wonderful even than the show of gladiators which he then exhibited.
I thought of this spectacular awning and Pliny’s description when I saw pictures of the installation by the M I N T collective at the SPRING/BREAK BKLYN IMMERSIVE (on view until this Sunday – here’s the link for more info).
The installation WILL PLAY FOR SPACE: MEATBALL consists of an abstracted basketball court surrounded by hanging pennants and flags amid a tent-like enclosure. With the hoops placed close to the floor alongside large basket-ball shaped bean bags, the space offered an inviting site for conversation and relaxation rather than the challenge of a heated contest. At the same time, given their movement from their ‘home court’ (the physical studio and exhibition space in Columbus) which catapulted them into their current nomadic phase as an artist collective, M I N T now have to play and compete for space and sustain themselves as an ‘Art Space’ in a new and recontextualized way.
Initially it was the aesthetics of M I N T’s installation that made me think of Caesar’s veiling of the Roman Forum, but then the politics of the analogy started to occur to me in terms of ideas of sport, spectacle and contest.
In his book Subaltern Sports: Politics and Sport in South Asia, James H. Mills describes an annual cricket tournament that was held in Bombay, beginning in 1907 and comprising three teams of Hindus, Parsis and Europeans. By 1923 a Muslim team had been added and this increase was described in the newspaper the Bombay Chronicle as ‘a sort of Roman Forum’. Mills’ explains this reference in terms of social and political implications of such a visible sporting event:
Sport was both spectacle and contest, an outing with friends and family but also a vehicle for suppressed social ambitions. Spectators sung songs, shone mirrors, flew kites and garlanded cricketers as each team came to represent their community’s pride.
Now a century earlier in North America, the painter George Catlin witnessed a Choctaw ball-game in Indian Territory near present-day Oklahoma, describing an early version of lacrosse as follows:
This wonderful game, which is the favourite one amongst all the tribes, and with these Southern tribes played exactly the same, can never be appreciated by those who are not happy enough to see it. It is no uncommon occurrence for six or eight hundred or a thousand of these young men, to engage in a game of ball, with five or six times that number of spectators, of men, women, and children, surrounding the ground and looking on.
Catlin ends his description of this ball-game, which the tribes called ‘little brother of war’ by making an analogy with the Roman Forum, but not in terms of the politics of the gathering of communities, but as an expression of the value of his own artistic attention as a painter:
And I pronounce such a scene, with its hundreds of Nature’s most beautiful models, denuded and painted of various colours, running and leaping into the air, in all the most extravagant and varied forms, in the desperate struggle for the ball, a school for the painter or sculptor, equal to any of those which ever inspired the hand of the artist in the Olympian games or the Roman forum.
The different way that Catlin and the authors of the Bombay Chronicle use their references to the Roman Forum to describe lacrosse and cricket respectively offers an insight into a central tension in the M I N T Collective’s immersive project. For the Bombay Chronicle, in Mills’ reading, the cricket tournament was a way of showcasing social and cultural difference and competing for prestige against the colonial Europeans (aka British) during a pivotal period in the fight of Indian independence. However, for Catlin, the reference to the Roman Forum was used to legitimate not only an exotic choice of artistic subject to compete with the Classical art of antiquity, but also his own legitimacy as a painter of such subjects and not the neoclassical subjects of European artists.
To return to M I N T and Pliny’s description of the awnings of Caesar’s Forum gladiator games, we can see how the mere focus on their visual splendor eclipses the contest that is taking place beneath them, as Catlin’s focus on artistry mediates his subject of the ‘Noble Savage’. Transposed onto M I N T, these two uses of the Roman Forum analogy show how, for independent Art Spaces, autonomy and identity are vital, but at the same time an aesthetic and artistic legitimacy is also important. It is not enough to be visible and survive as an independent art space, but to harness an aesthetic identity that aligns with and represents a particular creative vision for social change. M I N T achieves this, I think, by inserting the remnants of their old space into this territory away from home. The title MEAT BALL as well as the signs for MEAT SINK and HAND SINK, from their old slaughterhouse space, act as markers for the current nomadic game of fighting for space. This collective has a history that it wears on its sleeve and as it starts out of an uncertain future as a nomadic phase, the installation in Brooklyn is a timely reminder against art spaces as merely sites of political jostling, but of timely artistic vision.