The Pugilist's Cock Ring

Undressing the manly art of boxing at the Walker Art Center

To me, boxing is like ballet, except there's no music, no choreography, and the dancers hit each other. --Jack Handy

It's the opening night of the Walker Art Center's new exhibit The Squared Circle: Boxing in Contemporary Art and Ron Peterson is contemplating one of the more provocative pieces. He looks a little perplexed. This is unusual. Peterson, a longtime fixture on the Twin Cities fight scene who trains, manages, and promotes a small stable of club fighters, is seldom at a loss for words--especially when the situation calls for a salty, cocksure aside.

But this one has him flummoxed. The sculpture in question--artist Patrick Traer's "Untitled (black scrotum)"--consists of two large, black, faux-leather orbs that are joined together by a steel cock ring. Just as I begin to suggest that the piece is obviously a sly comment on race, gender, and masculinity, Peterson pipes up.

"What the hell does this have to do with boxing?" he asks. And then he answers his own question: "I guess it takes two big nuts to fight."

As an art critic, Peterson probably lacks the credentials of the average Walker patron. (For the record, his résumé includes stints as a professional wrestler, massage parlor owner, and heavy equipment operator). With his foot-long rattail and indelicate wisecracks, he both looks and sounds a little out of place in this particular milieu. It's "After Hours" at the Walker, an upscale meat market where the flirting is carried out over designer martinis and the only folks who use their bodies to make money are the underemployed artists toting trays laden with hors d'oeuvres. Still, Peterson's observation that you need big nuts to box does speak to an elemental truth about the fight game. No sport places a greater and more explicit emphasis on macho than boxing. Before it was the sweet science, after all, it was the manly art.

For writers, intellectuals, and artists, this quality alone has long made boxing an attractive subject for exploration. Not surprisingly, nearly all of the 31 artists featured in The Squared Circle contend with the meaning of manliness in some manner.

Like Traer, some of the other artists work the theme by fixing their gaze below the belt. The results are uneven. In a series of oblique and highly stylized photographic self-portraits called "Memoirs of Hadrian" (a reference to the openly gay Roman emperor), artist Lyle Ashton Harris assumes the pose of a battered, bleeding boxer. He's not wearing trunks. Which showcases his bulging package. Which apparently is the point.

Other pieces, such as John Enxuto's video installation "The Match," simply telegraph their punches--a cardinal sin in the fight game. Enxuto's loop consists entirely of two men who wear Mickey Mouse heads boxing in slow motion on a beach, an absurdist (and absurd) spectacle. Peterson is unimpressed by this effort.

"Pretty silly and pretty fucked up," he shrugs. "Looks like they're playing touch-me-here and I'll feel good."

I can't say I disagree. But Enxuto's video, like much of the exhibit, leaves me cold for another reason. There is no clear fondness or even feeling for the sport on the part of the artist--or, for that matter, in the selection process of curator Olukemi Ilesanmi. Boxing and boxers are, rather, a convenient vehicle for commentary that has little if anything to do with the purported subject. Paul Pfeiffer's video triptych "The Long Count"--which uses footage from three of Muhammad Ali's most famous fights--literally eliminates Ali and his foes from the ring. With the fighters digitally erased, the viewer is left only to contemplate the fan reaction. It takes a special kind of voyeur to get off on watching other people watching something you can't see.

There are artists in The Squared Circle who eschew what, using the old boxing parlance, I'll call "the cutesy stuff." The Keith Piper installation, "Transgressive Acts (A Saint Amongst Sinners/A Sinner Amongst Saints," is among the more evocative. It consists of two large light boxes, set side by side as if upon an altar. One of the boxes shows the image of the young Ali, along with smaller action photos from his great fights and the legend "A Saint." The other light box has a similarly sized photo of the young Mike Tyson. In the background, there are tabloid headlines chronicling Tyson's misdeeds and below that, "A Sinner."

The heavyweight champion of the world occupies a unique and volatile place in our cultural psyche. He's the baddest man on the planet, as Tyson often reminded everyone. But, as Piper suggests, that identity is so heavily freighted with expectations and assumptions that the fighter's humanity is washed away. The designations of saint and sinner become accordingly fluid. (Think about that dynamic vis-à-vis the Tyson of today: Has there ever been less public sympathy accorded to a public figure who so obviously hates himself, and who is in such unambiguous need of psychiatric help?)

Peterson and I shuffle past this display, flanked by J.J. Corn, a Peterson fighter accompanying us on this outing. For Corn, a 29-year-old junior middleweight in town for a fight with St. Paul hometown hero Matt Vanda, the most affecting pieces in the show are the ones that speak to his own ring experience.

"This brings it back to me, how it all started for me," Corn says, as he checks out a series of photographs of Brazilian boxers training at a gym, taken by Miguel Rio Branco. The photos were shot at slow speeds, so that the fighters appear blurry and indistinct. But the details of the scene--the peeling paint, the tape unraveling from the ropes, the dingy lighting--are vivid. For Corn, this unearths chioldhood memories of boxing in his coach's basement on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin. Like the vast majority of professional boxers, Corn started out small and--aside from one ill-fated title shot overseas--pretty much stayed that way.

It's a different series of photos that seem to connect with Corn the hardest: Ana Busto's large-scale diptychs titled "Night Flights." Of the six pictures, three are of faces--the notorious promoter Don King and two unknown fighters--and the other three are of their hands. The fighters' hands are taped and battered; King's are generously bejeweled. Looking into the eyes of one of the fighters, Corn sees something familiar.

"This guy in the middle. He just looks so uncertain," Corn says. He scans the unknown fighter's face for a minute. When he speaks next, it seems that Corn is talking about himself, and the big fight that looms less than a week away. "You want to be confident," he says. "You want to think you're going to win. And then reality comes."

He moves on to the next picture and slips comfortably back into commentator mode. He points at the fighter's injuries. "He's a soldier, but you can tell he's been in a war. He's cut. He's got a mark under his eye."

As the night winds down and the partygoers spill out onto the rooftop patio for music and drinks, Corn, Peterson, and I take a final sweep through the exhibit. I ask them what they think of it overall. Peterson, who as best I can tell has never been in a modern art museum before, is more temperate in his assessment than I would have expected. "I hate to disappoint you, Mosedale. But this is pretty exciting for me. Parts of the exhibit were pansified but parts of it were really great."

Likewise, Corn expresses enthusiasm. But as we linger over Busto's photo of the doubtful fighter, Corn's mind seems suspended in the ring. "You think you're going to kick everybody's ass, and it's all going to go your way," he says. "And the next day, you're on your ass. That's life. That's boxing."

 

While not a technical masterpiece, the fight Corn puts up the following Friday night offers some of the best action seen around these parts in years--a sweaty, seesaw battle at the St. Paul Armory. For much of the eighth round, Corn does little but eat leather on the ropes. In the ninth round, the ref stops the bout, and Corn drops his third straight fight.

It's not art; it's just boxing.

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