The Grappler

Inspired by his fatherís pro wrestling career, photographer and curator Karl Raschke struggles to blur real and fake, introspection and spectacle

During its wild early days, pro wrestling was organized along the lines of a vaudeville or carnival circuit. Wrestlers would perform in, say, the Midwest for a year before moving on to a new territory. At one point, Raschke says, his father found himself working in Quebec, wrestling bears. "It was a trained bear, so there wasn't really any danger. But it was a good spectacle. Showmanship, right?"

Of course, this also meant that Raschke's family moved around a lot during his childhood. They lived, for varying lengths, in Minnesota, Connecticut, Indiana, and North Carolina. "As a kid, it was always a little traumatic to move," he says. "But on some level I think I enjoyed it. It was a great experience in terms of enlarging my worldview and making me see the possibilities. I got to see all these different regions of the country, talk to all these different people."

"There was that whole aspect of it: meeting new kids. But my dad was also friends with all these wrestlers who'd come over to the house. When you're 12 years old and Andre the Giant is shaking your hand, that's like, wow. I remember coming home from junior high one time. There was no one around. I remember going into the backyard and seeing these midget wrestlers...or little people...well, midgets, playing catch with my baseball mitt."

Nathan Grumdahl

"Wrestlers are this unique breed of people," continues Raschke. "At least in that era they were. They were all characters in their own right--very unself-conscious in their eccentricity. I appreciated that. I think that's one of the things that pushed me toward art."

One early childhood memory in particular piqued Raschke's interest in photography. When his family was in Indiana, Raschke remembered living in a red house. Later, when he saw pictures, he realized their house was actually green. "The fact that my first memory was a false memory and that a photograph corrected that memory is fascinating to me," he says. "That's one of the things that keeps coming back: What is a photograph? I'm really interested in the ideas that shape our understanding of them."

The ephemerality of photographs and the instability of memory remain recurrent themes in Raschke's work. His piece in the MMAA exhibit, for instance, is a suitcase full of casual, seemingly incidental snapshots. When stripped of context, do such photos become meaningless, or do they faithfully map our chaotic, unreliable memories? Raschke pulls out a small black box--another photography project, which he's been working on for the last few years. Inside are a series of square photos, more quick, blurry shots of fluorescent-lit bathrooms and empty streets. The idea of the project, he explains, is that viewers will arrange the pictures, fitting the images with narrative and meaning.

"What I'm interested in is how the meaning can shift when you put different things together," Raschke explains. "Wrestling has this element of We're going to show you something. We're putting on a performance for you, but how you interpret it is always in flux. It's a performance, but there's always something real happening. I know for a fact that there's some make-believe going on, but it has the power to pull me in. It's that edge between real and false that I'm interested in. There's something in the constructed nature of photographs, versus the fact that photography is dependent on the real world. You can't take a picture of something that doesn't exist. Also, you can only take photos of specific objects. You can't take a picture of ideal oranges. It's always one specific orange."

Raschke shuffles through his pile of photos, picking out one of his aged father doing The Claw for fans. "With these, there was something in the world that made me go, Wow, this is great. That's why I made the picture: to transfer that moment to another person.

"I always bring things back to wrestling. In wrestling, there's a story being told: good versus evil. The whole point of the story is to suck people into it, to get them to the edge of their seat. A good wrestler can bring them to the point where they're going to leap out of their seat and run into the ring and help the good guy. A good wrestler can also do something to bring them back down. So there's this weird crescendo, with this cathartic release of tension. I'm hoping on some level these photos are those cathartic moments, of, like, 'Oh, life's worth living,' to put it in overblown terms." Raschke gathers up his photos and slips them back into their box.

The Lincoln turd never does show up. But at the "Art-a-Swirl" opening later that evening, everyone is in high spirits nevertheless. Two golden-haired children are handing out fistfuls of lilacs to visitors. Tiny red fish swim in the toilet bowls. Raschke, naturally, has a camera around his neck, ready to bank the moment for posterity.

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