As is often true with Paul Pfeiffer, the centerpiece of his recent exhibition was a work that focused on a person who wasn’t there. Playroom (all works 2012) is a scaled-down model of a room based on one in the 1970s mansion of basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain. Pfeiffer’s six-sided, roughly 6-foot-wide structure, a cross between an over-size jewel box and a miniature stadium, features a ring of velvet-covered banquettes (bleachers?). They face a round black cushion meant to suggest the fur-covered waterbed presumably shared by some of the many, many women (20,000, he said) with whom Chamberlain had sex. More velvet lines the ceiling, which is dotted with lights that are reflected to infinity in the one-way-mirrored walls. Viewers peering inside see neither the basketball star nor themselves, and the seeming multitude of lights casts little illumination. In Pfeiffer’s world, athleticism and eroticism, stardom and even spectatorship are all made the more engrossing by being sucked into oblivion. We’re left with nothing but our own guilty desire to see more than the dim and hushed object on offer.
Basketball reappears in 100 Point Game (the title refers to a record-setting 1962 performance by Chamberlain), although again there is no player in sight. Returning to the format of John 3:16 (2000), the video that first won acclaim for Pfeiffer—it shows a ball suspended, spinning, in midair, while hoops, nets and hands appear and disappear around it—100 Point Game offers a leaping, swaying net at the center of every frame, persistent as a ghost. In the background, small, scratchy views of various gyms and stadiums, scoreboards and audiences shift occasionally from color to black and white.
100 Point Game was transferred to 16mm film from a video composite of various films and broadcasts of decades-old contests. Going in the other direction, technologically, Pfeiffer transferred 8mm film to video for Home Movie/Locations for a Home Movie. Featuring assembled footage from the early 1970s, it shows a big, shifting family of mainly African-American children and a couple of white adults piling in and out of a VW bug and visiting various child- friendly destinations, including a zoo and a science museum. Balloons bob, paper-bagged food is shared and various dogs (and at least one goat) are petted. Also part of this work is a series of still photographs. The four small black-and-white shots in this show are compositionally wrong in the sense that John Baldessari lampooned in a group of photo- silkscreens of the late 1960s. The decidedly non-site places in Home Movie/Locations for a Home Movie include a boulder in front of a parking lot, and an unremarkable fountain, framed off-kilter; all are devoid of people.
Rooting his current work in the 1960s and early ’70s, when ideas began to supplant objects in art, Pfeiffer connects that displacement to his own vanishing subjects. And in taking an equally intimate perspective on celebrity athletics and improvised parties for unidentified children, he also draws a comparison between the emptiness at the heart of star-driven spectacle and other, more personal kinds of invisibility.
Photo: Paul Pfeiffer: Playroom, 2012, steel, one-way mirror, wood and mixed mediums, 62 1⁄4 by 72 by 30 inches; at Paula Cooper.
Paul Pfeiffer’s masterful sound-and-video installation The Saints premiered to considerable acclaim in 2007 in an empty warehouse next to London’s new Wembley Stadium. Based on the famous 1966 World Cup Final match between England and Germany, the piece now has an impressive reincarnation at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof. Those flush and confident days in the art world of 2007 seem far away now, but Pfeiffer’s work is well suited to our much-questioning and more precarious era.
On your way to the installation, you first encounter a wall projection, Pfeiffer’s video Empire (2004), a real-time recording over three months of wasps building their nest. Because the video is so long, you can see only fragments of the process, and are left to imagine the entire patient and elaborate effort. There are myriad connotations for humans in the collective energy on view, analogous to that required for erecting grand buildings, organizing societies or establishing far-flung empires—though those will pass. Nearby is Vitruvian Figure (2009), a large, exquisitely crafted model of a sports stadium. From its outside you see a half stadium interrupted by glass partitions. Peering down from above, standing on a ladder beside the model, you see the half stadium reflected in mirrored walls to become a dramatic, but also illusory, whole. The work seems curiously mobile in time, suggesting both ancient Roman amphitheaters and massive future stadia built for sports that have yet to be invented.
Beyond is a spacious white exhibition hall that seems empty at first, save for a miniature video screen on the far wall. Filling the space is the overwhelming roar of a crowd at a soccer game broadcast from 14 vertical loudspeakers set into the side walls, like serially repeated elements in Minimalist sculpture. The sound of anticipation swells into that of excitation and joy but then becomes a collective groan of disappointment. Occasionally the crowd noise reaches fever pitch, presumably when a goal is scored, but far more often there is a repeating sonic voyage from hope to frustration and back again. This raucous mass vocalization is oddly akin to a full-throated choir in a cavernous church, one of the many religious references with which Pfeiffer seeds his work.
According to Pfeiffer, and as evidenced in another video in a room beyond, the soundtrack combines a recording of the original spectators (at the old Wembley Stadium) with a hired crowd of a thousand Filipinos—cued and coached by the artist—cheering and chanting in a Manila cinema while watching footage of the match. The passion of the crowd actually present at that bygone soccer game blends with the simulated excitation of the ad hoc actors, and while there is something hilarious about this combination of authenticity and theatricality, there is also something deeply evocative in it. Europe of long ago and today’s ascendant Asia, imperial powers and a colonized nation, white European soccer stars and brown-skinned Filipino onlookers, even the stark thought that England and Germany had been mortal enemies in two world wars—all fuse in Pfeiffer’s highly mediated spectacle.
On the miniature screen, a snippet of the original 1966 game plays, but with all the players deleted, save for one. This solitary player (in fact a composite of players on the victorious English team) darts forward and retreats, shuffles about aimlessly, charges forward again, abruptly stops. At some times he is all purposeful action, at others seemingly vulnerable and uncertain, constantly finding and losing his way. Manipulating one of the most famous soccer games ever played, Pfeiffer’s savvy work is chock full of raw, conflicted humanity. As the disembodied crowd cheers this isolated athlete on the pitch, he embodies our own hesitation and exuberance, ungainliness and grace, ambitiousness and failure.
In the room beyond, a two-channel video, playing on a large screen, pairs grainy black-and-white footage of the 1966 game with a full-color film of the enthusiastic Filipino spectators. In this nerve-racking game, which remains England’s only World Cup victory, that nation took the lead in overtime on a still hotly debated shot that may or may not have actually crossed the goal line. Ambiguity, uncertainty and constant reinterpretation are fundamental to the legend of this game—prime territory for Pfeiffer, who excels at recasting well-known athletic and entertainment events with surprising, open-ended nuances. Pfeiffer’s looped pageant of spectatorship, athleticism, history and historical simulation makes for riveting viewing; his show is all about process, not goals.
Photo (left) Vitruvian Figure, 2009, birch plywood, one-way mirrored glass and polished stainless steel, 191⁄4 by 151⁄2 by 8 feet.
Photo (right) Paul Pfeiffer: The Saints, 2007, video projection, 33 minutes.
Both at the Hamburger Bahnhof.