Pursuit of Perfection: The Politics of Sport, South London Gallery and Southwark Old Town Hall, London


Worship at the altar of football – or chuck it all in for a few quid

In the brief lull between the Olympics and Paralympics, you should get down to the South London Gallery's two-part show, Pursuit of Perfection. The exhibition's subtitle, The Politics of Sport, may sound grim, but this is not a show about suspiciously quick Chinese lady swimmers and their American detractors. Instead, it looks at the way people behave in groups, and how that behaviour is ritualised.

The show's centrepiece is a room-sized installation by Aleksandra Mir, Triumph. In the mid-Noughties, Mir, Polish-born and now London-based, lived in Sicily, where she put an ad in a local paper offering to buy sporting trophies at €5 a piece from readers who had won them. The take-up was staggering. By the time Mir finished her project, she found herself the mildly bemused owner of 2,529 cups dating from the mid-Sixties on.

These largely fill the main gallery of the SLG, piled up in corners, like shiny scree, or on plinths. The feel is of a church treasury or reliquary, the cups, mostly fake gilt and enamel, like gimcrack chalices. The real wonder of this Wunderkammer is that its objects were so easy to come by. At least Judas got 30 pieces of silver for his betrayal; Mir's vendors, a few euros. What possessed them to sell their treasures to her? And what made them value these gewgaws in the first place?

If Mir finds a parallel between the rituals of sport and religion, John Gerrard's Exercise (Djibouti) follows an equally compelling link between those of football and war. On a vast screen in the council chamber of Southwark Old Town Hall, two minutes away, two teams of computer-generated men, one in red, the other in blue, limber up on a plain of scorched earth. The reds break away and run around in unexplained figures-of-eight; a flare goes off, smoke wafting smudgy and blood-like; the blue team also starts running in circles. Sitting in the chamber's leather seats, you sense a series of uneasy connections: between politics and distance, power and death, Match of the Day and The World at War. As with those programmes, Exercise (Djibouti) quickly becomes boring. But that is at least part of its point.

Devoid of religion, homo televisionensis turns to sport to fill his need for mass ritual. In Paul Pfeiffer's Caryatid, a triptych of mute TV monitors are laid out like altars in an upper room of the SLG. On these, footballers in liturgical colours – red, green, gold – act out overdramatised emotions: burying their heads in their hands at missed shots, howling at kicked shins, appealing to the brute gods of Association Football.

In Roderick Buchanan's video 83/03, people read out reports from local newspapers of the matches won by Aberdeen Football Club during its unbeaten European tour in 1983. The readers, all supporters of defeated teams, speak from the municipal libraries of their home towns, in their own languages: Dutch and Swedish when I watched, although the fact that I speak neither did not explain my incomprehension. How can football matter so much to these people? How have football results become a version of the Word, or of Revelations, or a kind of Babel? Buchanan doesn't know the answer, but he raises the question wittily, as does the show as a whole.

Critic's choice

When the sun is out, the time has come to head for our country's finest sculpture parks and outdoor shows. The first major UK exhibition of Joan Miro's sculptures is at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, until 6 Jan, and Kew Gardens in London plays host to David Nash's large wooden sculptures among the plants and trees, until April.

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