This New Boxing-Themed Installation at the Honolulu Museum of Art is a Knock Out
You can see the new installation at the Honolulu Museum of Art until Sept. 11.
Internationally known new media artist Paul Pfeiffer with his Caryatids.
Photo: Scott Whelden/Honolulu Museum of Art
The death of boxing legend Muhammad Ali has put boxing in the worldwide spotlight. Commentators and writers are drilling down on topics including how the sport has changed since Ali’s prime, the way the sweet science takes a sour toll on bodies, and the intersection of boxing and race. Hawai‘i born, New York–based artist Paul Pfeiffer has long been fascinated with images of sports, and particularly of boxing. His new installation on view at the Honolulu Museum of Art is composed exclusively of boxing footage.
Located at the rear of the Arts of Hawai‘i Gallery, in the space dedicated to showing work by contemporary Hawai‘i artists, is Paul Pfeiffer: Caryatids. (Not quite sure what a caryatid is? It’s a stone Greek column masquerading as a pretty lady holding up a building.)
You enter the space to find a big table that resembles the sleek, blond-wood, communal work station–cum–technology platter you find in an Apple store. Atop the table are six jellybean-colored mini monitors. As you step closer you see what seems to be videos of boxing matches. If you really look, you’ll see that one of the opponents has been digitally removed. The effect is profound. Each ghost punch seems to have 10 times more impact than when you can see who is throwing it. You may almost feel like protecting your head, or holding your stomach.
Pfeiffer is an acclaimed new media artist with a Whitney Biennial under his belt, and is currently artist in residence at the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art in Athens, Georgia. He was in town for the installation of Caryatids and answered a few questions about his work, which we guarantee will have you standing at the table longer than you spent futzing around during your last visit to the Apple store.
The digital erasure of one boxer from a match really emphasizes the violence and impact of a punch. How did you come upon this concept?
I’ve been interested in sports-related imagery for quite some time. I’ve actually worked with boxing imagery in the past—about 10 years ago, I did a series in which both boxers were erased from the ring, so the focus was on the audience watching the fight and the movement of the ropes.
[Caryatids] seemed like such an obvious idea, but then I was surprised once I started working with the images in this way—the effect is a bit more intense and different from what I expected. Like I didn’t expect that there would be something so visceral about seeing a body receiving that impact, especially the jerking of the head. People have said a few times to me, “Wow, you really feel it.” So, to me, there’s a way that this becomes like a reflection on … a very visceral kind of empathy effect. What’s surprising to me is these images end up tracking not just boxing and violence, but also a kind of psychological or neurological response to seeing another person being affected in a physical way, such that you almost feel it.
Another thing is, you know, most of these images are from boxing matches that have happened in the past five years. There’s a dramatic difference in the quality of footage, even just five years ago, and that has to do with how quickly the technology of HD video has progressed. I go through cable TV or YouTube and appropriate the footage. Within the last five years, there’s been an amazing spike in the technological capabilities to do this type of slow-motion imagery of sporting events. So, in a way, these images also track the progress of HD video and the way it’s used in the context of professional sports.
Caryatid (Hatton) by Paul Pfeiffer, 2015, featuring footage of boxer Ricky Hatton.
Photos: Courtesy of Paul Pfeiffer
Did you go through footage of hundreds of boxing matches? How did you make your selection?
This whole project originated with a show I did last year, which was inspired by the Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather fight. This is actually one half of a bigger project. The other half focused specifically on the Pacquiao and Mayweather bout. It was while I was working on that footage that it occurred to me that mostly Pacquiao got hit. So the yellow monitor is Pacquiao, and 90 percent of that footage comes from his fight with Mayweather. Once I started working on that I just started looking and downloaded a lot of footage. What I ultimately found is that there are certain boxers who get hit a lot. In a way there’s something so specific to the personality of each boxer. Each one of these is a portrait of a specific boxer, and a boxer who during the course of his career has been knocked out. Like the red one (points to red monitor), that’s [Ricky] Hatton, and a number of times he’s gotten knocked out to the point where he went down flat, and was just out in a kind of amazing way. Once it was Pacquiao who knocked him out. I started out with a lot of footage then quickly realized I needed to focus in on specific boxers.
When you’re watching a fight it’s like two bulls charging each other, but this way, with just one boxer, they seem so vulnerable.
Yeah. The intention is definitely to abstract and direct the focus away from the noise and the narrative and the buildup of the fight, so that in the end it almost becomes like watching a dance performance. Now it’s totally silent. You look at it in a different state of attention.
It’s really interesting. Like [Marcos] Maidana, he has such an expressive face, he really winces every time he gets hit. Each one of these boxers goes down in a different way. This guy [Brandon] Rios has a giant tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his back. In this one fight at a certain point he’s just getting pummeled. He’s sort of curled up in a fetal position and the blows just keep coming and you can see the sweat flying and he’s gone completely inert and he’s just being hit, hit, hit. This is one of my favorites, because he’s so perfectly standing there like an object and you can really appreciate the impact.
Why did you choose this small intimate display instead of, say, having it projected in a large format?
I have this idea that we subconsciously approach video art in a different way than we approach a piece of sculpture. With sculpture we know that we approach in silence, there’s a kind of stillness, whereas with video art, even if it’s in a museum or gallery, I think we’re unconsciously conditioned to absorb it the way we watch TV. So we expect a story, a music video …
While not fully paying attention …
Exactly. So I have this idea of working in the medium of video but finding ways to encapsulate it within the language of sculpture, because I believe it then influences and creates a different kind of viewer. That stillness that relates to how you view sculpture is what I want. The other part is, in 2016, we’re fully in a mode now where video is totally integrated into our daily experience. The design of this table comes directly from the Apple Store, I literally went and measured their tables. Apple is fascinating because they are thinking about that bigger experience that people have, how to create that specialness and design sensibility. This table is so specific, they really perfected it. In the same way that the images [of boxers] are appropriated, the table is too. The idea is to have the same kind of cleanliness walking into this gallery as when you walk into an Apple store, then the object, the technology becomes super fetishized. And again, it’s turning into this precious object, not just through the object itself, but through the furniture and architecture—you don’t think of it but it’s conditioning how you look at the image and how you look at the little object.
It’s a nice coincidence that this project is next door to the Hawai‘i in Design show, because in some ways I feel like I’m intentionally playing off certain design codes. It’s meant to be a reflection on the aestheticizing of violence. So, in a way, the choice of these candy colors is specific because it’s meant to be all the more disturbing—it’s pretty and cute and then it’s violent.
Technically it’s amazing. The videos are seamless. Did it take hours and hours of work?
Yeah. I worked on it myself, but I’ve been playing with this technique, or different ways to play with video through digital animation, for a long time now. At this point I’m working with a team of animators in the Philippines and Germany who in a way I’ve cultivated. It’s interesting technically because my background is printmaking and really what this is about is playing with the capacity to break an image down into layers. There are techniques where you can silhouette a figure, cut it out and then you can place another video behind it. This is what you do in Adobe After Effects now. The techniques are called rotoscoping, motion tracking, compositing—this is all very standard Adobe Photoshop. What I like about it is it’s not narrative sequencing editing. It’s a very different kind of editing where you’re breaking the image apart, not left to right, but from surface into the background.
Still from Caryatid (Pacquiao) by Paul Pfeiffer, 2015, featuring footage from the “fight of the century” between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather.
Do you think the Caryatid featuring the Pacquiao fight will have a special resonance in Hawai‘i?
I do. All these boxers in a way occupy the public imagination, but certainly Pacquiao has gone much, much further in a way. Especially for Filipinos and Hawai‘i being a particular place in relation to the Philippine diaspora—that’s one of my central interests in the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, I think we’ll look back on it as a special moment. We already recognize Pacquiao as a very interesting figure. For me, he and his family are this model family in the world today. Not necessarily in a positive way, but in the sense that they find themselves living in front of a global audience. When I think of Pacquiao, I think of him in the ring but I also think of him, his wife and his children and the scenes of them moving into their new mansion in Beverly Hills last year. That was such a strange image because the cameras followed them, like it was a media event when they moved in. They made a big thing out of it. The kids saw their bedrooms for the first time in front of cameras. And the children, they were incredulous. They were like, “really this is our new bedroom?” There was this kind of strange discomfort with occupying these symbols of luxury and privilege, and you see them in this strange state with cameras on their faces.
In a way that describes the uncanny relationship of individuals and families to the conditions of the 21st-century world. It’s not being at home in your home because your home is a stage set for a global reality show. The fact that it’s a family that comes from poverty and comes from a culture where many other families are similarly out there in the world in a sort of state of not-at-home, not in the same way, but they’ve become an interesting media symbol for all of the global diaspora, not just Filipinos.
It’s something that I see and I think it’s a subtext that I want to draw out in work. In a way this is kind of part of a larger project. I’m hoping soon to do more work that actually focuses on Pacquiao’s family.
Do you still have family here?
I do. That’s the other thing—I have family here, I have family in the Philippines. My family is also part of that migration story. It’s a story that plays out against the backdrop of the American dream and in a way it’s sort of this uncanny other side to this supposed perfect dream. I feel a lot of empathy because I feel like it’s my family too.
What inspires me are scenes from the media because I feel like it’s part of the condition of our times, we’re all in a little bit of a tenuous position in relation to major changes in the economy. The world’s a dangerous place now. We’re just coming to understand the implications of increased mediation of cameras, reality TV and how it influences everybody on an intimate level.
Paul Pfeiffer: Caryatids is on view through Sept. 11.
Lesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.