Erik Levine: Grip

Still image from Erik Levine's Grip, 2005

As we witnessed over the past two weeks at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, athletes are under perpetually extreme pressure. During practice and performance—be it game, match, run or race—athletes in all sports carry the weight of victory on their shoulders, which of course is why the best of them are so uniquely admired.

Currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) is a presentation of Erik Levine‘s 2005 large-scale video projection, Grip, which the museum has recently acquired. Grip, a two-channel DVD in an edition of six, deals with the complexities of athleticism, as it features teenage boys playing tennis. The kaleidoscopic images in the two-channel video bend inward and out in a hypnotizing way as well as showing silent side by side shots of the young players in various states of sportsmanship on and off the court.

At first the quick-cuts of boys at play make up a montage that looks almost like a Gatorade commercial, but the clips quickly segue from displays of athleticism to the torture of self-punishment as boys slap their foreheads, kick their rackets, and fall to the green court on their knees in defeat. One boy shouts, “I quit tennis, man,” as he throws the racket to the ground, with not so much rage as a sense of what seems to be complete despair.

Many of us would argue that, within reason, the pressures of competition help to build character in adolescents, even if the athletes never go on to compete professionally, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking to watch a teenager bury his face in a towel to hide his tears after losing a match. However, too much of this mounted pressure can be dangerous for athletes of this age. As Erik Levine asserts in his discussion of the piece, “This despair can lead to extreme expressions of anger and frustration at a time in their lives when perspective can often be elusive, and alludes to the startling and revealing analogous microcosm for life outside the demarcations and boundaries of the playing field.”

Grip will be on view at MCASD’s La Jolla location through March 21, 2010. If you can’t make it to San Diego by then, you can view the video online here.

Erik Levine was born in Los Angeles and lives and works in both New York and Boston. He is an Assistant Professor at University of Massachusetts Boston. He is a recipient of multiple Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant awards, National Endowment for the Arts grant awards, New York Foundation for the Arts awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His work has been exhibited widely both nationally and internationally.