Americans love their football but not nearly as much as the rest of the planet worships fútbol. While the Super Bowl pulled in a record 111.5 million fans for its February telecast, this summer's World Cup in Brazil is expected to attract 1 billion—that's billion—viewers. Once the quadrennial spectacle starts in June, International followers of soccer, as it's known only in the U.S., will likely scream, roar, and riot at the sight of 22 nimble men trying to kick one ball through two goals.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition Fútbol: The Beautiful Game goes a long way in capturing the soccer mystique with works by 30 artists inspired by hero worship, hooliganism, and everything in between.
Curator Franklin Sirmans says "The idea of beauty and simplicity is something we think about a lot in the context of visual arts and it's something you see in the exhibition."
The show encompasses Andy Warhol's glamorous silk-screen homage to superstar Pelé as well as Carolyn Castaño's portrait of Colombian athlete Andrés Escobar, who was murdered after he made a critical on-field mistake during the 1994 World Cup. Sirmans says, "We also have photographs by Lyle Ashton Harris that deal with hooliganism so we don't shy away from that part of the discussion."
Sirmans, who played on New York's 1987 state champion high school soccer team before embarking on a curatorial career, adds, "Some artists in the show are completely impassioned crazies for the game and others only did one piece that touches on the idea of fútbol."
The exhibition devotes several pieces to fútbol's populist street appeal: anybody can play, any time, anywhere without having to spend money on fancy gear. "You don't even need a real professional ball to play because you can make a ball out of whatever you have," Sirmans says. Oscar Murillo video's Perreo, for example, documents a pick-up soccer game in the Colombian village where he grew up. "People sit around talking, having a coffee, stopping to watch and play," Sirmans notes. "You see how the game is woven into the fabric of everyday life."
Fútbol also addresses the pop star status afforded athletes who master the game. Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon's Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait follows the European superstar with 17 cameras during the course of a single match.
Sirmans interprets the documentary as a study in individualism. "Zidane acts on the field like the point guard in basketball or the quarterback in football—he runs the ball, he sees everything before anybody else sees it. Zidane has reached a level of artistry in his craft so the piece winds up really being this almost existentialist look at the sport through the eyes of one individual. It reminds me of what the great philosopher Albert Camus said: 'Everything I learned about life, I learned from football.'"
While performances by Zidane and other iconic athletes produce shock and awe throughout Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, it's the crowd reaction that defines fútbol as a trans-global juggernaut. Stephen Dean's Volta short film captures the game's excitement from the average fan's point of view. "Stephen went into all the stadiums of Brazil with a small hand-held camera and filmed the crowds waving up and down, singing and moving together at the same time," Sirmans says. "We wanted to present fútbol as this metaphor for other aspects of life where you see all these people working together collectively to root for their team."
[Images courtesy of 2014 Museum Associates, Los Angeles County Museum of Art]