“The Tie-Break” pt 2: Tibi Tibi Neuspiel + Geoffrey Pugen at Neubacher Shor Contemporary

The Ministry of Artistic Affairs hosted its first event of the season last Wednesday evening at the capacious Neubacher Shor Contemporary. Currently on view in the main gallery is new work by the collaborative duo Tibi Tibi Neuspiel and Geoffrey Pugen, made in the aftermath of their gripping Nuit Blanche performance, The Tie-Break. Conceived as a reenactment of what ESPN once called “the most riveting episode in the sport’s history”, Neuspiel and Pugen set out not only to memorize and execute the legendary fourth set tie-break from the 1980 Wimbledon Finals between Björn Borg and John McEnroe, but to do it over and over again, all night long. As anyone who was there that frigid evening last October can attest, their composure and sheer endurance in the face of blistering winds and a few too many drunken hecklers further electrified the atmosphere of tension and suspense, despite the audience’s assumed knowledge of the match’s outcome.

It was interesting to hear the artists speak about the collaborative process, both in conceiving the performance and in subsequently making the objects on display. Clearly a shared sense of humour and comfortable working relationship between them (friends, and tennis partners, in life as well as in art) imbue the work with a playful informality and experimental spirit. However this is not to say that the work isn’t conceptually rigourous as well—although their mutual love for the game and their coincidental, uncanny resemblances to Borg and McEnroe gave them reason enough to explore the idea behind The Tie-Break, it is in their level of commitment and almost obsessive attention to detail that the final performance transcends mere impersonation and becomes art. Assembling the outfits alone was an exhaustive process, entailing months of detective work to procure authentic vintage and custom tennis gear (eg, shirts bearing Borg’s personal insignia). Similarly each moment of the historic match itself was studied, analyzed and transcribed into a choreographic code onto the bottoms of shoes and up on an overhead screen for the artists to refer to during the performance. Physical training took over a year.

Intriguingly, the objects in the exhibition show a different side to the spectacle that was The Tie-Break at Nuit Blanche. A DVD of the performance in extremely convincing packaging serves as a link to the actual performance. A large-scale photograph and altered Wheaties box featuring the artists in full wardrobe refer directly to commercial aspect of sports, with its corporate sponsorship model and all the mythologizing of athletes that entails. However it is the quieter, more conceptual pieces in the show that give the project added dimension and depth. “Strung Stretchers” are conceptual mash-ups of sport and art, and yet they are also invitingly physical and tactile objects, entreating viewers to insert fingers and straighten strings, as tennis players will often do as a matter of habit. Visually, they are paradoxes; tightening the strings should bend and break the wood, but these invisibly braced stretchers are perfectly square. As such they become more than their constituent parts; the tension between the strings and the frame, the intersecting lines, the muted colours of the materials, and the play of light and wavy shadows within each piece transform them into a meditation. Indeed Neuspiel and Pugen referenced Agnes Martin in their talk, and one can see her subtle spirit within the woven grids of synthetic gut.

The lone painting in the show, a diptych titled Centre Court at Dusk, represents a full-scale section of well-worn court surface with similarly poetic effect. All soft greens and hints of twilit blues with patches of tawny gold demarcating the effects of countless footfalls, the colours are evocative in their specificity of time and place, transporting the viewer to that melancholic moment when one suddenly realizes it has at last become too dark to play. Yet the composition—two perfect squares bisected by a regulation width centre service line and separated by a gap of equal width standing in for an imaginary net, is timeless and universal in its rigourous geometry—a minimalist abstraction in tennis clothing.

Hanging between two Strung Stretchers, a comparatively modest-sized photograph captures a classic white tennis ball in mid-bounce, magically suspended mere millimeters above a pristine white surface. Deceptive in its simplicity, the image achieves an absolute balance and stillness, becoming the embodiment of that moment of grace for which we all strive, through which one glimpses a reality unfettered by physical and temporal constraints. It is the suspension of breath in a moment of sheer wonder or surprise, the bodily bliss of pushing beyond perceived physical limits, the irrelevance of time in the pursuit of an activity with true abandon. At the heart of The Tie-Break is a story to which we can all relate and aspire, which perhaps explains our continuing fascination with the rivalry between the icy Swede and the fiery American, from over thirty years ago.

The Tie-Break, on view through February 4, 2012 at Neubacher Shor Contemporary
Review of the exhibition by Murray Whyte for The Toronto Star

The Tie-Break on the Nuit Blanche 2011 website
Video promos by the artists and highlights of The Tie-Break performance on Vimeo

Tibi Tibi Neuspiel’s website
Geoffrey Pugen’s website

Ministry of Artistic Affairs event page
For more events like this, see The Ministry of Artistic Affairs Upcoming Events

Get yer own white tennis balls (“classy, stylish, and old-school preppy!”), here

Bonus: Late-breaking from the WSJ on the state of the game today: “Why Tennis Rules the Earth”
by Jason Gay

images, from top to bottom: Tibi Tibi Neuspiel and Geoffrey Pugen, video stills from The Tie-break: Highlights from Nuit Blanche, Strung Stretcher, Centre Court at Dusk, and The Floater; photos by Shani K Parsons

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