“Why didn’t you keep playing?” “Because I wasn't good enough.” That was my boyfriend’s cold and direct assessment of his athletic ability. NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Athletes are reminded of the brutality of talent all the time. You aren’t fast enough, you aren’t tall enough, you aren’t strong enough. That brutality is what makes Libyan-Italian artist, Adelita Husni-Bey’s exhibition Movement Break, so powerful and disappointing. Like my boyfriend’s athletic ability: it was good, but not good enough.
During Husni-Bey’s residency in Kadist Art Foundation, she interviewed a group of teenage athletes who were injured while training or in competition. After the Finish Line has no storyline or interviews, at least as we normally understand them. It is purely composed of monologues and shots of these young athletes performing. The whole effect is mesmerizing.
One of the most striking images is of a high school basketball player, a young African-American girl. The first shot is of her bouncing a basketball. I couldn’t take my eyes off her nail polish. It was sky blue and shimmery pink, a strange combination of the energetic and innocent. As she bounces the ball, she speaks in an extremely calm tone :“My elbow is disconnected.” To whom is she talking? Her coach? Her family? Or herself? Despite the fact that there’s a camera in her face, no one replies. Husni-bey seems to suggest that it’s not only her elbow that’s disconnected, but also her state of mind. And even more, it’s her state of mind as it relates to her body.
|Ready, Set, Go!|
Another striking moment is a shot of the back of a girl wearing a swimming suit. She combs her hair into a ponytail and tucks it under her rubber-swimming cap. She starts to speak: “I feel different when I am outside and inside water.” She’s training twelve hours a day and after listening to her you have to ask why she’s doing it. She, like my boyfriend, is clearly not good enough. And yet here she is in the pool hour after hour, every day. The shots of her don’t tell us anything but what we can see: that she’s too young to be making this type of commitment and she’ll never get the gold in the Olympics, or even in a state competition.
Near the end of the film, a few young athletes sit in a circle sharing their thoughts on being an athlete. One says, “Be the best person you can be, be a better person than everyone around you” Another says, “If you don’t do it, you will never succeed.” I truly admire their spirit and determination, but find their naiveté shocking. They act as if they are forty year old careerists making decisions about their lives, when they’re just kid athletes. Husni-Bey makes us realize how closely athletics is tied to an adult sense of identity without really having one.
|Watch them think|
This is a good film. It forces you to look at the athlete’s psychology and understand how they can be both so dedicated and so stupid at the same time. You feel sorry for them, and afraid to tell them the truth - unless you win an Olympic medal, nobody will remember you! Once athlete’s training and competition are done, they have to build their brand and to develop their own career, which is hard because they have spent so much time on physical training. The honest monologues and mesmerizing shots stay in my mind, won’t fade away. These kid athletes are so precious and non-replaceable. They are one of a kind.
In addition to the film, Husni-Bey hold a series of therapy sessions for visitors, to help them to understand the relationship between pain and their bodies. During the sessions, she instructs visitors to lie down on a blank sheet of paper and trace their bodies, and then she starts the session by asking questions: How is age or gender affecting you? How would you define oppression? The tracings and notes become part of the exhibition. It is not successful. Husni-Bey misses her own point. She just made us realize how unique athletes are. But now, she shifts her focus and says that everyone is unique.
|Only a few of us are unique|
But everyone isn’t unique. I’ve never wanted to swim for twelve hours and if I dislocated my elbow I’d simply stop playing, forever. I’m not an athlete. I am not even physically gifted. I know I am not tall enough to play basketball, not strong enough for weightlifting, and not fast enough to run. The good thing is I don’t have to deal with these tremendous pressure because I am not an athlete. But they are different, they have no choice, but to compete.The film is great and illuminating, but the therapy after it, like all therapy, misses the point.
©Pinyuan Li and the CCA Arts Review