The sport of art or the art of sports–better than Rocky?

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Federer with sculpture
Tennis star Roger Federer standing next to a sculpture of him as a Chinese terra cotta soldier

The ultimate wedding of pop culture with art culture is a promo for men’s tennis in Shanghai. I had to share it.

Shanghai is where the Master’s Cup Tournament, Nov. 11-18, will feature eight terra cotta warriors modeled after the buried Chinese army but with the heads of eight top tennis players invited to participate in the tournament.

Eight Warriors
Some of these are still headless. We’ve got Federer (left to right), Rafael Nadal and what looks like maybe Novak Djokovic, here.

They will be unveiled together in Shanghai at the circuit finale, which begins Nov. 11. It seems that so far only five of the eight players have been picked, so French sculptor Laury Dizengremel will have to turn them around pretty quickly. The top qualifiers now on the site are Rafael Nadal Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko and Andy Roddick. Three to go, I guess.

Rocky, which was born as a movie prop; the photo is by flickr member msspider66/kelly(copyright terms here)
Rocky, which was born as a movie prop; the photo is by flickr member msspider66/kelly(copyright terms here)

Natch, these sculptures brought our own local sports statue, Rocky, to mind. The Rocky statue aesthetics are a shameless reference to the movie industry in its Oscar statue-like modeling–appropriate as the movie prop and giant trophy that it is. I know that’s why people criticize it, but that’s what I like about it. It’s proud to be what it is, ugly and triumphant. It’s an affectionate symbol of our fair city, always coming up from behind. Hey, do those Iggles know how to win ugly or what?

The terra cotta army, which has become part of the same mass culture as the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, however, operates where popular culture tries to get a grip on what art, culture and history mean. Turning the figures into tennis players, a sort of overweaning publicity stunt for ATP Tennis is so divorced from the buried emperor’s power and the frisson of horror that the buried army suggests that it becomes laughable.

Nadal with sculpture
Rafael Nadal and himself as a Chinese terra cotta army member, armed with racquet.

I’m not saying I don’t admire the gesture here. I’m saying it’s amusing; but I’m also saying that reinventing something with great power into a pop/advertising medium chips away at and cheapens the power at the same time that the re-creation drapes itself in the power of the past. The end result is the new image becomes a powerful misapprehension of the past, and at some point may superimpose itself over the original army in the public’s imagination.

Because this is a promotion, it’s about commodification. Everything is about money. Turning the tennis players into Chinese icons for a Chinese venue is a sort of salute not so much to China’s cultural past as to China’s new financial powerhouse status. It’s a sign of respect for money and for winning!

Davyenko credit Tennis Masters Cup
Nikolay Davydenko’s head, which will top one of the army bodies

Ironically, in the Rocky sculpture, there is no similar cultural trade-off, no borrowing of power or exhange of value from some separate culture. It has created its own magic, and built on its Hollywood origins, transcending its own visual cheesiness, and becoming a talisman in the popular sphere with a power none of us could have projected. Yo!

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