Flash Points

Athletes & Artists: Riyas Komu’s “Mark Him”

Riyas Komu, "RK-193" from the "Mark Him" series, 2007. Edition 1/9, Archival print, 74 x 50 inches. Courtesy The Guild Art Gallery, Mumbai.

Riyas Komu, "Syed Nabi" from the "Mark Him" series, 2007. Courtesy Komu Studio.

Flash Points contributor and University of Riverside professor Jennifer Doyle is currently spending 2 weeks in India, traveling with the Indian artist Riyas Komu. Following is the first in a series of dispatches from Doyle on the road. — Ed.

Since he produced Mark Him (2007), a series of portraits of Indian National Team soccer players, Riyas Komu has been haunted by the sport.

“Mark him” is something one shouts to a defender: it means to track your opponent’s movements, to limit them. To mark is to anticipate where your player wants to go and contain him. An expert defender will study his opponent as he advances and deduce if he wants to take the ball down the outside, or if he dares to cut through the center. He’ll know his opponent’s preferences (which foot is stronger or more accurate) and if his ego can be engaged (if challenged, will he give the ball to a teammate, or will engage the defender directly). Marking yields a kind of intimacy. It can be surprising, too – a smart attacker knows well what you are doing, and can seduce you right our of your boots — taking you on a trip whose itinerary is of his design, not yours.

I came here to India on the force of this imperative: Mark Him. Somehow my interest in Komu’s work demanded not simply that I get to know the artist, but that I get to know the player who haunts him.

We look at the men in Komu’s portraits from the distinct perspective of heroic propaganda. We look up at them; their eyes are directed forward. We are lifted with their gaze according to a monumental logic. Mark Him is reparative, offering a visual attention to a class of athletes who are largely invisible to the cricket-mad Indian mass media. The team is currently ranked 135th by FIFA, and enjoys little glory even as it represents this large and diverse country (players hail from all over India, speak four different languages, and come from distinctly different cultures). Soccer here is a minor sport, edged out of the newspapers by the glitz and glam of cricket and by the television spectacle of England’s top league (the “Premiership”). To even India’s fans, the sport as played here seems slow and boring. The level is just not what it should be.

Riyas Komu, "RK-193" from the "Mark Him" series, 2007. Edition 1/9, Archival print, 74 x 50 inches

Riyas Komu, "RK-193" from the "Mark Him" series, 2007. Edition 1/9, Archival print, 74 x 50 inches. Courtesy The Guild Art Gallery, Mumbai.

Problems include a national association run by cronyism and staffed by men with little-to-no experience in the sport itself; uneven levels of commitment from those administrators; a culture of graft and an absence of long-term thinking; a lack of institutional support for technical training; a poorly run national league (which refuses to set the season’s schedule more than a month in advance); a basic lack of facilities  (in the absence of flood-lit fields, games are played in the late afternoon under full sun); a lack of commitment to player development. India’s soccer federation books endless numbers of tournaments that are played according to compressed schedules inserted into the professional league’s season. This leads to situations in which a team might play every other day in a ten-day tournament, at the end of which there may be less than a day’s turn-around for players returning to the regular season schedule. (To compare: in England players at the height of their fitness are fielded no more than twice a week.) The more I learn of these things, the more I admire Bob Houghton, the English coach of India’s National Team; his job requires a large amount of determination, patience, stoicism and diplomacy (he takes regular beatings from India’s clubs and from a press that hovers between indifference and hostility).

You do not need to know anything about all that to feel the way such facts structure Komu’s portraits (but it helps). The angle of these images is that of “uplift.” It doesn’t surprise me to learn that Komu’s origins as an artist are in politics: as a student he made campaign posters and worked as a broadcaster, driving around the region making political speeches from the car. He frames his players according to a precise logic of heroism—not that of the athlete, but that of the proletariat.

My conversations with Gouramango Singh, Subhash Chowdhary, Bhaichung Bhutia, Mehrajuddin Woodo, and Sunil Chetri (to name a few) have not been about the hardships they face as players, however. Quite the opposite. Given the grim reports on the realities of playing in India, most of the players are remarkably easy-going. Midfielder Steven Dias explained, “If I didn’t play football, my life would be a struggle.” By this, he doesn’t mean that soccer spared him a life in the slums (though for some it has). His statement emerged from a conversation we’d been having about Bombay’s culture of hustle, of endless work, relentless drive and ambition. He was talking about a regional ethos that demands not just that you make a living, but make you make as much money as you are humanly capable of, until you drop.

Steven’s point is that playing football doesn’t feel like work. Playing the game is a joy and a pleasure; he gladly gives every bit of himself over to it, because doing so makes him feel happy. It is a luxury to have that sort of “job,” the sort that makes you feel like you are living through it, rather than like it is taking your life from you.

I was charmed by the pleasure that radiated off of him as he talked this way about his sport, as a lifestyle. I realized for the first time how very much artists and athletes have in common. Both organize their lives around pleasure; to make one’s life from sport is, in many ways, to reject a certain form of ambition. In India, soccer players are not seduced by dreams of riches and fame. It is a “minor” sport, and players have almost no hope of ever being scouted to play in a truly professional setting and getting rich (in part because immigration quotas limit work visas to players from countries ranked in the top 70). To take up a sport in this context as one’s life is to subordinate work to pleasure. It is to insist that one should be able to live from one’s art.  It is to refuse the demand that we be useful. In some ways, it is to refuse the logic of work itself.

If these players are socially “marked,” it is perhaps as escape artists who have set themselves just barely outside the reaches of capitalism. In the practice of this game (in which “just making a living” is articulated as a form of luxury), players become fugitives from the law that “marks” us, that seeks to divide us from our pleasure, that tracks us with the aim of limiting our movement as well as our imagination.

Jennifer Doyle is the author of Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (Minnesota, 2006), and is an Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside. She is currently finishing Critical Limits, a book about difficulty and emotion in contemporary art. She blogs about the cultural politics of soccer at From A Left Wing.