For prime time, made-for-TV, archetypal fantasy it's hard to beat the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan affair: white trash striver who will stop at nothing to realise her dream versus cover girl princess poised for ascension to the throne, supported by a host of minor thugs and baddies motivated by the sheer love of a good woman. It's the time-worn virgin/whore dichotomy that keeps us glued to the screen, even as another dark horse Czech launches into her umpteenth triple-axle while her avuncular coach looks on, pensive and white-knuckled. The Brothers Grimm would be proud: if their myth hadn't been acted out on CNN, a hack screenwriter could have shopped it to the networks. All that's missing is a fairy godmother and a prince on a shining steed.
That figure skating is the latest sport to succumb to rampant professionalism should come as no surprise. The winner-takes-all ethos that drives the system thrives on photogenic beauties and the soft-core lust of their fans. The technical mastery and sheer physical prowess required ensures that young skaters reach their peak and then retire almost in the same breath. The price of perfection? A woefully short career. This provides a steady stream of fresh faced hopefuls (and costume changes) to fill the vacuum left by arthritic has-beens, washed up at 20 and ready for a career in broadcasting.
What Andrea Bowers has salvaged in her video installation of amateur figure skaters in Southern California Moving Equilibrium (all works 1999), is the mimetic theatre acted out on playgrounds and pitches every day. The same, but with a singular twist: Tonya and Nancy's elegant pirouettes and high-wire axles are at least as captivating a model as the graceful improvisations of Michael Jordan and Ronaldo. But rather than simply aping the balletic manoeuvres of their idols witnessed on TV - an act doomed to slapstick failure given the skill of professional skaters - Bowers' female amateurs have absorbed every mannerism, every disappointed shrug of the shoulder or chest pounding exultation of pride at the finish. The cocky swagger when one girl skates to the centre of the ice, or the mock disgust when another feels she has somehow failed, are captured by Bowers' unobtrusive, documentary camera.
Then why do these skaters still seem so real? If Bowers' subjects have internalised the moves and memorised the grammar of skating, they still manage to be as spontaneous as one who perfects her craft in relative privacy for the pleasure of the thing in itself, or the small gallery of spectators at the average suburban rink, not in the glare of televised competition. Professional athletes skate to win, but even if their routines appear seamlessly fluid and natural, they still perform with the double-consciousness of one who knows, and always has known, that their moves are scripted for the screen.
There are no triple-jumps or toe-flips in Bowers' videos and consequently no shower of roses or standing ovations when her weekend warriors strike their declamatory poses. Absent also are Isaac Mizrahi sequinned leotards and the palpable hush of the crowd when a skater takes to the ice. In fact, Bowers has emptied her videos of all glamorous pretence and cinematic tension (no rosy flush of make-up or dolly-mounted tracking spotlight) leaving behind only the awkward and anxious moments in between.
In Waiting a young girl sits crouched at the centre of the ice waiting for the music to launch her into her routine. It never comes. She clenches her hands, takes a deep breath, smiles and gulps, and her mounting tension becomes synchronised with our own. Bowers has a knack for choosing subjects and situations which have an authentic resonance, if only because they correspond to the imperfection of daily life. Waiting seems more real because its universal index of impatience and frustration recalls anticipating a job interview or bringing up the rear of the queue at the bank, without ever lapsing into the Pavlovian denouement of the choreo-graphed spectacle.
Bowers work is vital because it is never content to point out the contrivances of media spectacle in the manner of reality-based TV, impromptu sketch comedy, or amateur porno - all genres that parasitically feed off the superficialities of their respective hosts. The compassion she has for her subjects has a human quality that sets it apart from dry theoretical critique or the winking irony of the media landscape.