Marianna Simnett’s Football Film Misses Its Goal

At Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, the artist’s UEFA-inspired film mixes balletic beauty with uncomfortable stereotypes

BY Emily May in Exhibition Reviews | 03 JUL 24

As a dancer-turned-critic who grew up in the rarest of places – a British household uninterested in team sports – I’ve never had much appreciation for football. Not only did the sport seem a world away from my interests in the performing and visual arts, its negative associations with hooliganism and domestic violence compounded my disinclination to engage with it. Yet, in ‘WINNER’ (2024) – a new multi-channel film installation commissioned as part of the German government-supported art and culture programme of the UEFA EURO 2024 – Marianna Simnett employs dance and choreography to dissect the social and cultural nuances of football, bringing together two seemingly polarized disciplines and offering sport sceptics a way into ‘the beautiful game’.

Marianna Simnett, WINNER, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Société, Berlin

Shown across three screens in a long, narrow exhibition space at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, the exhibition’s titular film opens with scenes of performers meticulously re-creating well-known altercations and celebrations from football history on a flood-lit pitch. As the ‘players’ glide through the air, I can’t help but admire the sheer power, skill and choreographic beauty with which they move. One flying leap performed with a contracted torso could easily be from a show by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, while the quick footwork they exhibit in a shower scene as they kick around a bar of soap has all the precision and detail of a balletic petit allegro.

Marianna Simnett, WINNER, 2024, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Société, Berlin

The positive emotions derived from these initial scenes are quickly overpowered, however, as WINNER’s narrative begins to unfold. Inspired by Graham Greene’s 1954 short story ‘The Destructors’, in which a gang of boys in postwar London destroy the last house in their neighbourhood to have survived the Blitz, WINNER is filled with depictions of pure hooliganism. Donning mascot costumes and taking up chainsaws and baseball bats, her once-graceful characters turn into violent thugs who gleefully smash up the home of a female referee.

Marianna Simnett, WINNER, 2024, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Société, Berlin

Connecting football with senseless violence is far from revelatory, and Simnett does little to add to this well-trodden ground. Naming her gang of thugs ‘The Cock Squad’ and dressing them in red scrotum necklaces, she makes the rather obvious suggestion that toxic masculinity can lead to sport-related violence. Yet, this is somewhat confused by the fact that – rather than addressing the gender-induced tensions at play in the world of sports – her team-cum-mob presents male, female and non-binary performers as equally destructive.

Marianna Simnett, WINNER, 2024, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Société, Berlin

Other moments in WINNER plunder somewhat uncomfortable stereotypes: a vignette of a hot dog-stand waitress, for instance, which is replicated in the exhibition through two full-sized resin facades. At the show’s press conference, Simnett described the joy she found in visiting such food stalls during her research, yet her depiction of them in the work itself couldn’t feel further from celebratory. With her crooked, rotting teeth, smudged makeup, dirty apron and unappetising wares, Simnett’s waitress is an unjust, reductive portrayal of hospitality workers.

Marianna Simnett, WINNER, 2024, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Société, Berlin

In the catalogue for ‘WINNER’, curator Charlotte Knaup notes that, like me, Simnett didn’t identify with football before creating this work. Yet, while conducting her research, the artist ‘found a world filled with welcoming and helpful people, eager to share their passion.’ These individuals are difficult to find in this exhibition, however, and have – with the exception of a cute crowd of toddlers singing nursery rhymes in place of aggressive football chants – been replaced with surface-level visions of destructive thugs and uncouth caterers. While the choreographic beauty and technical skill of football is made clear, ‘WINNER’ largely feels like a missed opportunity to dig deeper into the social and cultural nuances of the world’s most popular sport.

Marianna Simnett’s ‘WINNER’ is on view at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum of Contemporary Art, Berlin, until 2 November

Main image: Marianna Simnett, WINNER, 2024, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Société, Berlin

Emily May is a writer and editor specializing in dance and performance. She lives in Berlin, Germany.