For ‘Playroom’, his first New York exhibition in five years, Paul Pfeiffer has returned to the theme of basketball – but, this time, it’s one player in particular who’s on his mind. Wilt Chamberlain, the seven-foot-tall icon of the sport known as ‘Wilt the Stilt’, is best known for two feats: a legendary 1962 game in which he scored 100 points – a record that still stands; and an equally legendary sexual appetite that, he calculated, led him to sleep with 20,000 women over the course of his life. The maths suggests that at least a few thousand of these paramours must have entered into ‘the playroom’, as Chamberlain called the sanctum sanctorum of his Los Angeles mansion, designed to his own specifications and modelled, hard to believe, on a Baptist church. Pfeiffer’s sculpture Playroom (all works 2012) re-creates that space in abstracted miniature: it’s a hexagonal chamber with mauve velvet banquettes, mirrored walls, Kit Kat Klub-style light fixtures and a central waterbed covered in black rabbit fur. Life magazine in 1972 called the room ‘X-rated’, but the orgiastic indulgences the real playroom saw are nowhere in evidence here. The upholstery is sickly and faded, the mirrors are dull and the whole thing looks as airless as Lenin’s sarcophagus.
Chamberlain never married. More shockingly – incomprehensibly, to be frank – he never had any children. Pfeiffer’s video Home Movie looks askance at that unconvincing situation: it depicts a number of teenagers and younger kids, both black and white, along with a few mothers at a petting zoo. The clothing they’re wearing suggests that the footage dates from the early 1970s, and four Polaroid-seeming images that hang nearby (in fact, they’re manipulated digital photographs) bear the date 1971: that is, the year Chamberlain’s mansion was built. Pfeiffer, as usual, has edited the footage seamlessly and gives no hint as to what he’s elided or even where the footage comes from. It’s impossible to know if any adult male was at the zoo that day, or whether the women and children were on their own.
One of the reasons for Chamberlain’s mythic stature is that his greatest exploit – that 100-point game in Pennsylvania in 1962 – was not televised or even reported on very much; back then, the National Basketball Association was still a minor sports league. Pfeiffer’s filmstrip 100 Point Game edits together footage of dozens of field goals (that is, points scored during regular play and not on a free throw) from both recent NBA spectacles and smaller high-school and college games, some shot in colour and others in black and white. But in each shot the ball has been seamlessly edited out of the film, and all we see is the pan of the camera, the fluttering of the net, and bursting flashbulbs as the ball (presumably) sinks into the hoop. It is a requiem as much as a reconstitution.
100 Point Game consists of video footage transferred to 16mm film; Home Movie uses 8mm film transferred to digital video. Pfeiffer came to prominence at a young age as a pioneer of new media, so it’s heartening to see him exploring obsolescent forms of display in this new show, manipulating the forms of the past as much as the content. I might have hoped for a less oblique gaze at Chamberlain’s life and career, one less apprehensive about the difficult questions of sex, race, spectacle and economics that he embodied. But Pfeiffer’s exhibition seemed to suggest that such an exercise might be impossible. Only an impression remains, and all we will ever see, looking back, is the flapping net or the empty fuck room.