Jack Goldstein’s Two Boxers: A Re-Performance

From Totems (1988 – 1996): “Using his mirror image he discovers how to make himself disappear”

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Two Boxers begins with the ring – blue ground, red, white and blue ropes – in darkness, while loud German martial music plays. Comical and aggressive simultaneously, at a volume set just the degree below unbearable that prevents earache and walkouts. The first interlude lasts for several long minutes – a fanfare for a climax that doesn’t come, cut abruptly to silence.

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For Chrissie Iles, responding to an audience member who found this section disturbing, this was Goldstein’s intention, to emphasise a violent trauma linked to his experience of a father scarred by the second world war. She notes, too, that the martial music had extra resonance and violence during the work’s 2003 performance at a New York synagogue, perhaps drawing Goldstein’s Jewish background into the work’s equation, its calculation of the impact it might have on an audience.

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Next, the two boxers enter the ring, in identical white shorts – undifferentiated, as though we might be watching a single figure boxing a doppelganger: that ‘mirror image’ Goldstein saw as allowing for disappearance comes to mind here. The two men spar energetically, but the flow of their movements is fragmented by strobe light, presenting their bout as a series of still images rather than the flow of real-time action and reaction.

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Iles explains that we should never forget Goldstein’s training under the tutelage of Disney animators – men (mostly men) who would painstakingly hand-draw thousands of static cells before sequencing these into the apparent magic of life and motion. She notes Goldstein’s intention that this section should blur the live action with a static representation, holding the performance in a kind of limbo between contradictory states - like one of the photographic ‘motion’ sequences of Edouard Muybridge.

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The final section begins as the strobe light stops, the boxers freeze in their respective positions and the ring is bathed in blood red light. A bit of heavy breathing aside, the boxers remain static. The music returns, that same oppressively upbeat martial cacophany, again building to some violent climax that never arrives. When it stops, the ring is plunged into darkness and the boxers depart unseen from their arena. That red light was used elsewhere in Goldstein’s body of work to denote the unseen catastrophe of fire.

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“We should always remember that Goldstein had Hollywood at his shoulder”, says Chrissie Iles [I quote from memory, so approximately rather than exactly]. “But this was Hollywood at a particular historical moment, where the artisan craft skills of an earlier period had not yet completely given way to the marketing led industry that followed, and that we see today in a kind of hyper form. We can see that Goldstein’s work was of its moment, technically and in terms of ideas, but also anticipating what might come next. In the early 1980s, for example, he saw that any new war would be covered using multiple camera angles and anchormen on the frontlines narrating the action…”

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Two Boxers seems to balance somewhere between the subject of war and violence, the presentation of an elegantly deconstructed spectacle, a frustrated narrative shown in distinct ways (through sound and silence, light and darkness, movement and stillness) and, perhaps, that notion of the mirror image as a mechanism for disappearance.

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Iles had noted during her talk, before the Re-Performance, that Goldstein was resolved to remove himself from his work almost completely (perhaps in the same way that Wallace Stevens felt a poem should ‘resist the intelligence almost successfully’). Yet she also describes her difficulty in locating him when preparing her own retrospective, an ability and willingness to disappear, on his part, that suggests he knew all to well how to make himself the elusive presence he remains in his work – however much of a personal mirror that work might have been, and remains.

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Images from the event are on the NC flikr photostream, here.

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