Games have rules. They dictate how a game's players behave on the field, on the court, or in the ring. Spectators and players are bound together in their quiet understanding of these rules. But what happens to the rules when you remove the players, teammates, or fans? How do you see the rules if there are no players playing by them?
The work of video artist Paul Pfeiffer makes a ghostly foray into these kinds of de-peopled athletic scenarios. His photo series The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (2000-2009), for example, presents doctored photographs of basketball players stripped of competitors and teammates alike. Here one leaps silhouetted, there one peers hopefully skyward. A single player baroquely staged, without jersey number or team logo, leaping triumphant in a sublime moment of ambiguity. The Four Horsemen stemmed from a Pfeiffer project that did the opposite to publicity shots of Marilyn Monroe: leaving the shot's surroundings but removing its center: Marilyn herself. In both cases, context is left wanting, leaving too much wiggle room for interpretation, something photography in its verisimilitude is supposed to prevent though what Roland Barthes called "the perfect analagon": photography's ability to naturalize anything.
Pfeiffer pulls a similar trick in his films. In The Long Count (Thrilla in Manila), (2001), he created a video loop of boxing footage with the boxers digitally erased. The audience whistles and yells at the undulating ropes, which sway under the force of the fighters' sizeable yet absent bodies. Imagination compels us to complete what is not present, to solve the visual not-there. In the case of The Long Count series, the mind, if it recalls, supplies the bodies of heavyweight contenders Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazer from their match of October 1, 1975.
Pfeiffer's 2009 installation at Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof combined a few of his methodological forays. Vitruvian Figure, (2009) an enormous birchwood and stainless steel model of a sports stadium, sat in the same space as his sound and video installation The Saints, (2007), a digitally altered loop of the 1966 World Cup (West Germany vs. England). In another room, a film of a contemporary, hired crowd in an Imax theater in Manila, Philippines, watching the 1966 game, and in another room, Pfeiffer's film Empire, (2004), a three-month long video projection of wasps building a nest. A miniature television built into a gallery wall aired the actual black-and-white footage of that fated 1966 match (England won, 4:2) – with all but one player, hat-trick scorer Geoffrey Hurst, digitally erased. The little man is ecstatic, jubilant – and utterly alone.
In this sports-related vein of Pfeiffer's corpus, the players who cause crowds to gather, fans to yell, and for Great Moments in Sports to be celebrated, are simply gone. The sounds of cheering crowds become like the drone of wasps, signifying nothing except perhaps the possibility of attack. Players are edited out of history, mere apparitions of victory. Are the memories of large public gatherings, such as at sports events, bound to sight or to sound, or, perhaps, to an amalgam? Pfeiffer's work interrogates the components of collective memory, testing how far visual alteration can go before the event or game is no longer itself, before we no longer are tethered to its raw material. He shows us what the mind still sees when we see nothing at all but are rather given prompts to recall.
Pfeiffer’s intelligently reductive work jars larger questions in our midst. "When the World Trade Center went down ... for long afterwards you sort of looked up and expected to see something there," he told the PBS program Art21. Pfeiffer doesn't expunge specific others for ideological reasons, of course, but rather to elevate the public feat into celebration – or to nudge solipsistic dreams into pure absurdity: Rules, after all, need players.