O captor, my captor—EJ Hill and David Bell at Grace Exhibition Space

EJ Hill, in the moments prior to the fight, at Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn. Photo by Geoff Tuck

EJ Hill, in the moments prior to the fight, at Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn.
Photo by Geoff Tuck

There was a fight last week, in Brooklyn. A pair of friends, EJ Hill and David Bell, boxed for twenty minutes on a bare floor in a second story loft. O Captor, my captor it was called. Fighting is a curious way to express friendship, and yet within the structure of a boxing match much can be explored and expressed about human nature and about the nature of male friendship.

Two quotes help me think about what I saw that night, both from a 2009 interview of boxing writer and novelist Katherine Dunn by Mateo Hoke:

“…within the body of the human animal and the mind of the human animal, boxing as a business, as a sport, as a community unifier, as an individual meditation instrument, as a teaching tool, and probably many other things—all of those things are operative there. And you can see the very bad—the conniving and the backstabbing, the lying, the cheating, the stealing. But you can also see a very wide spectrum of extremely positive traits. And because of the simple structure of the sport, it’s very overt. It’s not fancy. What goes on there is really upfront. It’s really in your face. So it’s easy to discern.”

“From the moment the bell rings and two people come together, it is a ritualized crisis. And the individuals have to respond to crisis. Just as every news pundit will say, when the flood came or when the earthquake happened, you saw people operating in a crisis and they were terrific, or they fled and bit each other in the back like cowards, or whatever. What that does is strip away the veneer of social courtesies and social requirements. If it’s a good enough fight, all posturing and all pretenses are stripped away, because you’re pushed past the point where that’s functional. You have to go down into the place where whatever you truly, truly are is all that’s left, and all you can rely on.”

In Dunn’s first quote, I find a way to begin to understand a sport and art form that I know nothing about. In the ring, it seems, boxing can serve as metaphor for any human struggle. I think of formalized struggles that I know myself: writing and painting. I think that at some point in every essay I write, and in each painting I start, I find myself in a battle with my materials; and I recognize that after this battle to the death, any win I achieve has been a collaboration. Outside the ring, there is the world that supports and promotes boxing. This world is business, and it is crass and self-interested. Often the players in this business are truly concerned for the advancement of the sport (I laugh at myself for thinking of the old guy in the movie Rocky); and just as often the players selfishly exploit opportunities, creating heroes out of hype and nonsense. I think how much this is like the art world.

Inside the performance space at Grace Exhibitions, there was no ring. The two artists engaged on the same floor as their audience. They began in the space with us, seated fifty feet apart, and when they rose from their seats it was necessary for them to locate each other using non-visual cues, blinded as they were. I suspect they did this by following the noises each other made: breathing, punching a column or a wall, stumbling over obstacles.

The “performative” aspect of Hill and Bell’s performance, meaning the parts that took place in front of an audience, included an hour during another performance, during which the artists sat with their heads covered in black hoods and kept their fists out of sight behind their backs. Without any obvious cue that I could read, Bell rose first from his seat. He immediately began sparring; his shoulders were curled forward and his gloved fists felt the air as they jabbed, searching for contact. He moved with athletic grace, but without discipline. His path wandered near to the audience, and he stumbled (although lightly) over a chair. EJ Hill also began to move, more deliberately than his rival, but probably more hesitantly, too. I got the sense that Hill considered his body’s relation to space intellectually, where his rival seemed to measure space with his body. When they met, they really hit each other – it was quite a surprise. Punching sounds like it hurts, and though they were throwing blindly and missed often, they were also blocking blindly, and so each got struck often without expecting the blow. For the duration, the two men were dancing and sparring, punching and holding, taking and relinquishing. Clinching with their exhausted, heaving chests pressed one against the other; in acknowledgement, it seemed, of their singular dependence on each other. Then we saw them walk away.

Not being able to see, and lacking any separation from the audience, brought these potential heroes down to earth. We watched them in their confused search for their opponent. I rooted for them to find each other, and then regretted my wish once the punches began. Whatever psychological edge is contained in the masculine display of muscles and fiercely clenched teeth was lost; as was the sense of being set apart and on display. Had one of them been really hurt – had we even been able to tell if either was hurt – I could have, anyone could have intervened. But what would such an intervention have achieved? The boxing artists were together in this endeavor. By choice each had become the medium for the other in the work that they were making. I got the sense that other people would not be welcomed.

After the fight, they both were bruised, and each had the wide-eyed look of one who has been battered: still caught in the moment of punching, and of being punched, not ready for the present, focused inward, depleted.

In the second quote, Dunn’s phrase “ritualized crisis” describes wonderfully the personal experience of a boxing match. On that night in Brooklyn, I observed EJ Hill and David Bell lose sight of any original purpose they had in mind for this artwork. Once they were in the ring, it seemed, there was nothing but themselves, and each other. Anything like “art” and “triumph” became a construct for which there was no room. Anything outside of sweat and fists and survival was lost.

Prior to the public action, in private moments of their performance, Hill and Bell prepared themselves by shopping for and fitting equipment, and by talking. “There were moments leading  up to it (the match) that were telling,” Bell said in a text, “like us sitting in a room together fitting our mouth pieces. And talking about how neither of us really wanted to fight each other. And then telling stories about an hour before of all the fights we’ve been in (very few on both ends).” In a later text, Bell continued, “And lying to each other about training and practicing.”

I think this lying by the artists is natural to humans. In boxing, I think of Muhammad Ali and his colorful braggadocio and that even though Ali made good on his promises, still they began as lies. Too, I think of every artist press release I have ever read, and what bullshit they are. When we’re in the fight, when we’re in the show, we know what wins and what fails; once the fight (or the exhibition) begins, the lies fall away and we are alone with the work.

More from Hoke and Dunn: http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/on_the_beauty_of_violence/

Grace Exhibition Space: http://www.grace-exhibition-space.com/

David Bell, waiting at Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn. Photo by Geoff Tuck

David Bell, waiting at Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn.
Photo by Geoff Tuck

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