LONDON — There are only 302 gold medals for 10,490 athletes at these Games, which means all but a few of them will leave as losers. As we obsess over the winners, the losers’ internal anguish tends to get ignored in the press — and especially in Olympic-related advertisements. You don’t put a loser on a billboard. It’s bad for business.
But when Indian-born graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee was approached by the Frieze Foundation to pitch an Olympic-sanctioned public art project in East London, he realized that he had a soft spot for losers. When he put himself inside the mind of Olympic athletes, his thoughts gravitated toward self-doubt, frustration and long-term regret. He wanted to create losers as characters, and do what the Olympic marketing machine would not: put losers on billboards.
Banerjee’s “Gallery of Losers (Non-Performers, Almost-Winners, Under-Achievers, Almost-Made-Its)” was approved, and his work is now all over East London — as well as in newspapers and on posters — as part of Frieze Projects East. From his home in Berlin, he was gracious enough to conduct a Skype interview with the Olympic Blog and provide us with our own (online) Gallery of Losers.
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
SI.com: When we first emailed, you wrote me an explanation of this series that said:
“This is almost like a campaign on people who fail despite trying very hard. The project goes against the grain of other Olympics-related advertising that emphasize solely on winners.
“It isn’t just about sports, although all my characters are mostly sports people. I want to change the discourse on competitive sports a bit. Ruffle up the cliché about winners and winnings. To me winning is a small detail, but that could perhaps be because I have always been terrible at competitive sports. I sometimes find winners vulgar.”
I like that line — that you sometimes find winners vulgar. I can see it in your “In The Company of Winners” billboard. It’s a rather grotesque image.
Banerjee: That is a pretty angry picture, isn’t it? My father is a winner. He is a soccer player of some reputation for his state. I haven’t won anything in my life. I am a very enthusiastic sportsman, but embarrassingly bad. So embarrassingly bad that after many years of training in squash, when my friend came over for a holiday and played a friendly game — and she hadn’t played sports since she was 11 — she sort of destroyed me on the court. She felt so embarrassed about it that she told me, “Sorry.”
Not all winners are fallible, though. I was a little quick to say that — let’s say an Iranian wrestler during the time of the Shah, Gholamreza Takhti. He was one of the noblest wrestlers you can think of [and a gold medalist in the 1956 Games]. After the earthquake in 1962, he stood on the street with a bowl of alms, and protested against the Shah and got himself killed. But before he was killed, he had the reputation of having wrestling matches where he won nobly. He went up to a loser’s mother and said, ‘Your son was the better wrestler; I was just lucky.’ Or when he wrestled a Russian with a hurt leg, he refused to touch that leg. There is some extreme nobility among winners.
But everything at the Olympics is geared toward winning. Advertisements are so geared toward winning that it somewhat takes away the joy of what you’re doing. When you’re actually pitching in baseball, or playing basketball or boxing, all these sports, there is an aesthetic. If we say good pitching, it can mean that someone is playing the game very well. There is a lot of art to it. Somehow we compromise that when we put too much emphasis on winning. That winners are vulgar is perhaps an overstatement, but often I feel like it requires a lot of character to lose with dignity.
SI.com: Where did the idea for this series originate?
Banerjee: The whole idea came to me in Sao Paolo. As part of the Biennial there in 2008 I was interviewing judo silver medalist Douglas Vieira. He almost won gold at the L.A. Olympics [in 1984] after defeating the Japanese favorite, but lost to a Korean in the finals. During the course of our interview, Douglas demonstrated to me the art of falling. He threw me to the mat 12 times, to tell me that judo is as much about the falling as it is about throwing. He was a thinker, a bit like Hegel — there was something deeply wise about him. And every fall brought me closer to some kind of clarity. For four years that idea about falling, about losers, simmered — I’m a bit suspicious about anything that comes too quickly — and when the Olympics were coming, I proposed this idea to the Frieze Foundation.
SI.com: So the falls gave you clarity about the importance of experiencing losing firsthand, or getting inside the head of a loser?
Banerjee: I realized I could possibly do a lot of research and dig into archives to find obscure losers. I could look at the 1908 Olympics, the 1948 Olympics, find these classic losers and get into their anecdotes. Or — or I could actually start becoming my characters, like a method actor of sorts. Because when you draw something, you don’t outline the drawing, the drawing claims you. You become the drawing.
I wanted to experiment with what would happen if I let go of all information and embodied the characters I was drawing. So, if I am working on a high jumper, what does a high jumper think — isn’t it incredibly embarrassing to be at a party, and someone asks you, “What do you do for a living?” And you say, “I’m a high jumper.”
The next question is going to be, “So, what does a high jumper do all day?”
“Well, I jump for three hours in the morning, the rest of the time I watch YouTube classic jumps, and the other times I think about … gravity. Because that’s what I’m trying to do: overcome gravity. Which is why I eat light food, like salad, read light literature, like Paolo Coelho, and listen to light music, like Yanni. And I don’t have anything heavy in my orbit.”
As he talks about this sort of levity, that gives you a picture of this person. But … when the day degenerates into evening and he’s sitting down after practice, looking at a near-empty shelf, which has only got a single bronze medal on it after a very long career, he cannot help but feel that weight. The heaviness creeps in. And that’s when he starts feeling slightly diminished, but he also thinks, “OK, that’s alright. Life is alright as long as there’s something to jump over.” And that propels him to practice the next day.
An idea like this, I could not have yanked it out of research or rustled it out of thin air. I had to feel like a high jumper. There was no other way.
SI.com: You make some historical references in your work, though, such as to (French table tennis star) Jean-Philippe Gatien. Are any of their thoughts taken from their own experiences, or is this all your concoction? You had written to me, “Most days I try to get in the skin of the loser, which frankly isn’t very difficult for me.”
Banerjee: All these characters are me, at the cost of sounding self-indulgent. I might have started with someone from an old medal list at a faraway Olympics, but the notion that someone in the middle of a jump might think, “Perhaps I chose the wrong sport” — that’s a revelation that happened when I was thinking about doing that jump.
And then I had all these lovely parties to try out these characters. I’m in Berlin now, and I’m relatively anonymous here — I can’t do that so much in India — but in Berlin I can find a young gullible German and convince him or her that I have just retired from being an athlete or coach.
SI.com: Oh! I didn’t realize you were actually becoming these characters in public, for the sake of research.
Banerjee: It started off as me being somewhat tired of myself, tired of telling people that I’m a graphic novelist, that I work with the language of text and images. If you keep doing that, you sound like a wanker at some point, so you acquire alternate identities. Today you’re a distributor of industrial absorbents. Or you’re a high jumper. But I don’t look like a high jumper, so it can be difficult.
I could look like an aging athlete. I could be an aging squash player — I used to play squash — so that’s not very difficult. But people inevitably ask strange questions that make it more difficult to pretend, and suddenly you’re on a strange journey with this person, getting deeper and deeper in this mess, and your levels of anxiety about being found out are rising. Slowly from that … emerges these thoughts.
I tried to tell someone that I had learned judo from a correspondence course, over mail order, and said that everybody in India does this. With some skill you can convince people about anything. But there can be a bit of panic, you know? What if someone asks, “Can you demonstrate?” I have historic knowledge, I have been working very hard, reading about the Mexican Olympics, the Fosbury flop, or the history of javelin or discus, so I have a certain bar of knowledge. But what if a high jumper or middleweight boxer shows up at the party and really knows what’s happening? I’d be quite seriously screwed. I like that slight danger.
SI.com: Do you experience a lot of self-doubt when you actually compete in sports?
Banerjee: Winning is to hold back those things. We are one with doubt. Doubt is always our first step towards knowledge. The suspension of doubt is perhaps very important when reaching that point, where you’re about to win, but there are those who have doubts rushing out.
Like, my table-tennis guy [Gatien] wondering, “How does one spell eerie?” at match point. That’s how I feel. I’m an inch away from winning and suddenly a thought creeps in my head: “Why am I even winning? Is there something wrong? Is this unholy? Or [in German] unheilig. That thought comes rushing in, and then you see the ball coming straight towards you — It’s a most fascinating experience.
SI.com: The Frieze project is an official Olympic exhibition. Do you think something like this — a gallery of losers — would have been approved in a country other than England? It definitely wouldn’t have flown in say, Beijing in 2008.
Banerjee: That’s a very good question. England loves their losers. Even in India, because we lose so much, we haven’t really developed a sense of humor about it yet. The country is sort of becoming confident about things economically, but we’re still not confident about having jokes at our expense. I think a nation’s confidence is often revealed by its ability to make fun of itself.
I doubt I could have swung this in China. But it’s part of being in the art world — you want to make trouble. You’re either a troublemaker, a trickster, or you’re making things like, “Just Do It.” You are there to mess up things, to challenge hierarchy, and I think London hasn’t lost its sense of humor. I was there recently, and there was a lot of self-congratulatory stuff, and a lot of griping, too — one side saying, “This is bad, this is not going to work.” I find that lot quite boring. But generally, you’ll find that people there haven’t lost their sense of humor, they can take and make jokes about stuff.
Unless you can completely Photoshop your Olympics like China did, all these events have a very human side to them, because they affect locals’ livelihood. But now that you have decided and are going ahead with it, you might as well accept the situation and try to have a great Games.
SI.com: When you watch these Olympics, will you focus on losers?
Banerjee: I am focused on winners. Because this is the only time you feel a tiny bit patriotic. I will be rooting for Mery Kom, my sister from a very Eastern part of India, Manipur, which produces all the women boxers. Most people in Manipur are below the poverty line — they are really poor — and boxing has the power to lift a particular group of people from a certain part of the world. In this case, if she were to even get a bronze, I am going to feed my whole neighborhood here. I am going to make biryani and feed everyone!
At the end of the day, after doing a gallery of losers, I am still hoping that one of our girls will win in boxing. Because it would change policy. There are baby girls in India who are killed at birth — I’m talking about middle-class people practicing selective abortions. We need examples of women in sport, succeeding. America has so many gold medals that it’s all like gravy, but one medal in India could change a lifestyle of an entire group of people.