The Biggest LoserView Slideshow
Sarnath Banerjee, often touted as the country’s most famous graphic novelist, was one of just five artists invited by the Frieze Foundation to show public art works during the Olympics in London this summer. The 48 billboards, already up in parts of East London (click on “view slideshow” to see select images) and run in local newspapers, will spotlight that oft overlooked character in sporting history: the loser. Banerjee, who is based in Berlin, answered our questions about championing the underdog, method training for failure, and his thoughts on Anish Kapoor’s controversial Olympic sculpture. Edited excerpts:
Your project for the London Olympics focuses on a “cottage emporium of losers”. Is the loser an overlooked source of artistic inspiration?
I don’t know about artistic inspiration but it certainly humanises people, particularly the Olympics, which has an inhuman aspect to it. A whole lot of dignity is required to be a loser, none is required when you win. I sometimes find winners vulgar. In this project I want to ruffle up the clichés about winnings. To me, winning is a small detail, but that could be because I have always been crap at competitive sports. The entire society is totted up to win from infancy till death. This can lead to indigestion. Just look at what it has made us into, a quick look at my self-congratulatory Facebook wall will tell you. It is a culture of legitimised bragging.
India has long been considered a country of losers at the Olympics. Were we the inspiration for your panels?
No. We have always been a nation that had a great empowering sense of humour. That was what saved us when we stood in the long immigration queues along with fellow third-worlders, waiting for all our orifices to be checked. The new entitled middle class has somewhat lost this ability in its mad pursuit to become first world. All around, you have this bone chilling sobriety and the fear of hurting sentiments. [The] recent banning of cartoons is symptomatic of this class.
Could you tell us a little more about some of the panels?
I have a boxer who is forever thinking of dodging punches. A pole-vaulter who, just before a jump, realises that perhaps he has chosen the wrong sport. A judoka who learned the sport through a correspondence course, a high jumper who only eats light food, has light thoughts and reads light literature, because high jump is all about levity.
Among others, I also have a race-walker whose mind moves steadily towards the finishing line but her legs don’t keep up, a ping pong player who is suddenly aware of the eerie silence of the indoor stadium and tries to remember how one spells “eerie”. Some stories are dark like a javelin thrower who accidentally hits a long jumper thus disqualifying himself and destroying the medal chances of the latter. A hockey player who faces a wall of bureaucrats sitting before the goal, basically all kinds of people who are psychologically hard-wired to lose.
We hear that you prepared for the project by actually training and dieting like an athlete. Did you learn anything particularly insightful during this mode of “method acting” so as to speak?
I wish I could tell you that I have a training regiment like Bollywood stars, who prepare for years before accepting a role. My preparation included getting in the skin of the loser, which frankly isn’t very difficult for me. Every week I would be a different sportsman but only psychologically. Except once I was thrown twelve times by judoka Douglas Vierra in his Sao Paolo dojo while trying to explain to me how judo is more about falling than throwing. Four weeks back I was a discus thrower, the week before that I was a fencer.
In the course of your research, did you perhaps alter the way you perceived losers? For instance, Andy Murray, recent loser at the Wimbledon, is equally a hero and a winner to many. In other words, one man’s loser could be another’s winner.
Loser is a loser, pure and simple. I would not try to dignify him by saying that “he too is some kind of winner”. The whole system of winning is something that we are questioning. I am not even interested in the classic idea of the underdog coming from behind and then surprising everyone. That’s too much in the realm of sports advertisement.
Lastly, people either love or hate the ArcelorMittal Orbit. Your thoughts?
It is as far from my work as Marylebone is from Hackney. It reminds me of an oversized Berlin kid who lets out ear-splitting howls in order to grab his parents’ attention. It is an example of “Big Man” art, big corporate giant in association with big celebrity artist, which will be opened by a Bollywood superstar and will be extensively covered in the art section of big mainstream South Asian newspapers. It feels like low-nutrition processed food. But I must confess that the structure does look quite spectacular though, but spectacles are so easy to achieve. Didn’t Bombay achieve one near Altamount Road? This isn’t much different.