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A & E ART | Eye of Zidane

What can a tattered hat and doing nothing on a soccer field teach us about greatness?

By Tor Lukasik-Foss

Constance Meyer (1775 - 1821) and Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758 - 1823) Apotheosis of Napoléon Bonaparte, First Consul of the Republic, 1803.

I confess that I had no real desire to see the fancy Eye of Napoleon exhibition at the AGH, and had intentions of shielding my eyes as I walked through it to get to ZIDANE: A 21st Century Portrait, the splashy two channel video installation by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, beautifully installed in the Southam Gallery in the back end of the main floor. "Don't let the historical show sedate you," I told myself, "you need to stay sharp for the contemporary installation."

It didn't work. Quite unintentionally, I caught sight of Napolean's hat. One of his actual campaign hats — tattered, modest, suitable to fit only the tiniest and angriest of skulls. The hat totally lured me into a full investigation of the exhibition, an oddly compelling miscellany of French culture. Nonetheless, as intrigued as I was by all the finery and knick-knackery, it was the hat that rocked me the hardest. It argued for Napoleon not as a cultural icon, but as an actual living being who fought wars on battlefields, who did his job better than anyone else, who actually wore a crazy sideways hat while he did it. It's funny how you can forget that historical figures actually were living, breathing entities.

And the Napoleon exhibition connected unexpectedly well with Gordon and Parreno's video profile of Zinedine Zidane, the French/Algerian midfielder who is considered one of the greatest soccer players of all time. Sport is a handy microcosm of things like conquest, heroism, and empire building, and Gordon and Parreno's portrait of this athlete seems equally fascinated in how Zidane functions as an idol, a warrior and as a human animal fully engaged in a mental and physical endeavour.

The premise of the film is simple. Seventeen synchronized cameras were essentially all pointed at Zidane for every minute of an April 23, 2005 Spanish Liga match between Real Madrid (Zidane's team) and Villarreal CF. The cameras never followed the ball, the score or the commentary, only Zidane. (Gordon borrowed this idea from a 1970 experimental film called Football As Never Before, wherein a similar batch of cameras was trained on Manchester United's George Best.) Subsequently, we observe shots of his shuffling feet, his hands adjusting his sock and attend to a soundtrack that flits from the roar of the crowd, to the quiet grunts of the players, to occasional snatches of sportscasters.

The effect is disorienting, deflating and yet still riveting. I walked in on the screening presumably sometime during the first half, and it took a full five minutes before I saw him commit a recognizable act of soccer: a casual pass. Most of the screen time is devoted to Zidane walking, Zidane standing, Zidane grimacing, Zidane watching. He's really, really good at doing these things.

So much so, that watching this film is like watching National Geographic footage of a predatory cat. Ninety percent of the time is spent thinking and positioning, tension building towards brief moments of full-on physical engagement, flashes that usually take no longer than 10 seconds before reverting back to more thinking and positioning.

There's really only one moment where Zidane's talent truly demonstrates itself, deep in the second half, when he pushes through a multitude of defenders and cracks off an impossible-looking cross shot which his teammate Ronaldo heads into the net. It's a game-winning goal, but Zidane barely flinches, his face remains stony and sour throughout.

I watched for an hour and 15 minutes before I saw him crack a smile.

I have to admit there were a few points where I couldn't decide what it was I was watching — film, sport or visual art. The soundtrack by Scottish artrock band Mogwai was pleasant enough but the music polished the visceral nature of some of the footage, bringing it right to the brink of becoming a superlong Nike commercial. There was also an awkward montage of news events from around the globe, inserted at half time, to widen the context; it seemed extraneous. Gordon and Parreno's work is most alive when Zidane is full frame and near motionless; that's when the viewer has time to pry inside his impermeable head or imagine what it must be like to be an athlete competing at that level — so many eyes constantly watching you, and yet clearly such an isolating experience. Those are the moments when the video functions best as a piece of artistic portraiture.

Leaving the installation, I had to pass by the larger than life marble bust of Napoleon by Italian carver Antonio Canova. It is an undeniable act of craftsmanship, but it suggests none of the vulnerability or sweat of Bonaparte's rumpled hat. Instead, the carving seemed to be deliberately invulnerable, a depiction that intentionally refuses to expose an interior life. It made me wonder if greatness depends on being able to maintain an impenetrable facade.

The Eye of Napoléon runs to May 5, 2013. ZIDANE: A 21st-Century Portrait, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno runs to April 28, 2013.