Rugbylove Storms Cleveland
The Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art currently displays Professor of Digital Arts Rian Brown-Orso’s video installation, which uses the Oberlin Women’s Rugby team as the subject of an intense, gorgeously surreal study of bodies in motion.
“Rugbylove x4” is a project that Brown-Orso has been working on for a long time.
“I generate work by jumping into the unknown,” she said.
It began last school year, when she had several senior members of the rugby team in her art classes. After learning about the rugby team from her students, Brown-Orso, who has explored the human body in motion in much of her work, was intrigued by the sport and went to film a few games.
“As I began filming, I was entranced by the game itself and realized that in order to wholly understand it, I had to do it,” she said.
Brown-Orso asked one of her students and then-president of the team, Daviel Shy, OC ’06, if she could join the team. Shy enthusiastically agreed and so the professor began an unprecedented foray into student life.
Brown-Orso joined the team with a swath of other young rookies, many of whom were first-years and sophomores. Sophomore Julia Reisen, who was a first-year at the time, recalled, “When I was introduced to her, I thought she was just another student. She just shook my hand and said, ‘Hey, I’m Rian.’ It took me a couple of weeks of figure it out…and I’d been trying [that whole] year to get into her classes!”
“She totally immersed herself in this culture. She’d come to our socials, pasta dinners, played in all our games,” Reisen continued. “It’s a testament to rugby that when you’re out on that field you’re not fat, you’re not skinny, you’re not tall or short, black, white, straight or gay…you’re not anything but a rugger. And that’s how we were all treated. She was just another rugger.”
Brown-Orso herself said, “Rugby is an expression of pure physicality, empowering players who encounter barriers everywhere…. The rugby field is a place to totally express yourself with your body, away from any outside imposed rules of identity. It’s a meditation on freedom, not violence.”
That’s not to say there weren’t any obstacles to Brown-Orso’s unorthodox approach to creating this film. At the show’s opening, Brown-Orso recalled many of her colleagues questioning her, asking if she’d gotten permission or had the players sign permission forms allowing her to film them. She spoke of her “profound connection” with her fellow players and students, and dismissed her colleagues’ concerns: “If I’d asked questions, I’d have probably found out that it was a bad idea.”
You have to be naïve to make art, she declared with a smile. “And I’m still waiting to get in trouble.”
The resulting video installation consists of four large projections of grainy, black and white footage on four walls of a high-ceilinged exhibition room. On an audio loop, in the background, are the atmospheric cries of the players calling for a pass or shouting out plays.
The viewer stands in the middle of the dark room and watches as the camera pans over rugby players enmeshed in a tight, struggling scrum or running headlong into the camera. In one especially compelling sequence the four projections synchronize and the viewer watches the ball as it gets passed through the spaces between the projections only to see it magically appear on the next wall as another player grasps it.
Brown-Orso beautifully reduces the game to its pure physicality. The viewer is given a chance to see the beauty inherent in a bent, tense knee and the pure energy it contains as it springs up and kicks off of the grainy field.
“Animating the body through stills…it’s almost like magic to me,” said Brown-Orso.
There is a sense of magic in this work, as time is slowed and the focus narrows in on disembodied limbs and torsos. The athletes’ bodies are separated from their identities and reduced to their simple physical form in an expression of elegant grace.
The exhilaration of physical expression in which these women engage on the rugby field is gorgeously captured in Brown-Orso’s visual tribute to the sport and the team.