One of the more obvious fallacies about greatness is the one that promotes the idea in the title itself—Alexander the Great, Great Britain, Great Barrier Reef. Actual greatness is elusive and comes at immeasurable cost. Roger Federer’s classification as Greatest of all Time (GOAT) follows standard protocols and statistics of sporting greatness. Twenty grand slam titles, 103 singles ATP championships; the longest continuous period as World No 1, and a career that lasted over two decades. Like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Lewis Hamilton, he rose beyond his household name status into a sort of ethereal greatness occupied by the rare few in sport, film, and art. Of course, like them, the identification with his craft was instantaneous and unmistakable. The core of his greatness was related to what he did with a tennis ball, much in the way Woody Allen—beyond all the legal battles and molestation charges—was, and still remains a writer and actor of great comic genius.
Federer’s mastery of the court always rose above the number of trophies and titles won. In mid-career, his mere appearance on court began to count; it was not just a name on the marquee, but rather a guarantee of high expectations, the way the mere presence of Yo-Yo Ma or Kishori Amonkar on stage was a hope of sound made sublime, a rare music. Like them, Federer’s tennis was an experience, not of abundance, but of such delicate distillation it left you exposed to something intangible, ultra-human. Within the few chalk lines of a rectangle, Federer created geometries of a ball’s flight so agonizingly impossible that it left you breathless, even while he himself seemed least expended. At the 2018 Australian Open his shadow moved in the bright Melbourne light as if it were efficiently painting the ground. Within a few short strokes, the court painter and artist had effortlessly finished his work—without the gut-wrenching outbursts of Nadal, the mechanical flash of Djokovic, or the sweaty lumbering gait of Murray—and was gone.
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In art, sport, film, or literature, the act of doing is accorded recognition in three distinct ways. First, is the visible ease of the performance itself, the way the artist or performer engages the viewer into his or her craft—not in a noisy plunge, but as a gradual immersion into a warm pool. Next is the way each enters ‘the zone’, a sort of private hypnosis that makes them oblivious to the millions of eyes in rapturous watch. And finally, delivering a gift of strokes so unexpected—like Mohammad Ali’s flash of the left hook—that it lifts their art beyond convention and routine.
There are also subtle ways in which great artists manipulate their subjects. In the late 1960s, Jonas Salk commissioned architect Louis Khan, who also built the IIM complex in Ahmedabad, to design the Salk Laboratories on a rocky promontory in Southern California. Kahn’s moment of artistic reconciliation—his Federer moment—came after the construction had been completed, and the two rows of buildings stood facing the Pacific Ocean. What was to happen in the vast space in between? The decision to leave it entirely empty, except for a simple floor channel of water, took months of agonizing deliberation and thought, but eventually it was Kahn’s unique way of addressing the site’s remoteness. The thin strip of sky captured in the watery reflection ensured that the connection between land and sky was expressed. Architecture was the cohesion that engaged human endeavour with limitless celestial phenomenon. Nothing more, nothing less.
Kahn’s departure from the mundane day-to-day aspects of architecture and construction into the unknown, has always been part of the mystery of great art, great play and great performance—to make heroic effort for what appears at first glance to be nothing.
In 2010, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei did something similar; he filled the floor of the Tate Modern Gallery in London with one million sunflower seeds, each individually hand-painted, an insane and outrageous effort. Each seed represented the individuality of Chinese citizens living collectively under political repression. In the monumental scale of the vast turbine hall, like the endless sky above Salk Institute, the effect seemed at once, hopelessly diminished, and magnificently enlarged. The duality of its misreading left you wholly disoriented; so much work lavished on something so small, in space so large.
Great art and artists have never expressed mystery explicitly, but leave a great deal to private discovery and engagement. Some years earlier on a trip to Chicago, I was hard pressed to see how Anish Kapoor’s polished mirrored steel blob, Cloud Gate, at Chicago’s Millennium Park affected people and space. On a bright October afternoon people milled around it with great curiosity and some unease, touching it, kissing it, standing back from it, unsure of their own reaction. The sculpture is raised off the ground, parts are in contact with it, its surface is shiny, reflective and distorting. Buildings bend in its curvature, people are dwarfed, faces stretched, the distant landscape miniaturized from one angle, telescopically enlarged from another. It conforms to no particular shape, no finite or primary geometry. Yet it alters everything within its gaze, enclosing, enhancing, retarding and compressing the world around in a fluid amalgam. Its very purpose is a visual purposelessness that leaves you wondering about the physical integrity of what you see. I had seen an ice-cream vendor in the reflection, but when I turned around he was nowhere to be seen. The Bean, as it has been called for lack of another name, leaves you disoriented and strangely sidelined. You can no longer go back to the familiar world you normally inhabit. What you see is not what it is.
The past few decades have witnessed a clear, but unstated, shift in the experience of sport, art, film, and architecture. No longer just theatrical, the physical of sport, the visual of art, and the spatial of architecture feeds into a higher metaphysical strain of experience and meaning. Much of it goes beyond the culture of felt sensations, and resolves in ways that are both, more demanding of the artist and performer, and more enriching and rewarding for the viewer. Beyond substance and matter, they venture into psychic phenomena that evolve into cause and effect, enlarging the scope of art, and of life itself. Stand for a while in the empty space of the Salk Institute, watch the clouds moving in the stationary upward gaze of Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror in Nottingham, UK, or immerse yourself in the four-dimensional exchange in the final round at a boxing ring, and the conclusion inevitably lands you in the contradictory compression and stretching of human potential, and the possibilities of extreme experience, neither here nor there. The artist’s role as facilitator is to ease you into discomfort, to lower you from the edge of your seat into a depth of their making.
In resorting to the more difficult stroke, rather than taking the quick and easy path to victory, Federer would take the ball in its natural flow, defying standard text-book style shot-making. As the point developed across the net, and the large mass of audience reduced to small specs, he would use gravity, momentum and trigonometry to enlarge the court for himself. Then moving into position to unexpected edges of the rectangle, he would execute impossible acute angled balls, so out of reach they defied the logic of expending effort for the gain of a mere point. In his doing of the work, you detected neither the magnitude of the effort, nor the heroism of the point. Whether won or lost, the mesmerizing aspect of its execution was just the mercurial gift of the performance.
In the all-night sitar recitals by Vilayat Khan, or in the stretched evocations of a Kishori Amonkar raag, the momentum of the performance carried the musician into depths of such absorption that an altogether new form of lyric emerged, the expression taking an extended detour into unchartered waters. Similarly, the mastery of single points over the course of a long match filled Federer’s spectators with sensations of a sort of poetic perfection unattainable in their own lives, moments quickly felt, and lost.
Great acts, great buildings, great film, sport, or art leave residue. Outside the glandular stench of sport, the wasted paint of art, and the endless reels of Netflix, tracing arcs of multiple performances is perhaps difficult. However the compressed strain of individual action begins to count louder, and leave more resounding personal histories. It appears like a fragrance, a whiff of remembrance that lingers long past the person has gone, a piece of art once experienced, but whose mystery remains fresh and fertile, though forever hidden.
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.
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