Pointing out homoerotic subtext in men’s sports is a well-trod trope. Over the decades, legions of forgettable open-mic comedians have mused about how gay it looks when baseball players adjust their crotches or football players slap each other on the ass.
Players themselves will occasionally joke about it—sometimes even in their Hall of Fame speeches. When a premise is being used by Terry Bradshaw, you know it’s been done.
But create an art installation that focuses on homoeroticism in men’s sports and exhibit it inside a one billion pound Premier League soccer stadium? You have my attention.
That’s what is taking place in London as queer artist JJ Guest opened his first solo exhibition entitled The Other Team at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium’s Oof Gallery from November 17. It runs through December 23 and features a number of provocative pieces that blur the lines between the world of professional soccer and images associated with the gay community.
Nowhere is this more apparent than Glory ‘66 where Guest reproduced a screen print of England’s Geoff Hurst taking the match-winning shot of the 1966 World Cup Final on one of the gallery walls. Only he removed the ball from the photograph, leaving a 3.5 inch opening that precisely resembles a glory hole.
As an American sports fan, I don’t fully grasp all the intricacies of soccer or art. But I know what I like. And as stadium architecture goes, this beats the hell out of a retractable roof.
On the gallery’s second floor, Guest installed Splash, an interactive piece that appears at first glance to be a simple soaking tub filled with water. But when visitors take a cup of that water and throw it on a tiled wall, they reveal a giant photo of Everton players nakedly celebrating in a communal bath following a 1966 victory over Manchester United.
Without knowing the context, viewers might guess that the image is from a bathhouse just as readily as a locker room. As Guest has explained, that’s the point.
“I remember thinking, ‘They’re so happy—why is this so upsetting to me?’” he told The Guardian’s Tim Jonze, “And I realized it was the absolute freedom they had from all those social rules about how to be friends with a man, or be in love with a man, or just be around another man. I was confused as to how this could be celebrated when, at the same time, gay men were being beaten by police and arrested for almost the exact same activity.”
That conflict is at the heart of every display in The Other Team. Each exhibit is an image taken right out of the world of soccer and just placed in a different context that inspires questions about sexuality. If that upsets some fans, Guest wants them to ask themselves why that is.
During his formative years, Guest experienced his own visceral reaction to another famous photo of Manchester United’s Gary Neville kissing teammate Paul Scholes on the lips in celebration after scoring a stoppage time goal.
As he remembered, “I suddenly got really angry. My eyes started to stream. There’s like seven different versions of this image, all from different angles. Two straight men are allowed to do that and I can’t hold my boyfriend’s hand in Birmingham because I’m terrified I might get beat up?”
At the entrance to the installation, Guest reproduced the photo of that kiss in sections so that viewers could only perceive it completely by contorting their bodies at a certain spot in the room. He explained that he wanted viewers “to experience that awkwardness, just for a second,” perhaps to manifest a fraction of the awkward feelings he felt upon seeing the picture.
While The Other Team’s artwork is emotionally charged, the setting makes it especially fascinating. If it were in a gallery, it would be viewed mostly by the type of people you associate with an art museum.
But by exhibiting it at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Guest guaranteed that The Other Team will be seen by real life soccer fans. Whatever their emotional response to it is, it will be immediate and honest.
That fan response will be especially compelling because just last year, a group of Spurs fans engaged in homophobic chants during a match against Chelsea.
It’s that real life interaction that will elevate The Other Team above the basic premise of “sports are secretly gay.” If nothing else, we’ll get to see what happens when a bunch of macho soccer fans google “glory hole” for the first time.