June 19th, 2006


Lantern jaw

One peculiarity of the World Cup here in Berlin is that while the whole city is filled with crowds, or at least the sound of crowds (one of the acoustic oddities present on every corner is not being quite able to distinguish the roars of actual physically-present people from televised roars; they mingle), many of the city's facilities lie emptier than I've ever seen them.

Yesterday I decided to go to the Tropicalia exhibition at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. This show about the 1960s Brazilian art and pop culture movement was recently at the Barbican in London, and now takes its place in a football-themed show at HKW, the dramatic gull-wing building in the Berlin Tiergarten. The umbrella concept is called "Brazil: Cup of Culture", and I suppose the idea of the curators is that football fans interested in broader cultural issues will take a detour from the big football zone in the Tiergarten to see this Brazil show.

That isn't happening. The Tropicalia show is excellent (has there ever been anyone cooler than Caetano Veloso during his London exile?)... and totally empty. While attending the football zone in the Tierpark clearly doesn't entail a visit to the Brazil show, attending the Brazil show does entail a visit to the football zone: to get to it, you have to queue up, get frisked and bag-checked, then cross this huge area filled with gigantic TV screens, national anthems played on gigantic speakers, and brand promotions.

Above all, this is a brand park, a sort of dinosaur reserve filled with huge logos: a drinks company, a car company, a mobile phone company, and a beer company. One of the highlights of the Tropicalia show is a series of commercials made in 1968 for the Shell oil company, featuring Os Mutantes. Avant-capitalism, these ads feature radical editing, surreal scenarios and psychedelic viewer-disorientation. The only avant-capitalism I could see going on out in the football zone, though, was accidental: a billboard for a mobile phone company, depicting a glowering football "god", had had to be pierced to let a lamp-post through. The result was a man with a bizarre "lantern jaw", as you can see below.

It struck me, though, that this was not the avant-capitalism of the 1960s. There was no cultural crossover between football and wider issues going on, which is why nobody from the football crowd was heading to the gull-wing building to see stuff about Brazil's 1960s renaissance. Instead, the football zone represented some kind of religious festival, in which brands were gods. Not the cheerful gods of a matsuri or some Hindu celebration, with their human faces, but the weirdly abstract and faceless gods represented by logos and money: T Mobile, Coca Cola, Adidas, Budweiser, Gillette, Mastercard, Toshiba, Hyundai...

Blasphemy, in this sports-money-zone, is invoking other gods, gods outside the official pantheon. The Guardian today reports that Dutch fans wearing shorts representing a Dutch beer brand were forced to remove them because they displeased one of the official sponsors of the 2006 World Cup, Budweiser. The Dutch fans were forced to watch the game in their underpants.

It would be great to think that such sartorial innovations were happening because of a spirit of artistic adventure, like the Os Mutantes Shell ads. But, like the gigantic, menacing footballer with his lantern jaw, we can be sure that any surreal and innovative stuff going on at World Cup 2006 is purely accidental. We don't live in the age of avant-capitalism any more. Which makes Hélio Oiticica's slogan "Seja Marginal, Seja Herói" (be marginal, be a hero) all the more relevant today than it was back in the 60s. Repeating that slogan on a radical TV show is what got Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso imprisoned and then exiled from their country. It's a sentiment a few notches more radical than endorsing the wrong brand of beer.