Friday, November 19, 2010

Deliver us from Evel

Evel Knievel promotional photograph
Evel Knievel's (1938-2007) highly-publicized seven-second motorcycle stunts inspired a generation to embrace risk and value fearlessness as if self-inflicted danger would lead to redemption. "He puts his life on the line with every death defying jump," chant the carnies.  The visual culture of strength and bravery in the face of pain goes back to biblical portrayals of Jesus Christ's crucifixion. The stations of the cross document each step of JC's suffering until his death. The pop culture embrace of EK's televised stunts and press conferences galvanized the mass appetite for such spectacles. Like performance art works such as Marina Abramovic's Rhythm 10 (1973) and Chris Burden's Trans-Fixed (4.23.74) contemporary with EK's work, possible harm to the artist became integral to artistic practice. EK's legendary jump over the Caesar's Palace fountains in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve 1967--where he crashed crushing his pelvis and femur, fractures his hip, wrist and both ankles and sustained a concussion--as documented on film shows a slo-mo ballet of out of control skidding body and machine (see below clip). EK's official website lists his successes and his crashes along with a laundry list of broken bones and a notation that he was born again and baptized by a famous TV preacher. Knievel's "work" has been documented in myriad feature films including Evel Knievel (1971) with George Hamilton playing EK reflecting on his life in a series of reenactments interspersed with archival footage, Viva Knievel (1977) featuring Evel playing himself while delivering anti-drug speeches, The Last of the Gladiators (1988) produced by and narrated by Knievel himself, Evel Knievel The Rock Opera with a myspace page (2007) and most recently a Jackass tribute (2008) which aired after Knievel's death. With the duration of Knievel's works so brief and his hope for infamy and riches so vast, Knievel incorporated a statement of purpose and extensive documentation as part of his routine. "I am the last gladiator in the new Rome. I go into the arena and I compete against destruction and I win. And next week, I go out there and I do it again." He spoke such phrases perhaps mirroring a mass culture hunger for modern day martyrs.