Kayfabemania: Wrestling Unmasked

Could we take Kayfabemania, an exhibition about wrestling, more seriously than we take the sport itself? 

Wrestling. It’s perhaps not the most obvious of themes for an exhibition, but a quartet of Liverpool-based artists would beg to differ. For Sean Wars, Hannah Bitowski, Will Daw and Golden Tony, the sport – as is the case for many people – represents a shared labour of love.

That’s fine you may say, but turning a preoccupation with men in tights into a credible exhibition – you’d think – is something else altogether. For many, wrestling is niche in the extreme, something watched in childhood or not at all. Rather than letting this be a concern though, the foursome behind Kayfabemania have revelled in, one could say relied upon, pro wrestling’s relative obscurity.

This is starkly apparent when upon arrival at the space, you encounter a poster screaming “FREE NICK GAGE”. Speaking from a position of relative ignorance, we’ll hold our hands up and concede that we fell at the first hurdle. Luckily, Daw was on hand to clarify; putting us out of our misery, he explained that Nick Gage (not the actor Nic Cage as we initially misread it, but a wrestler with the Combat Zone Wrestling promotion) had been arrested following a bank robbery from which Gage made off with $3000.

“The show’s title is a reference to what Pro Wrestling insiders and aficionados term Kayfabe”

We must have looked bemused, because Daw took pity on us, describing the whole exhibition as an “aggressive insider test”. The clue is in the name really: called Kayfabemania, the show’s title is a reference to what Pro Wrestling insiders and aficionados term Kayfabe, the means by which the industry passes staged events off as real. So, everything from events within bouts, to ongoing rivalries and storylines in general. For example, pre and post-match interviews are Kayfabed; the matches themselves are Kayfabed; the practise even extends to individual wrestlers having to maintain their narrative ‘realities’ outside of the ring with the general public.

And therein lies the beauty of this show. It is Kayfabed to the max: Golden Tony’s (whose name is a decent example of Kayfabe in itself) mocked-up match reports, describing the fictional events of bouts which never took place, a case in point. Some are incredibly far-fetched, but in the realms of wrestling, this is pretty much par for the course – the blurring of realities so great that, in the end, who’s to know where the line is drawn? Occupying the space above are Hannah Bitowski’s handcrafted Lucha-libre style wrestling masks, at once evoking her interest in mythology and referencing the tradition for Mexican wrestlers, most of whom begin their careers with the mask, providing the individual with identity and character.

Delivering some of the exhibition’s most subtle aspects, Bitowski is also responsible for what is probably the most thought provoking: a fabric wrestling belt, bearing the legends Nancy on one side and Daniel on the other. It alludes to former WWE superstar Chris Benoit who in 2007 murdered his wife and son before going on to commit suicide shortly later. It throws into stark relief the world of pro wrestling we perceive as a fun pantomime soap-opera that begins and ends in the ring. It is a world strewn with tragedy, where head injuries and steroids combine to produce often disastrous results.

The more time we spend in the exhibition, the more we see the different layers of the sport teased out. Daw’s map of Parts Unknown gently mocks a staple of those many wrestlers who, over time, have wanted to add additional mystique to their repertoire; Sean Wars lovingly references wrestling’s varied tropes and you begin to look at wrestling quite differently, it becomes something you can take seriously, a piece of pop-culture that thanks to Kayfabemania, you can welcome in from the cold. Or Parts Unknown.

Kayfabemania continues at Drop the Dumbells until Sunday the 10th of March

Posted on 07/03/2013 by thedoublenegative