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New video project melds football fans and art

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
For artist Pablo Vargas Lugo's video project, 200 volunteers held up cards at Royal-Memorial Stadium to create images of four solar eclipses.

The University of Texas' Royal-Memorial Stadium wasn't just the site of Texas Longhorns' journey this fall toward today's BCS National Championship game.

No, the 100,000-plus-seat stadium also played stage to an inventive video project by Mexican artist Pablo Vargas Lugo, now on view at UT's Blanton Museum of Art.

On an early October morning, Vargas Lugo assembled 200 volunteers who patiently sat in a circle in the stands and flipped yellow and black pillow-sized cards in sequence in order to simulate four solar eclipses due to be seen from Royal-Memorial Stadium over the course of the next 340 years: in 2024, in 2200, in 2205 and in 2343.

Vargas Lugo filmed the sequential flipping — part stadium card stunt, part group art-making adventure, part miniature re-creation of an astonishing natural event — crafting four short videos, each no more than three minutes long.

Commissioned by the Blanton as part of its Workspace series of projects by emerging artists, "Eclipses for Austin" plays on four video monitors. An atmospheric percussion-based soundtrack by UT graduate student Eric Peterson fills the gallery. A tabloidlike publication called "Sun" is stacked in the gallery, free to visitors. Inside, Vargas Lugo fills the pages with some of the exacting research on eclipses that will be visible from Austin over the next millennium.

He also poses a set of questions and answers: Why would you do something like this? Will it look like sun worshipping? (In the future) will Texas exist as Texas?

Among his answers? To see a stadium crowd mimic the all-powerful movement of the sun and the moon.

Closely associated with college football, stadium card stunts originated in 1910 at the University of California-Berkeley when a student-organized effort was performed during the Big Game against Stanford University.

"The choice of the UT stadium was natural and almost inevitable," Vargas Lugo writes in an e-mail from Lima, Peru, where he lives and works. After all, what more of a symbol of ritual and importance — and ritual importance — than a football stadium at a flagship Texas university?

And what could have more historic resonance than eclipses?

In pre-scientific times, solar eclipses provoked moments of wonder and also of terror as the sun slipped out of sight behind the moon. Were the gods angry? Was it the end of the world?

Now easily predictable, eclipses still elicit astonishment, excitement and a sense of cosmic occasion — arguably not all that different a reaction than felt by rabid Longhorn fans on the day of a big bowl game.

Yet Vargas Lugo's "Eclipses" chips away at notions of both ecstatic ritual and exacting scientific prediction. After all, in the four short videos we see a group of highly individualistic humans trying to re-create planetary synchronicity. Forget the highly choreographed card-stunts that greet large events such as the Beijing Olympics.

"At first I envisioned a perfectly coordinated choreography, but along the way I understood that what was desirable was this chaos that nevertheless moves along," says Vargas Lugo, who recruited volunteers via a Facebook page and various Blanton and community arts e-mail lists.

"There is the randomness of people flipping their cards out of sync, distracted and more or less excited about the whole thing. In the end, I find it kind of moving and humorous that from these very long shots you can see the particularities of each movement and maybe guess the quirks of each participant."

Ursula Davila-Villa, the Blanton's acting curator of Latin American art, said "Eclipses for Austin" reverses the usual action in Memorial Stadium. It's the people in the stands that are the focus. Vargas Lugo filmed from a distance down on the field.

"Because we had only 200 people in this vast stadium, the project also kind of implies that there's this whole culture of that particular place that is missing," she says, noting the UT's Athletics Department was happy to offer use of the stadium free to the Blanton.

Perhaps the gap between sports and art and their attendant fans isn't is vast as it seems.

After all, couldn't the spectacle of sports be considered an art form, and isn't the spectacle of the art world as much of a sport of anything else?

Either way, go Horns.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'Eclipses for Austin'

When: through Feb. 21

Where: Blanton Museum of Art, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Congress Ave.

Cost: $3-$7 (Thursdays free)

Information: 471-7324, www.blantonmuseum.org