Strangely Haunting Photos of a Once-Royal Pastime

Elliott Wilcox, Rackets 03, Chromogenic Print Mounted to Archival Substrate


Here we take a look back at Leah Sandals' Q&A with Bau-Xi artist Elliott Wilcox, which sheds light on the inspiration behind Wilcox's award winning series Courts.


Leah Sandals, National Post

Friday, Jan. 28, 2011

If art was a sport, Elliott Wilcox might be seen as a future Grand Slam contender. In the past two years, the young U.K. photographer has won multiple international prizes for his strangely haunting series of work on racquet-sports courts. Now, with his first Canadian solo exhibition on in Toronto, Wilcox rallies with Leah Sandals about squash, space and Saatchi's art-reality TV show.

Q. I grew up in a squash-playing family, so these photos have nostalgic value for me. What drew you to this topic?

A. When I first started, I wanted to look into something that hasn't been looked into in photography so much--the idea of leisure. A lot of photography in England has looked at work. But I was interested in what people wanted to do in their own time, at their most
comfortable. So I started looking at spaces of leisure, from football grounds to cinemas. Through that I got into squash courts and real tennis courts.

Q. The marks left on the walls of these courts are fascinating, almost like drawings, aren't they?

A. They look amazing. I love the fact that it's history on the wall itself--the history of the game and of the people who have played. There's a great sense of time on the walls. One of the real tennis courts I photographed in the south of England was made in the 1700s with a special pigment. It creates a really painterly effect. What I'm fascinated by even more is the large space of these courts. It can be very overwhelming, especially when there's nothing else going on. When there's people there playing, it's about the sport. But when you're a spectator only of the space it becomes something completely different. A lot of these clubs are also prestigious. Queen's Club in Notting Hill is where lots of people play before Wimbledon. When I photographed their rackets court they'd just had it painted, and the members were upset because they thought the paint would make it play differently. That fascinated me, because you wouldn't think paint would make a difference. But if you've been there so long, maybe it does.

Q. Most North Americans aren't familiar with real tennis or rackets. What are these games?

A. Real tennis is the original version of tennis. Originally, it was played in a courtyard--a court --with sloped walls. The crowns on the walls relate to scoring. And there's other royal connections, too--many of these courts go back to the 1400s and are in palaces. Henry
VIII was a famous real tennis player. I went to photograph his court at Hampton Palace and actually had to pay to book a 6 a.m. Monday morning slot, because it's so busy. Rackets is the predecessor of squash, and squash was I believe invented for the poorer
man who couldn't get a rackets court. Picture a squash court and times that by four. They're often painted black, which is nice; it makes your eyes want to look around. It's a really fast and strong game, like firing a snooker ball around the room. I've heard it's
really dangerous as well.

Q. Do you find it difficult to play now that you're so focused on photographing courts?

A. I still play squash once a month. It hasn't stopped me. But it has made me think more. When I first started the project, I'd go to play and say, "I wish I'd brought my camera."

Q. In terms of treating art as a sport--you were a contestant on the BBC reality show School of Saatchi. What are the pros and cons of doing art that way?

A. I'm not that big a fan of reality TV. But the benefit was having the opportunity to work with big names like Tracey Emin and get some good feedback. I also met a lot of friends through that show. It's good in one thing and bad in another, but overall it was a good

Q. Does art perhaps contain a mix of discipline and pleasure that's similar to sport?

A. I believe that. This project is not quite an addiction for me, but I'm fascinated by these courts. It's been a whole process of meeting people, of research, of getting access to photograph. I also have a new series on another kind of constructed space --indoor climbing walls. I'm intrigued by what we bring indoors--we bring cinema indoors with home entertainment, say...when maybe it'd be better to get out and experience things.

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