Show features hockey as art

For February’s First Friday the Bunnell Street Arts Center unveiled its latest exhibit, a fierce show of ice and blood. “Comedy/Tragedy/Hockey,” which is on display until March 5, consists of a series of wall pieces, sculptural objects and video installations that explore the grace and violence of hockey.

Artist Michael Conti has taken to these different mediums in order to communicate the cultural significance of hockey for Alaskans. Conti, 44, was born in San Francisco and now lives in Anchorage.

The Bunnell Street Arts Center was packed with people excited to see Conti’s work. Hockey is a sport that resonates with Alaskans and the people of Homer. It is a sport that was born in the north and inseparable from the ice on which it is played.

While hockey can be a shockingly tough game, demanding inner strength and resiliency of those who play it, Conti also sees it as a “a graceful game.”

“Comedy/Tragedy/Hockey” relies heavily on these contrasting elements.

Exemplifying this duality are the parallels Conti draws between the literary character of Don Quixote and the late hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard. A video installation at the exhibit titled “Don Quixote Project” shows actor Brian Hutton portraying a Canadian version of the classic brave and confused wayfarer. 

Trading his knight’s armor and sword for hockey gear and a hockey stick, Don Quixote parades around the northern landscape searching for his beloved Dulcinea. The video depicts scenes of Don Quixote running with the reindeer in Anchorage and struggling to enter his apartment building. The armor Hutton wore for the role also was on display at the exhibit.

“I’ve always been interested in literature, so I took this character of Don Quixote and recast him in the north … and from there I wanted to draw similarities between him and Derek Boogaard,” Conti explained while giving a talk at the show.

Derek Boogaard was an NHL enforcer for the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers. As an enforcer he was often tasked with going head to head and muscling the members of the opposing team. Though an excellent player, Boogaard suffered many concussions and ultimately severe brain damage before dying of a drug overdose in 2011.

Conti explores Boogaard’s addiction to painkillers with his piece “Hockey Puck with Percocet” and “Hockey Puck with Vicodin,” a series of translucent hockey pucks that have the medication suspended within.

When Boogaard died, his family donated his heavily damaged brain to science. The post mortem examination revealed that Boogaard was suffering the early stages of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Using images of Boogaard’s brain in a mixed media portrait, along with the chemical composition of the various pain killers Boogaard was addicted to, Conti explores the toll hockey takes on the body and mind.

But hockey is more nuanced than that, and there is more to the sport than violence. Having played hockey for 15 years, Conti also tries to capture the finesse and elegance of the sport, which he describes as “poetry in motion.”

A talented photographer, some of the more striking of Conti’s works are dizzying photos of a skate carving circles in the ice.

Jan Rumble, secretary of the board of directors of the Kevin Bell Arena and the Homer Hockey Association, described what she took away from the exhibit this way: “Hockey is all about creativity. It moves so fast and you have to react. … You have to be creative if you want to be good at hockey … and this really captures that creativity.”

As the crowd gathered at Bunnell, patrons were invited to interact with the exhibits. Conti encouraged people to touch and interact with the artwork. People handled and posed with a hockey stick carved out of driftwood. 

Included in the exhibit is a digital installation by Christopher Jette that displayed an interactive hockey game on a screen. People were encouraged to play “air hockey” as the game on the screen reacted to the players’ movement.

Jette also will have an exhibit at Bunnell on Feb. 28. Jette and dancer Becky Kendall belong to the performance group The Light Brigade, an independent group of artists that create site specific art installations using varied mediums. Together they will be showing “Dalince de Omer,” continuing and exploring the interactive themes found in “Comedy/Tragedy/Hockey.”

“Comedy/Tragedy/Hockey” successfully captures not only what makes hockey unique, but what makes it Alaskan.

“I think anything that highlights the good and bad of hockey is good. … It’s beautiful,” Rumble said. “It’s very complicated and he summed it up very well.”

Originally from the East Coast, Fermin Martinez now is living and writing in Homer.

Michael Conti-Photos by Fermin Martinez

Michael Conti-Photos by Fermin Martinez