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‘Show me the sole’: the exhilarating sight of sneakers on show

Pierre Hardy’s Poworama, 2011. Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, gift of Pierre Hardy. Ron Wood Courtesy American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum

‘Show me the sole’: the exhilarating sight of sneakers on show

It is not often that one walks into an art gallery to be greeted by an air of exhilaration. Such was the case at the Art Gallery of Western Australia on “Sneaker Saturday”, the opening day of the exhibition The Rise of Sneaker Culture.

On that day the gallery was abuzz. Amidst an atmosphere of palpable excitement and anticipation, and against a backdrop of live music by Perth-based rapper Empty, groups of mostly teens to late 30-year-olds moved from one display cabinet to the next as they eagerly searched for their favourite sneakers.

Their delight upon discovering sneakers such as Patrick Ewing’s ski boot-like Ewing 33 HI, or Pierre Hardy’s limited edition Poworama, which was inspired by the work of American artist Roy Lichtenstein, was invariably accompanied by running commentaries in which the sneaker aficionados explained to each other the significance of a particular shoe and its unique design features.

The Rise of Sneaker Culture showcases about 150 pairs of iconic sneakers and charts how the sneaker has developed from its humble origins in the mid-19th century to its current position as a cultural icon worn by billions across the globe. The exhibition includes sneakers from the Bata Shoe Museum, from the archival collections of manufacturers such as Converse, Puma, Reebok and Adidas, as well as sneakers from private collectors such as hip-hop group Run-DMC, self-proclaimed sneaker addict, DJ and hip-hop personality Bobbito Garcia, and Dee Wells of Obsessive Sneaker Disorder.

Adidas x Run–DMC, 25th Anniversary Superstar, 2011. Courtesy of Run–DMC, collection of Erik Blam Ron Wood, courtesy American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum

Contemporary examples include designs by Damien Hirst, Kanye West, and Christian Louboutin whose flat, spike embellished gold sneakers appear, at least in this context, as an ironic inversion of spiked track shoes. Accompanying The Rise of Sneaker Culture is SNEAKERHEADS, which showcases sneakers from WA collectors such as Lee Ingram, owner of the largest private collection of ASICS in the world, Kat Murphy, who has a particular passion for velcro sneakers, and, from boutique sneaker retailer Highs and Lows.

One section of the exhibition traces the development of Nike’s hugely popular Air Jordan series of basketball shoes, Air Jordan 1-XX3, on loan from the Kosow Sneaker Museum. The first model, Air Jordan 1, was designed for Michael Jordan in 1984 by Nike’s Peter Moore. Sometimes known as “Notorious”, Air Jordan 1 was banned by the NBA because its red and black colourway was declared non-regulation.

Jordan continued to play in his “illegal” Air Jordan 1s. Nike paid the $5,000 per game fines and they launched an advertising campaign featuring Michael Jordan wearing the banned sneakers. The voiceover declared, “Fortunately the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them.” Not surprisingly, by the time Air Jordan 1 was released to the public in 1985, the sneakers did not just embody athleticism but were equally associated with individualism and, for some, anti-authoritarianism and rebellion.

Nike Air Jordan I, 1985. Kosow Sneaker Museum (Electric Purple Chameleon, LLC). Kathy Tarantola Photography Courtesy American Federation of Arts

For one particular couple on “Sneaker Saturday”, the sight of a pair of Air Jordan XX3s was especially thrilling. Designed by Tinker Hatfield and released in 2008, the exquisitely crafted Air Jordan XX3 is something of a signature sneaker.

For this couple, it was the soles of the Air Jordan XX3 that were of interest. Upon noticing that one of the sneakers was resting on its side so that the sole was fully visible, the woman spontaneously thrust both arms into the air. While gesturing with an “air pump”, she exclaimed, “Show me the sole, give me more sole!”

And there on the underside of the Air Jordan XX3, a part of the shoe that is rarely seen, was an imprint of Michael Jordan’s fingerprint serving as the traction pattern on the outsole. His signature can be seen on the toecap and his thumbprint is on the back of the tongue lining.

In the same year that the Air Jordan XX3 was released, the artist Jimm Lasser modified a pair of Nike’s Air Force 1s. After a disastrous release in 1982, Air Force 1 was discontinued and reintroduced in 1986 when it became an instant classic.

Sometimes known as “felon shoes”, the white-on-white Air Force 1 was, according to Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator at the Bata Shoe Museum,

touted as the sneaker of choice for drug dealers, whose ability to wear unscuffed sneakers signified both wealth and status.

On the rubber soles of Lasser’s Obama Force Is are images of Barack Obama who, in 2008, was running his first Presidential campaign. The upper sole of the left shoe reveals a profile image of Obama’s head. From mid-sole to the heel are the words, “A Black Man Runs and a Nation is Behind Him”, a provocation to follow Obama’s lead.

The right sneaker bears an image of Obama’s upper body that, with each step, is imprinted on the earth. Here, as with many of the shoes on display, sneakers are revealed as so much more than functional footwear.

While one might think that the ergonomic and functional requirements of sneakers impose extreme design limitations – more so than applies to other forms of footwear such as the high heel - this exhibition reveals the extraordinary and often subtle variations in sneaker design.

Stewie Griffin Lebron VI, 2009, Collection of Chad Jones. Courtesy American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum

The Rise of Sneaker Culture demonstrates how the mingling of traditional craftsmanship and technological innovation has gradually fused with the symbolic capacity of the sneaker.

No longer does the sneaker allude solely to performance on the track field or basketball court. Sneakers are now part of an individually enacted cultural performance that intersects with ideas about gender, race, class, politics and other forms of social meaning.

If shoes are the interface between the human body and the ground, The Rise of Sneaker Culture incisively reveals the ways in which the sneaker can literally, symbolically and ideologically mobilise the wearer. This is a thought-provoking and informative exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

The Rise of Sneaker Culture is at the Art Gallery of WA until 4 September.