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Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in the biopic  I, Tonya  (2018).

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in the biopic I, Tonya (2018).



The dirty highs and lows of landing clean.....

By JAMES MERRIGAN  | March 22, 2018

“There is very little irony in the name Clackamas Town Center. Anything that goes on around here goes on at the mall. There are stores, of course, and also conference rooms where community groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and the Egg Artists of Oregon meet. And there is the skating rink, which the developers put in to satisfy local requirements for recreational facilities."

Susan Orlean, Figures in the Mall, New Yorker, February 21, 1994.

“That's my secret, Captain [America]. I'm always angry”

 [ Hulk, Avengers Assemble, 2012. ]

THE STORM HAD LONG GONE. Still, mounds of dying snow undulated like moulted skin the breadth of the basketball court. The cold night ahead would prolong their exsanguination. 

After leaving the cinema – a 32-seater located in the Wexford sticks – the ice cold night and banished snakes and lanky basketball backboards signifying the socially and racially mobilising American sport, all seemed to point backwards towards the Lows and Highs that played out in the film I just watched, I, Tonya. As I made my way back to the car, past the empty basketball court, the dying snow, the MAXI ZOO sign that violated the rural idyll with an energy drink glow, Tonya Harding’s triple axel rotated in my memory like a spinning top that would never buckle or fall. 

As an ex-skateboarder I understood the feeling of landing a trick that necessitated leaving the brain behind to fully embrace technique and body in a pray-to-fuck leap of faith. I was doing a lot of praying-to-fuck at the time of the Tonya Harding/ Nancy Kerrigan ‘incident’ in 1994. I especially remember watching the Winter Olympics figure skating on TV through a snowy reception and then running outside to skate for hours on a rib of road with the surface of the moon. But these Olympians were making these godless leaps into the air in front of people and cameras, while I was just a kid with my elbow self-consciously sheltering my WIP drawing from everyone.  

Tonya Harding skating in the Clackamas Town Center Hall in her home town. [The Library is in lights in the background, centre left

Tonya Harding skating in the Clackamas Town Center Hall in her home town. [The Library is in lights in the background, centre left


The locals I grew up with had the wrong idea about skateboarding: it was vandalism to them, even on apple crumble roads and curbs. I remember the aggression I used to receive from the GAA mafioso: “Why don’t you play football or hurling, you’re embarrassing yourself!" But what they really meant was I was embarrassing them. Odd upsets the nature and nurture of place. It threatens established identity. But if we don’t have odd all we are left with is the same.  

The day I decided to go public, in what I thought was a spectacular ‘grind’ across the full length of a bench in the village  (nothing sexual: there was no strip club unlike where Tonya Harding hailed from) I was met by disgruntled rubbernecking and finally arrested. But it was all worth it. When you landed a trick, even privately in your dad’s windowless garage, you were always surprised: your doe-eyed Bambi eyes would turn dot-punch junky. It was a feeling you wanted to experience again and again in a panoply of variations: goofy, regular, kick, hard, heel, pressure, one-foot, 180º, 360º, double, triple, back-foot, front-foot, switch-foot, ollie, nollie..... Tonya Harding’s face when she made that triple axel exhibits the ceiling of emotion and a fuck-you to everyone who was embarrassed for her or by her. 


In the days preceding, during and following the allegations made against Harding’s boyfriend after he and others were suspected of ‘taking out’ Nancy Kerrigan with a baton to the leg (but not Tonya at this juncture) the New Yorker sent a writer down to Harding’s hometown of Clackamas in a ‘Becoming Tonya’ long-form essay titled ‘Figures in a Mall’. The ekphrastic piece reads like a lover memorising every outline and crevice of their lover’s body as if for the first and last time. But in the writer’s anatomising of the environment that fostered the alleged assailants, prejudices and judgments are made in the selection and juxtaposition of certain elements that signify that Tonya’s home is not a very cultured place, like: "On the lower level of the mall, behind the bleachers, is a branch of the Clackamas County Library; a sign outside the door says, 'Yes! This Really Is a Library!'" For the local Fan Club, Harding's tucked-caterpillar-to-built-butterfly leap and landing was also their metamorphosis. 

The low and the high of this story (in life and film) is, female figure skating was High to Tonya Harding’s Low. Simple. As an art critic l am well versed in what I have come to define as the predictable relationship between high and low culture adopted by artists, as if one day the artworld appropriated the Low just to find some neither-low-nor-high middle ground. But Tonya Harding on ice in 1991 fused the physical, the theoretical and the sociological lows and highs in one moment of brilliant and brash artistry that floated high – so HIGH – above the petty prejudices of class or taste. 

Good Will Hunting  (1997) "How do you like them apples."

Good Will Hunting (1997) "How do you like them apples."


Tonya Harding landed the triple axel, the first American woman to do so in competition, to the theme song of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) by Danny Elfman. How’s that for low and high. No pretence, no precedent, just fucking up the standard; a rare moment when art transcends the limitations of its definition to define what comes next. She also practiced on an ice rink located in a mall in her home town. While the competition favourite, Kristi Yamaguchi, skated to the music from the opera, Samson and Delilah. Fair enough, the standard. But in one fan-club member’s words: Harding is a “stud” to Yamaguchi’s “prissy”. Anyway, Harding landed the triple axel in front of a crowded stadium and nit-picking judges. “How do you like them apples” – another low-to-high filmic trope.

According to the critically vaunted biopic I, Tonya, Harding was the permed villain of the piece well before she chose Batman to skate to, and more significantly, before she was implicated in the “incident”. Like the MAXI ZOO sign expelling its bad breath here in the Wexford sticks, an object so at odds with the environment to make those familiar things more visible through toxic association, Harding threatened the winter wonderland of American figure skating and American identity with her “trailer trash” provenance. She was never going to wear the Red, White and Blue, it was already written in the star spangled banner. Superman and Batman never got along. 


The film I, Tonya skates over the details of the ‘incident’ so we are none the wiser as to the degree of Harding’s involvement in the ‘incident’. This, in some critical assessments, is viewed as a clever conceit, reflecting the fake world in which we now live. I’m not so sure. In one sense the film is too clever for its emotive good. The facts are: four stooges (so dumb they couldn’t add up to the numerical exemplar of stupidity) planned and executed taking out Harding’s competitive rival Nancy Kerrigan in a horribly brutal attack. Harding’s ultimate punishment for hindering the prosecution was way more severe than the 100 thousand dollar fine she also received, way more severe than the short prison terms served by her ex-boyfriend and wingmen. Harding would be banned from skating competitively for life. Never again would she experience landing the triple axel in front of the world. That’s what I call a landing. That’s what I call Low.

Postscript: The next day after watching I, Tonya I went out and bought a cheap deck after 15 years off the skateboard. Recently I have started to explore and experiment with the physical doing of things in relation to writing. You know how you can’t really be an art critic if you haven’t been an artist. Fact! Anyway, one of the reasons I gave up skateboarding and applied to art school was my talent for snapping decks due to my six-foot-six frame. I couldn’t afford it; I still can’t. This time around I was rusty at first, but after three hours of Ollies and Kickflips I tried a Pressure Flip. I was the only kid in the village and surrounding towns that could land a Pressure Flip back then. As we say the trick is all in the back, wherein you press and scoop your back foot to activate the 180º flip while simultaneously lifting your idle front foot into the air. It’s a leap of faith. On my second try I landed it. Deck snapped. But it felt Tonya Harding good. Well, almost. 

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