Art Criticism

Cheryl Dunn’s ‘Licking the Bowl’ film frames skateboarding as real, undeniable art

Daily Orange File Photo

The film, made in Ohio at the Wexner Center for the Arts, is on display at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse.

Get the latest Syracuse news delivered right to your inbox.
Subscribe to our newsletter here.

Cheryl Dunn’s 2002 short “Licking the Bowl,” on view at the Everson Museum of Art, frames skateboarding as something new: not just an artform, but an artwork. The 15-minute film follows a community of skaters that formed around a skate bowl built into the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio, where Dunn was completing an art residency.

The bowl was built into the gallery so the underbelly was visible to visitors, who could walk under and around it, hearing the voices and skateboards echo from the disembodied skaters above them. The film medium bridges multiple senses; it’s both sound and feel, performance and participatory.

Visitors and local skaters were welcomed to the kidney-shaped bowl during gallery hours. In the video, the skaters seem to be putting on a show for each other and for the visitors watching them roll up and down the bowl. But they weren’t just watching — they were listening to it too.

The film starts with Sonic Youth’s “Edges,” an experimental sound collage of clinking metal, droning voice and microphone feedback. The words “positive manifestation of noise within contemporary culture” flash on the screen, all lowercase. The music and the words on the screen set a tone: “Licking the Bowl” is about noise. The bowl itself gave the skaters a chance to take up not only space but wavelengths too. Dunn’s video takes a look at the noise they produce through an artistic lens.


First the audience hears Sonic Youth, and then they hear the skateboards. It almost sounds the same. The four rubber wheels on wood, scream-laughs, whoops and cheers, “oohs” when someone falls. Sometimes they yell so loud it hits too high of a frequency, crushing the microphone’s receptors and creating a grating pitch that’s punk and musical in its own right.

The noise seems even more punk when the audience hears it while watching two boys skate at high speeds, vying for the same curved wall, crash into each other and bounce to the ground. It may as well be a mosh pit at a hard-core show.

But, like the Sonic Youth song, it’s not just noise. It’s poetic, too. After flashing 15 black and white pictures of just the empty bowl — some from under, some above, some so close up you don’t know what you’re looking at — the video transitions into footage from windows of cars and planes of a city.

Dunn overlaid people skating through the bowl in a layered video, so it seems like they are skating up buildings, among taxiing airplanes, along land divides visible from a plane.

During the video, Dunn interviews the bowl’s skaters, and they air grievances about society’s perceptions of skateboarders. One skater explained that there is a “perception that what we were doing was vandalism, or that we were just out to make trouble.”

Support independent local journalism. Support our nonprofit newsroom.

Despite the sport being public by nature, and street skating getting its own category in the 2020 Summer Olympics, Dunn interviewed about a dozen skaters — from 10-year-olds to middle-aged men — who spoke about running from the cops with their skateboards in tow, all for the crime of skateboarding in public.

But in 2002, the implications of welcoming skateboarding, a countercultural activity with a criminal reputation into the “high culture” setting of a gallery, were that of giving them the world. So when Dunn shows the skaters using the bowl rather than the city streets, with the same carelessness as if they were in their own backyards, she’s showing the meaning of that free public space to the skaters.

“Licking the Bowl” by Cheryl Dunn

It’s a juxtaposition of class and culture, but it’s also one of aesthetics. Dunn starts with that smooth and beautiful presentation of the skaters against the street backdrop, but then the projection drops. It’s one skater in the bowl with fuchsia, gray-green and dark blue light filters, two bright white spotlights centered on each dip in the bowl that turn the skater into a silhouette.

The roundness of the bowl distorts his shadows, which grow and shrink as he skates gracefully up and down the bowl. Experimental jazz plays — another “high-low” clash — and with the grit of the camera, the bowl seems to swim. Quick cut to the interviews, a skater calling the bowl “groovy,” another ”gnarly.” They laugh sharply, smiling, close-up, missing teeth.

You don’t hear the questions that Dunn poses to the skaters in her interview. But you can guess them when one begins to tell her they have dislocated their shoulder 15 times.

She asks them about their injuries, then what animal they would want to be, what superpower they wish they could have, and then if they consider skateboarding an artform. Their answers — penguin, cheetah, eagle, anteater, flying, yes and no — are funny and honest. They aren’t being made fun of or making fun. It’s real: they answer while standing awkwardly and speaking into an obnoxiously bulky microphone against a black photo backdrop.

They mostly talk about how much they love to skate. The viewer sees that they skateboard the way artists make art — it’s a compulsion. One of them says he skateboards for 12 hours straight sometimes. A 10-year-old skater agrees. He says if he didn’t have band practice, it’s all he would do. “Licking the Bowl” paints skateboarding as noisy, countercultural and real; it’s undeniably art.

Top Stories