2012 and the eyes of the world turn toward London in anticipation.
England’s Cultural Olympiad is the largest cultural celebration in the modern history of the Olympics – even larger than Beijing. It boasts more than 16 million participants and 2,500 projects as part of the London 2012 Festival running throughout this year.
While the best athletes labor quietly at practice for the big finale this summer, the art scene in England works feverishly on a scale to rival anything in sport. England’s churches have also pitched in as places of worship and to host and create their own art-related events.
London’s art planners wasted no time drafting artists of every type to enlist in the celebrated and competitive Olympic art projects. Whether to good effect or not has become a source of great debate, even before many of the larger and more prestigious projects are completed and shown to the public.
The sheer scope and constant media attention drew Gaurdian art critic Jonathan Jones to complain bitterly at the very beginning of the Cultural Olympiad in 2008, although his reasons were hardly shared by much of the public. Rather than bemoan the specifics or costs of art projects, he criticized their relation with nationalism as a “patriotic bonanza, coarsening, travestying and betraying” British culture.
I don’t see that, as even the Olympic poster competition appears to make very little relation to the actual event or sport much less British culture, with a few exceptions. This is odd considering the traditional purpose of posters to be a type of handbill or conveyor of information, although an artistic one. The 12 Olympic and Paralympic poster artists were selected in advance due solely to their fame and prestige rather than open competition.
The results proved a bad move in my opinion, as the lack of interest and knowledge in sport, their presumed purpose couldn’t be more obvious. Even the intent to convey the essential Olympic ethos of glory, honor, fairness and friendship fails with only a few lackluster appeals.
Many of the 12 designs are extremely abstracted and have the appearance of being haphazard, careless and thoughtlessly done. Some are spectacularly bad, such as Patrick Brill’s (AKA Bob and Roberta Smith) poster with drippy, puerile lettering that would have been tossed at any primary school carnival. Tracy Emin’s schoolgirlish little sketch of a few birds with the sappy phrase “you inspire me with your determination I love you” looks like a discarded sketch from Haight-Ashbury circa 1965.
I usually am not so critical, but there are dozens of artists in the U.K. who could do much better, and the elitist and exclusionary mindset behind hiring big names only has led to this sorry affair. Although not many are saying it, there is obvious contempt for the event made evident through the lack of effort by some of these artists. It’s somewhat like a school child who hands in really bad work when you know they’re able to do better … just to irritate their parents.
There are a few exceptions, such the complex, geometric design based on Big Ben by Sara Morris.
Famed artist Chris Ofili presents a delicately painted runner based on Greek vase designs, which isn’t bad and has some individuality about it. It is one of only five designs that make even a tenuous visual connection to the Olympics.
Anthea Hamilton’s “Divers” striking design – with a woman’s legs kicked out over a gridded pool – and Michael Craig-Martin’s almost Art-Deco, simple stopwatch work as posters and pieces of art.
Artist Rachel Whiteread’s Olympic rings technically fit the definition but give the impression of being created by the accidental placement of coffee cups that had somehow gotten into paint. This could have been beautiful given some effort with composition, but it doesn’t get close.
Artist Olafur Eliasson’s proposed work caused quite an outcry – and a gasp – over both his attitude and proposed project. The Berlin-based artist was asked to participate and demands £1million in public funds for visitors to ‘take a deep breath’ at the Olympics. Participants, meaning any mammal I guess, are encouraged to inhale and exhale on behalf of “a person, a movement or a cause.” They will then be asked to share the details of this profound experience by website.
Eliasson hopes that a staggering 10 percent of the Earth’s population – 700million people – will participate in his event, while he complains of the rampant “egotism” of participating nations and athletes in the Olympics. Yes, that’s all folks, but even the Olympic arts committee is wondering about how this one is going to fly. At this point I can’t tell if they have actually agreed to funding, but it is hilarious.
His attitude is almost as bad. The anti-Olympian claimed, “There’s not a lot to celebrate in the Olympics, and I thought I would make a work of art that exposes some of the weaknesses of the Olympics.”
One of the “weaknesses” might be his inclusion, and the feeling is echoed elsewhere in public opinion pages. Eliasson speaks of competition, rivalry and elitism in the games as a problem. Ironically if “Take A Deep Breath” had been vetted in advance it’s almost a sure bet that we would not be hearing from him. It is elitism alone that caused Eliasson to be invited to the party he snubs.
Well the at least churches have a good attitude and are joining the cause, but without official funding. “Run with the Fire” is an arts project for the London 2012 Olympics organized by CANA, commission4mission and Veritasse groups to celebrate creativity, cultural exchange and hope. It picks up the Olympic torch image and links it to Pentecost celebrations with “tongues of fire, new languages,” and promises of dreams and visions.
“Run with the Fire” organized an international art competition, and the results are a great digital exhibition of artwork on DVD (with related materials), which they make available to churches anywhere to help host community art events or celebrations. They’ll be particularly useful in the U.K. with specific information and tips given for hosting Olympic-related events and dealing with the influx of tourists.
Concurrent with the official Olympic activities, churches are sponsoring many events through the U.K. with concerts, comedians, art exhibits and theater. One is “God in the Park,” a massive inter-church activity set for July 14, 2012, where churches of all denominations meet to celebrate in Goodmayes Park, London. Worship, music, dance and street entertainment is planned with performers Dave Bilborough and Helen Yousaf – and even bouncy castles. What more could you need?
The “Run with the Fire” resources (virtual exhibition DVD and electronic resources package) cost £50.00 and can be ordered from Vertasse or by contacting Sue Newham on 01686 626228.