In a few days the great spectacle in London unfolds; the gods of this world, power and pride of nations, vie through weakness of flesh for the prize. The results are breathtaking, as man overcomes his limits in staggering feats of discipline, vigor and beauty.
Art-making on a similar Olympian scale has always accompanied man’s greatest games as part of the four year “Cultural Olympiad.” Nations employ every device and resource to leave their permanent cultural tags – and to one-up the last host nation.
On this last point the London Olympic Committee backed down early in the game. After China’s gobsmacking display of bigger and better than thou, they decided that it wasn’t necessary to totally bankrupt the nation and displace entire communities. They still outspent Beijing by about £4 billion, not having the luxury of forced labor, bullied bureaucrats and government workers to push around.
The next few weeks are the zenith of a 12-week series of cultural events to usher in the Olympic Games. It involves 25,000 artists pulled from all 204 competing nations and 12,000 unique events planned for 900 venues all across the U.K. These run from high-brow orchestras, art museums and poetry readings to pop singer Rihanna, cartoons and a 140-foot, traveling replica of Stonehenge – as a bouncy castle.
London’s Cultural Olympiad actually began in 2008, although no one but the organizers, some school children and the artists involved seemed to know that. Even as late as 2011 the failure to involve the public was evident when the BBC quizzed visitors to the National Gallery in London and couldn’t find one who had even heard of the Olympiad.
The big art bling tallies up to more than £104 million – with at least £70 million combed from British taxpayers. They’re not entirely happy with the results so far, but this may change after the big show. Many are infuriated with the committee’s choices for public art, while they’re slowly warming up to others.
The already famed and virtually unavoidable “ArcelorMittal Orbit” tower by Anish Kapoor and structural designer Cecil Balmond dominates the Olympic Park skyline, inciting endless debates on its aesthetics. Known for the vast scale of his work, which generally harmonizes or incorporates surrounding landscape and buildings gracefully, Kapoor succeeded at least with the scale part.
Citizens and critics alike hold their own Olympiads deprecating the 115 meter tower. Variously dubbed as “the awful tower,” “a drunken party animal of a building” and “the Godzilla of public art,” it fuels the public imagination so well that many descriptions couldn’t be quoted without a lot of dashes.
Kapoor insists his building is beautiful but awkward: “It has its elbows sticking out. It is unsettling”
Orbit Tower has a hybrid look that I assume came from the creating duet – Kapoor working entirely with aesthetics and Balmond in engineering. Their artistic spawn are coils of lovely, delicate, red-strutted arches clasped by what appears to be a giant, lopsided bedspring. This is the ugly part, but it may be a necessary support to keep patrons from being tossed off into the parking lot below. The tower sports observation decks at the summit with a huge concave mirrored surface reflecting the city and will remain as a tourist site with lifts and spiraling stairs for the public.
Conflicts over the tower aren’t odd considering it originated from a mild turf struggle between and Tory peer Lord Coe and London Mayor Boris Johnson, who gushed, “It would have boggled the minds of the Romans, and it will certainly be worthy of the best show on Earth.”
It’s no surprise that conflicts and threats from the political world would filter down to the arts: The 2012 Olympic logo design may as well have depicted a minefield. Designer Wolff Olins created the almost universally reviled 2012 Olympics logo for a mere £400,000. That sum should console him for a while, but the voting public held 80 percent of their collective thumbs down in a BBC poll on his design.
Then the Iranian government, known for doing the inconceivably stupid, announced they found great offense at the “racist, Zionist inspired” logo and made official complaints. It seems if you peer at it, with one eye closed and the other reading “Mein Kampf” you will clearly make out the letters Z-i-o-n.
On the other end of ideological spectrum, the dagger shapes in the logo brought to mind a Swastika with some viewers. And all this time Olin thought he was only depicting the date 2012 with Olympic rings embedded. Let’s face it; art is like a grand Rorschach ink blot test – you see what you want.
Londoners missed their chance to make this work for them when Iran threatened to boycott the Olympics over this. They should be so fortunate. The West threatened to retaliate, forbidding both the use of the letter “C” and smiling, on the grounds that they are actually crescent moons – just kidding! We’re not so backward and oppressive over here … except about crosses.
Holding his ground, President Ahmadinejad changed his mind and now wants to attend the Olympics. Personally, if I were in charge of security in London, I’d do everything I could to discourage the presence of nations who are threatening to annihilate large sections of the world – subtly, of course.
On a more hopeful note, Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, or WEDA, in Royal Albert Hall on July 27 as part of the Olympic opening day ceremonies. The orchestra’s final performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is played by WEDA musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Arab countries working together.
Barenboim describes his symbolic goal for the orchestra by explaining, “Harmony in personal or international relations can only exist by listening … the open ear.”
Other intriguing Opening Day events include audience participation, such as three minutes of nation-wide bell-ringing, orchestrated by artist Martin Creed. He’s “trying to make the maximum amount of noise you can make with an acoustic instrument,” as he explains his planned auditory experiment. The kids are going to love this one.
A charming and thoroughly British performance group of 50 professional actors will circulate through London’s streets (Aug. 28 to Sept. 9) declaiming Shakespeare to unsuspecting tourists and locals. No need to look for a policeman if you’re approached by an odd person early in the morning shouting, “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon!” in a dramatic voice – you can just applaud. This unusual venue organized by “Jerusalem” actor Mark Rylance may be the first time many people have ever heard Shakespeare, and it will probably make new converts.
Damien Hirst has somehow found time in the middle of “Taking over the World ” (via unimpressive spot paintings plastered across the globe) to be at Tate Modern during the Olympics. At least his pickled cows, lab equipment and other harbingers of death, which have made him the wealthiest artist in the world, will be at the museum.
Hirst’s ubiquitous and unsalable $100 million, platinum and diamond-encrusted skull “For the Love of God” was also exhibited there this spring. Since it was actually made by Bentley and Skinner (jewelers appointed to the queen), it may be a good idea to just incorporate this into the crown jewels, and we won’t have to look at it anymore.
Not one to shy away from commerce, Hirst is loaning one of his pieces to the Burger King restaurant in Leicester Square, the tourist center of the capital. A circular spin painting, which he’s aptly titled “Beautiful Psychedelic Gherkin Exploding Tomato Sauce All Over Your Face, Flame Grilled Painting, 2003” is one of the chain’s answers to McDonald’s co-sponsoring of the games. Would it work for health food?
Although most of the art resonates with viewers, conceptual or “green” projects have generated a collective yawn … except for the price tags. Ironically the purpose of these projects is to involve and inspire the average Briton, but the public has refused to harbor great expectations for projects such as “Nowhere Island,” the academically silly project of artist Alex Hartley. To “raise awareness over climate change,” Hartley will be moving rocks from Svalbard archipelago north of Norway by barge to Weymouth in time to sail at Olympics.
But wait! It gets even more pretentious: The rocks scattered on a floating platform are in the process of applying for temporary “micronation status” – to give bureaucrats more paperwork, I guess. They (and Hartley) will navigate the South West region, visiting ports along with a travelling embassy support vehicle. Rocks have rights too.
Citizens are given the honor of participating in “all aspects” of this virtual new nation by designing Harltey a small shelter for the Arctic island, where he will live for a period. Questioned about the environmental footprint of his £500,000 project, Hartley claims the environmental cost of towing the island was outweighed by the “poetry of the project.” If that works for him, conservatives should consider quoting long passages of the Iliad to counter Al Gore.
I’m anxious to see what they’ve dreamed up for London’s opening ceremonies after the great crescendo of art everywhere. Some of it has been kept under wraps, but an Olympic spokesman is quoted in the The Mail promising, “Everyone has been wondering what’s been going on for three years … but it is going to be extraordinary.”