BY Tom Morton in Opinion | 01 MAY 12
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Issue 147

On Your Marks

The conflicted cultural legacy of the London 2012 Olympics

BY Tom Morton in Opinion | 01 MAY 12

Anthea Hamilton, Divers, 2012, poster for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Courtesy The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games

This January, I was invited on a press tour of the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, to see the public art works that punctuate the spaces between the starchitect-designed sporting venues, the Westfield mega-mall and the world’s biggest branch of McDonald’s. Having shown my passport at a security gate, I joined a group of journalists on a bus which we were forbidden to leave for the duration of our visit, as though the terrain we were passing through was a safari park patrolled by hungry leopards, or the surface of a newly colonized and only partially terra-formed planet. Watched over by the Mordor-like tower of Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s ArcelorMittal Orbit (2012), pet project of London’s Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson, we wound our way along the site’s freshly tarmacked roads, while the Olympic Delivery Authority’s (oda) Head of Arts and Cultural Strategy, Sarah Weir, talked us through the works she and her team had commissioned, the purpose of which, according to the oda’s literature, is to ‘give existing local communities a sense of ownership [over the Park], attract new businesses, create an area where new communities will want to live, and make east London a world-class visitor destination’. While one would hardly expect a government agency to wax Nabokovian about art’s ability to provoke a ‘divine throb of pity’, these objectives are instructive – make a few token gestures towards Stratford’s working-class residents, then pretty the place up so that it feels safe for tourists, brand franchises and the purchasers of speculatively built luxury flats.

As she talked, Weir made liberal use of the word ‘Legacy’ (the capitalization is significant), which, in an innovative spin on Standard English usage, she employed to describe the temporal period following the conclusion of the London Games. It was then that I began to understand the whole business with the passports and our hermetically sealed transport – we were not travellers to some wild savanna or oxygen-deprived moon, but rather to the future. To a large degree, the Age of Legacy is a Ballardian nightmare, although even here there is the odd good work of art. Interestingly, some of the oda’s most successful commissions, such as Keith Wilson’s Steles (2012), a series of mooring posts in the Waterworks River the shape and colour of stale wax crayons, have little if any thematic connection to the Olympics. Others, such as Monica Bonvicini’s RUN (2012), a trio of three huge glass and steel capital letters that reference The Velvet Underground’s 1967 heroin withdrawal anthem ‘Run Run Run’, approach them with playful scepticism, if not barely disguised aggression. On my visit, only the ‘u’ and ‘n’ of Bonvicini’s sculpture were in place, creating a poetically charged negative prefix to every political bromide that hovers over the Games.

The notion of providing a ‘cultural offer’ (to use a phrase beloved of British arts mandarins) as a side dish to the Olympics might be dated back 100 years to the 1912 Games in Stockholm, where the founder of the International Olympic Committee (ioc), Baron Pierre de Coubertin, staged a competitive ‘Pentathlon of the Muses’, awarding ‘art medals’ for architecture, literature, music, sculpture and painting. While the ioc abandoned the pitting of one poem or canvas against another in 1948, host cities and countries still see much political and economic profit in using the games to bring local artistic talent to a global audience.

For the London 2012 Olympics, much of the uk’s ‘offer’ goes under the banner of the Cultural Olympiad, a vast government initiative (the baffling festivals-within-festivals-within-festivals administration and marketing of which might be better explained by a PowerPoint presentation than in prose) that includes several thousand projects, many of them focused on contemporary art. Some of these, such as Damien Hirst’s current retrospective at Tate Modern, bear the nu-rave Swastika of the Cultural Olympiad’s logo, but are to all intents and purposes independent of it. Others, like the 12 official Olympic and Paralympic posters designed by a group of British artists that includes Bridget Riley (horizontal stripes vaguely suggestive of running tracks), Rachel Whiteread (the Olympics emblem re-imagined as the rings left on a white surface by dripping paint pots) and Howard Hodgkin (a swimmer negotiating a blue swirl of pigment) are simply promotional material with superior graphics. As in the Olympic Park, a handful of the artists’ commissions that comprise the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival feel genuinely intriguing. We might imagine a piece such as Martin Creed’s self-explanatory and rather lovely Work No. 1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes (2012), which is due to take place at 8am on the first day of the Games, still feeling meaningful even if the whole quadrennial hoopla had gone to Paris. Likewise Gary Webb’s sculpture-cum-playground in Greenwich, one of a series of public art works sited in the Games’ six London host boroughs as part of the London 2012 Festival-affiliated Frieze Projects East. The same cannot be said of the uk Arts Councils’ flagship contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, 12 commissions across 12 regional funding zones that rejoice in the collective title, seemingly borrowed from a particularly dull internal position paper, of ‘Artists Taking the Lead’.

Shauna Richardson, Lionheart Project, 2012, from 'Artists Taking the Lead', a series of 12 public art commissions across the UK as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Courtesy Arts Council England

On 29 July this year, a huge marionette of Lady Godiva will parade through Coventry, the city where the British folk heroine famously protested her husband’s punitive tax laws by riding naked through the streets on his horse. (The grateful citizens are said to have averted their eyes, except for the original ‘Peeping Tom’, who was struck blind for his sins). Entitled Godiva Awakes, and supported by ‘Artists Taking the Lead’ to the tune of £500,000, this is the work of Imagineer Productions, an agency that advertises itself as offering everything from ‘visual arts events’ to ‘educational and participatory workshops’ to ‘corporate entertainment’. The 10-metre-high puppet will be powered by volunteers on 25 fashionably retro Pashley bicycles, who will pedal it to London bearing a ‘book of intent’ compiled by local youngsters, detailing their (presumably thoroughly workshopped) hopes and fears about the post-Olympics world. Imagineer, whose proposal was chosen by Arts Council West Midlands over 133 others in an open competition, have said that their intention is to ‘re-imagine Godiva as […] a symbol of courage, fairness, social justice, self-sacrifice and sustainability’. They have also re-imagined her as fully clothed. No press statement has been forthcoming as to why this curious decision was taken (perhaps they were concerned that a naked effigy would render passers-by sightless, Peeping Tom-style?), but it’s hard to shake the thought that the Arts Council’s money hasn’t funded a Godiva at all, but rather a massively misconceived faux-medieval horse-bike.

If Godiva Awakes – with its contrived inclusivity, its superficial local ‘relevance’, and its prudish and self-destructive robing of British folklore’s most famous nudist – is perhaps the worst art work to come out of the 2012 Olympics, another ‘Artists Taking the Lead’ commission, three vast and dopey-looking lions hand-crocheted by Shauna Richardson, which will be trundled around the East Midlands in a mobile vitrine, runs a close second. The Arts Councils of the North and South West have, however, wisely let two artists with appreciable reputations ‘take the lead’ (respectively Anthony McCall, who plans to whip up a corkscrew plume of steam over the river Mersey which will be visible for some 60 miles, and Alex Hartley, who has created a floating landmass from the debris of an eroding glacier that will be towed from Norway to the south west coast of England). But the other commissions have largely gone, as is so often the case in British initiatives of this sort, to critically ignorable box-tickers, whose work resembles the outreach programmes of an unimaginative provincial museum that has found an unexpected half a million down the back of a sofa in its Community Create Space.

The Cultural Olympiad’s publicity material claims that every project that falls under its rubric shares common values and themes, among them ‘bringing together culture and sport’, ‘using culture and sport to raise the issues of environmental sustainability, health and well-being’, and ‘enhancing the learning, skills and personal development of young people’. Leaving aside questions of language (this is essentially a public sector adaptation of empty corporate management speak), let’s try to imagine for a moment that the Cultural Olympiad’s organizers have, in formulating these values and themes, hit on something of deep and sustaining human worth, something that moreover really is so obviously and unquestionably embedded in every Olympics arts project that to not be touched by it would be to not feel the sun on one’s face. That would be a true Legacy. The reality, however, is that London 2012’s artistic bequest is a few good works made by artists canny enough to play the funding game to their own advantage while holding on to their integrity, and far too many examples of that supposedly non-existent phenomenon: a monument to a committee. This is not surprising, but it is saddening, and needless. If the government really wanted to celebrate British art in the Olympic year, it might have done better to forget connecting it to the Games, and simply give it the support it needs to thrive.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.