Judging the value of London's Olympic art
The Games have prompted many projects – but are they merely temporary decorations or lasting gifts? By Laura McLean-Ferris
Art and sport are being strapped together across London and the UK in ways that are variously tenuous, revealing, funny, beautiful or simply the mark of one big funding drive. London is, of course, one of the world's contemporary art capitals and the Olympic Games are taking place in east London, an area that is home to thousands of artists. From the newly commissioned art hanging at the stadium to thematic exhibitions and projects in the Olympic boroughs, what can we actually make of all these projects and what is their real value?
At the South London Gallery from the end of July is In Pursuit of Perfection: The Politics of Sport, which collects a series of works in which artists play on what sport means within a culture. Aleksandra Mir's Triumph (2009) is an enormous collection of 2,529 trophies that she collected by putting an ad in a Sicilian newspaper. Into these polished, glittering vessels people have poured their glories, hopes and, in many cases, memories of a youthful, triumphant moment. Michel Auder's scratch-video film of the 1984 Olympics is also included in this exhibition – a pervy, amusing compilation of clips in which he zoomed in on the crotches of the competing athletes: upside-down synchronised swimmers, legs aloft, clad in their tight costumes; or close-ups of the bouncing contents of sprinting men's running shorts. And yet the continued focus on these particular body parts ends up communicating its own kind of beauty.
The Wellcome Collection specialises in the sort of intellectual enquiry that spans art, science, history and other fields, and has used this open-ended approach to devise Superhuman, an exhibition timed to coincide with the Olympics which considers the ways humans have attempted to extend themselves beyond their biological capacities and the narratives that we create about such endeavours. From running spikes to "smart" sportswear, as well the limbs and chairs that assist Paralympic athletes, the exhibition brings together the positive and negative inflections on such technologies, from thalidomide to IVF and from superhero comics to the myth of Icarus.
Closer to the Games themselves are the works of art that have been commissioned for the Olympic Park, of which Monica Bonvicini's large glass and stainless steel sculpture, which spells out the word "run" in authoritative, domineering letters, is perhaps the most arresting. Keith Wilson's set of sculptures, Steles, which look like giant primary-coloured crayons sticking up out of the Olympic Park's river, will be used as boat moorings in the future.There are digitally printed coloured fences, which have taken Olympic rings and transformed them into an image of a low-frequency soundwave by Carsten Nicolai, and there are fragments of poetry around the park – words from Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Burnside, among others, carved into fences and walls. And there is, of course, the ugly ArcelorMittal Orbit, that towering bundle of crumpled-looking red steel designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond: Mayor Boris Johnson's pet project.
When the case for the London Olympics was made there was much talk about the regeneration of the depressed boroughs of the East End and none of the artistic projects that I have seen bring a reminder of this home more than Frieze Projects East. This project spans the entirety of the Olympic boroughs and is more revealing, more engaged with the full spectrum of east London than any other. Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne's project in Poplar is based in the amazing Poplar Baths, a beautiful, collapsing swimming pool, built in 1852 but closed since 1988, in a depressed area. Hamilton and Byrne's installation, a set of joyous inflatables called LOVE, are reproductions of artworks and images that celebrate love and sexuality, including Robert Indiana's famous Love sculpture or Rodin's Kiss. Can Altay has made the deceptively small looking gesture of replacing the door handles in several spaces – social housing, the local pub – with huge, shiny silver ball handles, along with pamphlets that consider public art and public services, whilst Gary Webb's playground sculpture for children is Charlton is another real joy – a black climbing frame covered in coloured shapes that glitter and spin. Many of these projects engage with their audiences in a very genuine way rather than simply parachuting in artworks on the theme of "sport", forms of decoration that will disappear when the Olympics do. These works are small, rather unassuming gifts to their host boroughs.
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