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Elisabeth Streb's Extreme Action, One Extraordinary Day, part of the London 2012 Festival Cultural Olympiad commissions; photo by Antoine Douaihy
Elisabeth Streb's Extreme Action, One Extraordinary Day, part of the London 2012 Festival Cultural Olympiad commissions; photo by Antoine Douaihy

Cultural Olympiad 2012

ART AT THE HEART OF THE GAME

by Emily Nathan

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In the realm of mass culture, sport certainly has the better batting average compared to fine art. But that doesn’t mean the London Olympics, July 27-Aug. 12, 2012, won’t have its very own Cultural Olympiad, June 21-Sept. 9, 2012, a lollapalooza of some 12,000 cultural events in 900 venues, helmed by director Ruth Mackenzie, who formerly headed the Scottish Opera and the Manchester International Festival.

“It’s time for the three values traditionally held as paragons of civilization -- art, sport and education -- to be equal again,” Mackenzie declared to the New York press at the Gramercy Park Hotel on May 2, 2012. “Let’s put art back at the heart of the games!”

Thus, her rather ambitious program -- and pricey, estimated at £52,000,000, though Mackenzie wouldn’t give a figure -- which includes theater, comedy, film, dance, music, design and art, and brings 25,000 artists to Britain from every one of the Olympics’ 204 participating countries. Among the events are no less than 137 world premieres. And many of the offerings are free.

With a ton of wry English charm, Mackenzie outlined some of the commissions created specifically for the Olympiad.

* Co-sponsored by Whitechapel Gallery and ArtFund, sculptor Rachel Whiteread is slated to create her first permanent artwork in her native East London, filling in a gap on the historic facade of the Whitechapel Gallery that was originally designed to contain a frieze of the Tree of Life.

* Tracey Emin gets her first-ever retrospective at the new Turner Contemporary in her native Margate (admission is free), and Jeremy Deller is hard at work on Sacrilege -- a life-sized, inflatable Stonehenge that Mackenzie hopes to install like a bouncy castle all over the U.K. -- literally a pop-up.

* Martin Creed’s Work No 1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes, implicates the entire U.K. in a country-wide ringing of bells at 8 am on Olympics opening day, and downloads of a Creed-designed iPhone ringtone are available for purchase.

* Anish Kapoor’s enormous red tower structure, sited by the Olympic Stadium and functioning as a ride as well as a sculpture, is nearly completed, and Antony Gormley’s new sculpture, inspired by Waiting for Godot, debuts in the Grand Yard at Castle Coole, Enniskillen as part of the Happy Days Beckett Festival.

* Richard Wilson’s Hang on a Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea is being installed at the 1930s De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhil-on-Sea, a full-sized replica coach, balanced from the Pavilion’s roof, that recreates the final scene of The Italian Job. An exhibition of contemporary West African art takes place at the Manchester Art Gallery, curated by Maria Balshaw -- “a rising star; she will run the Tate someday,” Mackenzie told Artnet Magazine.

The list goes on, with contributions from Tony Cragg, Yinka Shonibare, Susan Philipsz, Anthony McCall and Oded Hirsch, BMWs designed by the likes of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, and 12 artist-commissioned Cultural Olympiad posters, selling for a mere £7, as well as a host of museum events including shows of Damien Hirst, Olafur Eliasson and Tino Sehgal at the Tate, and Lucien Freud at the National Portrait Gallery.

Many top Americans are on board, including Philip Glass, Wynton Marsalis, Peter Sellars, Jay-Z, Lana Del Ray, Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramovic, Alex Katz and Yoko Ono.

Jeremy Deller, Sacrilege, 2012, part of the London 2012 Festival Cultural Olympiad commissions; photo by Angela Catlin
Jeremy Deller, Sacrilege, 2012, part of the London 2012 Festival Cultural Olympiad commissions; photo by Angela Catlin

In theater, Kate Falk of the 50-year old Wooster Group, the celebrated downtown New York experimental theater collective, described her group’s collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company on a brand new production of Troilus and Cressida, with costumes and objects specially designed by Folkert de Jong. “Folkert’s work couldn’t be more perfect for this project,” she said, “And you should see his barrels -- you know how Folkert loves his barrels.”

Experimental dancer and choreographer Elisabeth Streb, a self-described “movement archaeologist” known for her hybrid performances of acrobatic dance, remained mum about the “extreme action” she has in the works. Dressed in army boots and a Sergeant jacket, she said, “I can’t tell you where, what or when. But it’s called One Extraordinary Journey, and I plan to etch moments in the air that will sear the sky and the land.” A noticeably nervous Mackenzie whispered, “Just please don’t let anybody die!”

Last up was Zachary Lieberman from the New York-and-Amsterdam art collective the YesYesNo. For the group’s installation Connecting Light, it has been assigned all 73 miles of Hadrian’s Wall, the historic border of the Roman Empire. “We were interested in how the wall stretches across both urban and rural, and might function not as a border but as a bridge,” Lieberman said, detailing the involvement of hundreds of weather balloons filled with lights that are designed to pulse messages down along the wall, like a game of telephone. “It’s still in progress,” Lieberman conceded, “but we were out testing with big tanks of helium the other day, surrounded by sheep -- and the sheep loved it.”

London Festival 2012 Cultural Olympiad, June 21-Sept. 9, 2012, venues all over the U.K.


EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email

Salisbury International Arts Festival's Fire Garden at Stonehenge, one of the events for the London 2012 Festival Cultural Olympiad; photo by Boris Abalain
Salisbury International Arts Festival's Fire Garden at Stonehenge, one of the events for the London 2012 Festival Cultural Olympiad; photo by Boris Abalain