It Takes a Village

London’s art festival offers spectacle to coincide with the Olympic Games

Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege, a bouncy replica of Stonehenge, is part of the Cultural Olympiad in Britain.


Before the crack of the first starting pistol at the London Summer Olympics, Britain will resound with the chimes of bells. That’s the hope of Turner Prize–winning artist Martin Creed, who wants any bell—church, bicycle, or door—to be rung hard and fast for three minutes at 8 a.m. on July 27 to mark the opening of the international sporting event. Those lacking a bell can download a ringtone by the artist, which means they won’t be just members of the party but also owners of a Creed original.

This is one of the thousands of artworks and events lined up for the Cultural Olympiad to coincide with the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Launched in 2008 as part of London’s winning bid for the games, the Cultural Olympiad was recently given a reboot—culminating in the eight-week London 2012 Festival, which runs through September 9.

In all, 25,000 artists from each of the 205 countries participating in the Olympics are taking part in the festival. The projects are not restricted to London but encompass the entire United King­dom, with art commissions ranging from colossal crocheted lions to a multiperson performance piece by Tino Sehgal.

But it is the Olympic Village itself that showcases the most conspicuous work. Designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond and funded by steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who contributed £19.2 million (about $30 million) of its £22.7 million cost, the rust-red ArcelorMittal Orbit tower twists and wriggles 377 feet upward to an observation platform. The controversial structure is now Britain’s tallest sculpture. While some Londoners welcome the tower as an imaginative new landmark for the city, many consider it an eyesore. Still, as Kapoor noted, no one liked the Eiffel Tower when it was first built.

In another gesture of grand design, Tate Modern will open the former Bankside Power Station’s underground oil tanks—enormous circular spaces nearly 100 feet across and 23 feet high—to make the world’s biggest venue for performance art. The tanks will contain works by choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and video/performance artist Sung Hwan Kim. Next door, Sehgal—who specializes in “constructed situations” where performers engage in actions amid museumgoers—will bring bodily spectacle into the wide-open expanses of Tate’s Turbine Hall.

On a smaller scale is Yoko Ono’s show at the Serpentine Gallery. It features #smilesfilm, a participatory project that asks people to upload photos of their smiling faces to Twitter and Instagram. The global anthology of happy expressions appears in the gallery and online.

Few exhibitions directly respond to the games, but two that do are “The Noble Art of the Sword,” a show at the Wallace Collection evoking the sport of fencing, and “The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot,” at the British Museum, which correlates with Olympic equestrian events.

Outside the capital, in the East Midlands, three giant woolen lions that took two years to knit by “crochet- dermist” Shauna Richardson will travel to London in a glass case, while a 33-foot-tall puppet of Lady Godiva, sporting underwear by fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, will “walk” from Coventry to London, pulled by 50 cyclists. And Jeremy Deller’s life-size inflatable version of Stonehenge, called Sacrilege, is touring the country. It first appeared in April in Glasgow, where 2,000 visitors a day jumped on the rubbery replica, and will pop up unannounced throughout Britain.

Funding for all of this comes largely from the National Lottery, with the addition of money from various tax-funded U.K. arts councils and corporate partners such as BP and Panasonic. The total bill is estimated to reach nearly £100 million (about $155 million) over the Cultural Olympiad’s four years.

While there has been grumbling over the use of state revenues for an enormous cultural program in a time of austerity, tens of millions of people will have attended Cultural Olympiad events by summer’s end. As Ruth Mackenzie, director of the festival, says, “There may not be something for everyone, but everyone will find something.”

Richard Holledge is a freelance writer for the London Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Gulf News.

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