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August 06 2012

London 2012 cultural festival's free events draw almost 10m people

Cultural Olympiad organisers say 2.9m rang bells to mark the start of the Games as part of Martin Creed's artwork

An estimated 9.6 million people have joined in the free events and exhibitions of the London 2012 festival, the cultural side of the Olympics, including 2.9 million who rang bells to mark the start of the Games.

Church, cow and bicycle bells were rung as part of Martin Creed's extravaganza which launched the event 10 days ago, Work No 1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes.

The London 2012 festival and Cultural Olympiad director, Ruth MacKenzie, said audience numbers were running "well ahead of expectations", with at least another 5m free places to come, and the explosion of arts in the Edinburgh international festival included.

Ticketed events have already taken attendance to more than 12 million, with more than 2m tickets sold, and the figure is expected to rise as full audience statistics are compiled.

The festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad, began on 21 June, and will continue until the last day of the Paralympic Games, 9 September. Major free events still to come include Neil Mullarkey's attempt to create the world's largest improvised comedy event in Barnsley next Friday – free but tickets must be booked in advance; YesYesNo – Connecting Light, a line of pulsating colour created using LED bulbs inside weather balloons along the length of Hadrian's Wall; another light-in-the-darkness art installation up the steep slopes of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh; and many free events in Happy Days, a new festival of the work of Samuel Beckett in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, where the Nobel-prize-winning playwright went to school. The opening event of the Happy Days festival, which will continue in future years, is a free concert titled Play It Again For Sam.

"We are cautiously pleased with ourselves," MacKenzie said. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 29 2012

Olympics 2012: Godiva awakes in Coventry – and heads for London

Six-metre high marionette cost an estimated £2m and will travel down the A5 as part of the Cultural Olympiad

Godiva is back, and she's big – but she needs to be. When the first Lady Godiva rode through the streets of Coventry 1,000-odd years ago, she just had to get a tax break for the people from her grasping husband. This reincarnation carries on her six-metre-high shoulders the hope of reviving the engineering and manufacturing of the Midlands, once renowned across the world.

"Seven years ago, the moment we heard London had got the Olympics, we thought right, what can we do?" said Roger Medwell, ex-chairman of NP Aerospace in Coventry. "The first thought was let's make an enormous statue, 70ft [21 metres] tall like that thing in the north [Antony Gormley's Angel of the North, in Gateshead] – but let's make it move, because that's what we do in the Midlands, we make things move."

There were tears in the eyes of many of the team on Saturday night when the giant marionette stood up, not quite 70ft tall but still an amazing sight, towering above the crowd, and weighing five tonnes. She smiled, stretched out her arms, and blinked her great blue eyes in apparent amazement at the cheering people, a choir of 150, hundreds of dancers, and aerial artists and fireworks showering from the cathedral – itself a symbol of resurrection, risen from the rubble after the ancient church and most of the medieval heart of Coventry were destroyed in one night's firestorm during the second world war.

This time Godiva has cost taxpayers quite a lot – Arts Council England gave £500,000 as part of the Cultural Olympiad, and the council another £450,000 for the opening celebration. She was devised by Coventry carnival company Imagineer and special-effects company Artem, but most of the money – about £2m – and the muscle has come in cash, materials, inspiration, time, and metal-bashing sweat from Coventry University's engineering department, and manufacturers, artists and craftspeople across the region.

In the last week the head of the fork lift trucks unit at NP Aerospace waded in to help with a last-minute problem with the rig – a steam punk confection of new or cannibalised machine parts including the fork lift, bits of a vintage lorry and an old school desk – that drives the puppet. A team from the handbuilt bicycle firm Pashley turned up to check over the Cyclopaedia, a squadron of linked bicycles that will tow Godiva when she takes to the open road, with the muscle power supplied by 100 volunteers led by the British cycling champion Mick Ives, and Dave Batstone and Justin Tipple, a design engineer at NP Aerospace and a sheet metal worker at Shaw's.

After a weekend out and about in Coventry, where she acquired a steel corset designed by Zandra Rhodes and a flowing golden silk coat embroidered with symbols of the region and, patched into the lining, the names of all the people who have worked on the project, she leaves the city.

Mmillions more will see her as the Cyclopaedia draws her down the A5 towards London, with more events at overnight stops at Rugby, Northampton, Luton, Hatfield, and Waltham Abbey.

Coventry has no intention of letting it all end with the Olympics. A permanent home is being created for her in the city: "Every year she'll wake up, and every year she'll need a carnival to welcome her," Jane Hytch of Imagineer promised.

On Saturday night almost 3,000 people crammed into the cathedral square for the awakening ceremony, and many more applied for but couldn't get tickets. Her first civic duty was to head out into the streets among the late-night revellers. A man blearily recalled one aspect of the legend as the hem of her gossamer gown wafted past. "She's got clothes on," he grumbled. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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July 27 2012

Bells toll across UK for Martin Creed's Olympic welcome

A cacophony of bells in Edinburgh, 40 strikes of Big Ben and a wakeup call in north London as part of Work No 1197

First came a mass countdown to 8.12am, and then came the most harmonious cacophony: cowbells, bicycle bells, Tibetan prayer bells, reclaimed Georgian doorbells, Cambodian fingerbells, delicate porcelain bells and even kitchen equipment – a cheap steel toast rack struck with a spoon.

Commuters and tourists passing over North Bridge in Edinburgh stopped and stared as the sound of perhaps 300 hand-rung bells echoed across the glass roof of Waverley station and out into the sunlight. Guests in the Scotsman hotel overlooking the bellringers came out to take photographs and watch, grinning, suddenly roused from their breakfast.

Bells were rung at the Houses of Parliament, in Millennium Square in Bristol, at St Albans Cathedral and at hundreds of other churches and community centres up and down the UK.

This was Martin Creed's artwork for the Olympics: Work No 1197, All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes.

Creed's idea was that the whole country should resound with ringing to greet the Olympics; that people should ring on their own, or in groups, wherever they were. Creed had said he would ring his own doorbell.

Big Ben pealed 40 times in the three minutes. It is believed to be the first time the strike of Big Ben has been rung outside its normal schedule since 15 February 1952, when it tolled every minute for 56 strokes for the funeral of King George VI.

The bells at the National Assembly for Wales, Stormont in Northern Ireland and the Scottish parliament all rang out, and other participants included a gang of 40 bellringers on a beach on Unst, in the far north of the Shetland Islands.

Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, narrowly avoided injuring bystanders when a bell he was ringing flew off its handle on the deck of HMS Belfast, moored on the Thames near Tower Bridge.

In Edinburgh, there was a unique double dose of Creed at his first permanent outdoor sculpture, Work 1059, otherwise known as the Scotsman Steps. It was once notorious as a night-time urinal for the city's clubgoers and drunks, but Creed has transformed it into a kaleidoscope of colour. Every one of the 104 steps of the enclosed stone stairway that links the Waverley station valley with North Bridge above has been cased in multiple hues of marble from around the world – greens, ochre, blues and blushing pink.

For three minutes the stone walls and marble of the steps distilled and amplified the sound of 300 bellringers. Mike Pretious, a marketing lecturer, stood vigorously hammering an antique bronze pestle and mortar inherited from his father, a research chemist. Aidan Carey, eight, rang a heavy brass handbell bought from Boots in the 1950s for his great-grandfather who was bedridden with gout. Work 1197 was the first time the bell had left the family home.

Shortly before 8.12am on a leafy, residential street corner in Kentish Town, north London, there was no particular sign that the Olympics were about to be rung in. Then an elderly couple appeared, the lady wielding a large set of wind chimes.

"We've had them for 40 years and I thought they needed an airing," she said. "They've been indoors for years because the neighbours complained about the noise." Looking embarrassed, she added: "I won't give my name, I don't want the neighbours to know I said that."

A woman quietly reading a newspaper produced a handbell from her bag with an inscription claiming it once sat on the captain's table of the Titanic. "I'm so excited!" said Sara Livesey, from Torbay, who was working a shift later on at the Olympic Stadium. "I think the Olympics are the best thing that's happened for donkey's years." The locals assumed a look of polite scepticism.

Kate Frood, headteacher of the local primary school, passed past on a bicycle. "I'm just off to get the school bell," she called. Quite suddenly a crowd had gathered as if from nowhere. Several people pitched up on bicycles, ready with their bike bells. There were children with sleigh bells and cow bells.

Someone had a Tibetan singing bowl, with a wonderful dark-brown rumble. "They use it for healing, and after a long day, it really works," said its owner. Someone else had "a hippie bike bell from India, very Kentish Town".

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, who organised the gathering on his road, brought what he described as the "spare cat bell". Chinese state TV turned up, too. The reporter, named Tingting Ai, had set her smartphone to chime.

There was a certain amount of rehearsal before the official start time, and then Nairne started shushing everyone and listened to his radio. At the first stroke of Big Ben, he yelled "Go!" and everyone was tinkling, chiming and dinging.

Frood had a particularly professional two-handed grip on the school bell ("I ring it every morning at 9am," she said). From an upper window of one of the Victorian houses lining the street, a woman gazed out looking furious. The volume rose when a rubbish truck boomed past. Barney Skrentny had gone slightly off script by ringing a large dinner gong, providing a pleasing bass note beneath the shrillness.

When the three minutes were up, everyone cheered. Ruth Grimberg turned up, having had an unexpected alarm call. "I thought what are all these bloody middle-class people doing with bells, on the one day I don't have to get up at 6am. What is it for again? I thought maybe it was some protest about rubbish collection." She headed off good-naturedly in search off coffee, and everyone else melted away too, ears still a-ringing. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 26 2012

Will you ring Martin Creed's bell?

Artist Martin Creed has asked us all to ring a bell on the first day of the Olympics. Creed believes in public art of the collective, but what does it really mean if we all ring a bell at once?

Everything is going to be alright. Those are the words Martin Creed wrote in neon in one of his public artworks. This white-light message has been seen on buildings all over the world. I have read it in Hackney, in Milan. Maybe it should have been written around the Olympic stadium to reflect the hope that, as one of Europe's most struggling economies hosts the world's biggest sporting event, this will boost us, save us, put some Olympic fire in our finances.

Instead, Creed is asking everyone in Britain to ring a bell tomorrow morning at 8.12am to mark the first day of the 2012 Olympiad. Even Big Ben will be chiming in. But what's it all about?

I have to confess I am still not sure if I will be ringing a bell. Something in me resists it – but at least the resistance is making me aware of the meaning of Creed's public art. He loves community. He believes in the collective. That message he put up high – Everything is going to be alright – is a message for everyone, encouraging and embracing. His roomful of balloons is similarly a work to share. And his marble staircase in Edinburgh is a throwaway luxury for everyone.

A lot of works by Creed are unnerving. The lights go on and off. His songs insist on the reality of nothing. An artist who worries about nothingness and darkness reassures himself and us by promoting the wisdom of crowds.

Will the big bell-ring work? It has plenty of institutional support. In Edinburgh, a bell-ringing session will take place on Creed's Scotsman Steps. So why am I feeling resistant?

The collective is not a straightforward ideal. It means conformity as well as community. I want to know more about what Creed means by his glorification of collective acts. What does it mean to all ring bells in unison, and what does he want it to mean? Is it a glib gesture or something deeper – and if it is deeper, what is it seriously saying?

Of course, I might find this out by ringing a bell. And that may actually be the best reason for doing so.

• If you'd like to ring in the Olympics, you can select a sound from our bell-ringing interactive © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 25 2012

July 24 2012

London 2012: Big Ben to chime for three minutes to mark Olympic opening

Bell will toll outside its regular schedule for first time since George VI's funeral in 1952

Big Ben is to chime non-stop for three minutes to help ring in the London 2012 Olympics.

Special permission had to be gained for the hour bell at the Palace of Westminster to toll out of its regular sequence. It will strike more than 42 times between 8.12am and 8.15am on 27 July to herald the beginning of the first day of Games.

It will be the first time Big Ben has been rung outside its regular schedule since 15 February 1952, when it tolled every minute for 56 strokes for the funeral of King George VI.

The Turner-prize-winning artist Martin Creed came up with the idea for the London 2012 festival. He suggested all the bells in the country should be rung as loudly as possible for three minutes.

Bells will be ringing everywhere from Britain's northernmost inhabited house in Skaw in the Shetland Islands to the UK's most westerly church in Tresco in the Scilly Isles. The bells at the Welsh assembly, Stormont in Northern Ireland and the Scottish parliament will also ring, so all four parliaments will be chiming in unison at 8.12am.

The celebration aims to set a world record for the largest number of bells being rung simultaneously and can include anything from children with handbells to people ringing bicycle bells and doorbells to experienced ringing experts of tower bells and church bells.

The House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, said: "It is a sign of how special this summer is when one of the world's most famous bells will ring outside its regular schedule so it can be part of this London 2012 festival commission to ring in the Olympic Games.

"I am delighted we can play our part in this Martin Creed artwork.

"This is primarily a work for every community within the UK to embrace as their own but it is also important for our famous landmarks to be represented when the eyes of the world will be on us." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The World in London exhibition – in pictures

To mark the London Olympics, the Photographers' Gallery commissioned 204 photographers to take pictures of 204 Londoners born in countries competing in the 30th Olympiad

July 23 2012

In the age of the Cultural Olympiad, we're all public performers | Claire Bishop

The latest exhibition at Tate Modern features performers interacting with the public. But it's definitely not high art

Visitors to Tate Modern in the past week will have noticed strange activities in the Turbine Hall. Rather than the usual flurry of cranes, cherry-pickers and engineers that signal the arrival of a new installation, there were 50 people of different shapes and sizes running around the concrete expanse: spiralling in loops, gathering in clusters, hurtling up and down the ramp. In the middle of them was the British-German artist Tino Sehgal, fine-tuning his performance – or as he prefers to call it, "constructed situation" – which opens to the public on Tuesday.

Sehgal's These Associations is a far remove from the overblown visual spectacles that usually make up the annual Unilever commission. At first sight you barely see anything. Then you notice strange ripples of movement across the concrete expanse as the 50 choreographed performers come into view. If you stand by and watch for a while, one of them might come up and talk to you, recounting a personal experience of when they felt they belonged.

Sehgal is well-known for participatory performances in which groups of non-professionals are trained to engage in conversation with the public. For this commission, more than 100 people have been recruited: the youngest is 16; the eldest are in their 70s.

His reliance on non-specialist performers is part of a broader trend since the mid-1990s towards participatory art – and is arguably its institutional apotheosis. For much of this time, however, participatory artists have been working outside the mainstream world of museums. It is only in recent years that the tendency has become high profile, in works such as Antony Gormley's One and Other (2010), when more than 34,000 people applied for a chance to occupy one of his one-hour slots on top of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

At the time the Guardian's Charlotte Higgins referred to the work as "Twitter art", and she wasn't far off the mark: participatory art has proliferated in tandem with the feedback loops of Web 2.0 and social networking, while its fascination with eccentric laymen parallels the populism of reality television. All three tread a very fine line between cultural democratisation and incessant banality.

But participatory art has a long history, spanning the whole 20th century. Today it's an international phenomenon and arguably less political in orientation. It used to work against an absurdly inflated art market, on the one hand, wanting to empower those less privileged, on the other. But part of its recent popularity in the UK is a result of specific ideological motivations. In the mid-90s, New Labour commissioned thinktanks to evaluate the benefits of social participation in the arts. Proof was found that it reduces isolation by helping people to make friends, developing community networks, helping offenders and victims address issues of crime, encouraging people to accept risk positively, and transforming the image of public bodies.

For better or worse, these pro-participation studies became the foundation of New Labour cultural policy and led to a climate in which participatory art and education became a privileged vehicle of the social inclusion agenda. Culture was valued because it created the appearance of social inclusion, even while government continued to erode those institutions that actually assure this – education and healthcare. This led to the contradictory condition of participatory art being embraced by radical artists for its unmarketability, while serving a Potemkin function for its governmental paymasters.

With the arrival of Cameron's "big society" in 2010, the terms of engagement have shifted once more. The Tories have little interest in the political uses of art, preferring to hand it over to the dictates of the market. (The result is Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's Tatlin-on-crack sculpture, ArcelorMittal Orbit: a £19m monstrosity named after the private individual who funded 85% of its construction.) Mass creativity is supported only to the extent that it is self-generated – and self-funded. In keeping with big society doctrine, wageless volunteers are asked to pick up where the government cuts back. In this climate, participatory art acquires a different resonance, more akin to the sacrifices of unpaid labour. It is no coincidence that a large percentage of the Cultural Olympiad relies on such volunteerism: Marc Rees's Adain Avion, for example, asks local community groups in Wales to be content-providers for a mobile art space made of aircraft fuselage, while Craig Coulthard's forest football pitch in Scotland needs to be "activated" by amateur teams, wearing strips designed by local children.

Herein lies an important difference between Tino Sehgal in the Turbine Hall and the do-good community-based participatory art so rife in the Cultural Olympiad. Sehgal isn't particularly interested in empowering people; those who work for him are paid performers who serve his ends (an enigmatic work designed to reflect on the museum as a space of simultaneously individual and mass address). But what Sehgal does have in common with the majority of participatory artists is a tendency to place an emphasis on everyday (rather than highly skilled) forms of performance.

In so doing, his pieces, like so much other participatory art under neoliberalism, serve a double agenda: offering a popular art of and for the people, while at the same time, reminding us that today we all experience a constant pressure to perform and, moreover, this is one in which we have no choice but to participate. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 28 2012

Street art takes London by storm

A 10-storey Shepard Fairey megaphone, a bus covered in bubbles, a Banksy work on the nose of a jumbo: London Pleasure Gardens has unveiled new pieces by the world's top street artists

Street artist Shepard Fairey unveils largest mural in the UK

The artist responsible for the Obama 'Hope' posters has made a 10-storey artwork broadcasting the power of free speech over London during 2012

London Pleasure Gardens, a new event space in Newham, today unveiled important new artworks by several prominent US street artists. The unveiling coincides with the official launch of the London Pleasure Gardens on Saturday 30 June.

The most prominent new work is by California's Shepard Fairey, also known as Obey, who has painted a huge mural in his characteristic black, white and red, of a megaphone that "projects free speech great distances". Fairey said: "I am really happy to be associated with LPG … it will be something that unsuspecting Olympic enthusiasts will stumble across. The mural symbolises freedom of speech and expression and is the tallest piece I have ever done." Fairey's megaphone mural is over 10 storeys high and is visible from Pontoon Dock DLR station.

Fairey started making street art stickers in 1989, which evolved into the iconic Obey stickers and posters featuring the face of now-deceased wrestler Andre the Giant that were posted worldwide. Fairey is best known in 2008 for his red, white and blue Hope posters, used in Barack Obama's US election campaign.

Other artists involved include Ron English, featured in the films Supersize Me and Exit Through the Giftshop; TrustoCorp from New York, who twist corporate branding for their own purposes, and LA's Risk. Ron English has painted the nose cone of a jumbo jet and speech bubbles on hoardings on the site. Risk's colourfully painted bus is another highlight.

The artwork has immediately established London Pleasure Gardens as an important hub for street art in London, and confirms London's importance as a major street art centre globally.

The directors of the London Pleasure Gardens have a long track record of arranging large shows featuring national and international street artists. Another of their projects, Mutate Britain (a play on Tate Britain) in 2008, included a large exhibition in Ladbroke Grove, west London, under the Westway flyover called One Foot in the Grove. London Pleasure Gardens director Garfield Hackett said of the project: "The pleasure gardens of old showed the positive effect that sharing in art and culture can have on London. We can't wait for people to join us here to see what we're creating." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 19 2012

Actaeon stations: Chris Ofili and the Royal Ballet

Chris Ofili has spent two years creating sets and costumes for an epic ballet inspired by Titian. What did he learn?

Chris Ofili comes with a seemingly gold-plated reputation: 1998 Turner prize winner, British representative at the 50th Venice Biennale, paintings held in some of the world's great collections. But two years ago, when he agreed to design a new production for the Royal Ballet, he suffered a flash of paranoia. "I was genuinely scared," he says. "If you fall flat on your face there, you break every bone in your body. You're not going to walk away."

And Ofili could think of a dozen reasons why he might fail. During most of his career, he had worked as a solitary and self-contained artist. He had never created designs for the stage before, let alone for ballet; and he'd certainly never been involved in an enterprise that promised – or threatened – to be as vast, crowded and competitive as Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

Metamorphosis is the brainchild of the National Gallery curator Minna Moore Ede, who felt the Cultural Olympiad should be marked by some kind of grand Diaghilevean multi-genre collaboration. As a starting point, she proposed three Titian masterpieces depicting stories from Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses: Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto. To accompany the literary strand of the project, in which three poets are writing contemporary responses to the works, the Royal Ballet is creating a three-part Titian ballet, with designs by a trio of major artists.

Moore Ede was determined to bring together radically different artists. She believed the scale and energy of Ofili's paintings made him a natural choice, but to offset his work's bacchanalian life force, she opted for the very precise sensibility of sculptor Conrad Shawcross, and a wild card in the form of the reliably unpredictable conceptual artist Mark Wallinger.

Already, that trio added up to an irrepressible mix. But Monica Mason, the Royal's director, had even bigger ambitions. Due to retire at the end of this July, she wanted Metamorphosis to be a farewell present to the seven choreographers with whom she had worked most closely, dividing them into a trio and two pairs. Three very different musical talents – Jonathan Dove, Nico Muhly and Mark-Anthony Turnage – were then asked to compose a score for each part.

"Until the curtain goes up," says Moore Ede, "no one has any idea how it will work." Ofili, speaking at the Victoria Miro gallery in London, can't wait. "This audience is really going to get their money's worth," he says, grinning. "I like Monica's attitude: 'I'm leaving now, so it's all yours. Make a mess and tidy up after yourselves.'"

Ofili was less jokey when he was first teamed up with his three choreographers: Will Tuckett, Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins. He admits to deliberately stalling his way through most of the first year.

"I felt it just wasn't my world. I didn't have anything significant to contribute that wouldn't make me utterly embarrassed." Not only was he inhibited by his ignorance of ballet design, he was daunted by having to measure up to the Titians, feeling that, as the only contemporary painter involved, his work would be most directly compared to the master's. "Honestly, it felt like lambs to the slaughter."

So he turned to Titian's source material: Ovid's story about the young hunter Actaeon, who spies on the virgin goddess Diana while she is bathing with her nymphs; as a punishment, he is turned into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds. Ofili found it a "genuinely gripping read. All of its themes – desire, temptation, pride, beauty, the joy of the kill – felt relevant. The project got into my veins as a story." His confidence was boosted by his first serious meeting with the choreographers, who were all interested in staying close to Ovid's narrative. "We got on well, and it was easy to decide between us which were the most important elements of the story."

Ofili produces a photograph of the backdrop he designed. On one side is Diana, standing beneath her signature crescent moon and a giant curving phallus ("the male burden of desire"). On the other side, nymphs ripple upwards from a bubbling stream. Figures, landscape and symbolism metamorphose into each other with a fluidity reminiscent of Blake, an artist Ofili regards as one of his "torchbearers". But the design is also influenced by the landscape of Trinidad, where Ofili now lives. "There are waterfalls there that lie deep in the forest," he says. "Often when I go walking there, I hear voices of people I can't see." It made him think of Actaeon walking through a forest that was alive with his own sexual fantasies.

Most artists leave the actual painting of the backdrop to professional set-painters. But Ofili opted to do it himself, by hand. "The scale is amazing," he says. "When you first see the stage, that's what gives you the clutch in the intestines." It took him four weeks and the technical staff at the Royal Opera House thought he was mad. Yet, says Ofili, "hands down, it was one of the best painting experiences of my life".

He had an equally good time with the costumes. His first instinct was to take inspiration from Picasso and the "crazy" sculptural creations he created for Erik Satie's 1917 cubist ballet Parade. But the more time Ofili spent around the Royal's dancers, the more he wanted to ensure they could move freely. "I wanted them to feel comfortable, so they could push themselves."

He opted for all-in-one leotard and tights, customised for each character with head-dresses, cloaks, jackets, body hair, and handheld puppet heads for the hounds. He regards the work of the costume department, who converted his sketches into moving, breathing outfits, as little short of genius. But it's the dancers who impressed him most. "One night," he says, "I was standing in the wings and this girl came off stage. She'd looked amazing while she was dancing: shiny and happy. But as she came off she was crying. She said she was in agony, she had flu, she had a new baby and her nose was running like a little child's. Then she went back on and the light just flushed back into her. I thought, 'This is extraordinary.'"

Their bodies fascinate Ofili, too. Marianela Núñez is dancing Diana and he has become obsessed by her back. "The muscles are so alive, so expressive – it's like a face." As for the dancers' feet, he winces at the thought of all the blisters, blood and bunions he has witnessed. "Don't get me started. I had no idea feet could look like that."

When the project was first proposed, Ofili fretted about spending so much time away from work he was already absorbed in. "I knew it was going to be a huge brain-drain." But the intimacy and the fun of collaboration have been a revelation; he hadn't realised how much he would learn, nor how natural the transition from studio to theatre would eventually feel. "Working for the stage," he says, "you're playing a game of pretend. The curtain opens, the audience is absorbed for a period of time. That's very close to what I do as a painter. I make stuff up and invite people to look at it, and then off they go. I like that. I like how simple it is. I like how very wonderful it can be."

The details

The ballet
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), in rep 14-20 July

The exhibition
The Titians will be shown at the National Gallery, London WC2, with sets and costumes created for the ballet from 11 July to 23 September

The screening
The 16 July performance will be simultaneously relayed to a large screen at Trafalgar Square, and to 18 other venues across the UK © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 12 2012

The Olympics are exposing us as a nation self-obsessed

Plans for the opening ceremony are to be a mixture of celebration and gentle jibes about our nation. But aren't the Games about more than just us?

Patriotism becomes daft when you expect other countries to share your national pride. America nearly got away with it in the age of the moon landings, when children of my generation accepted it as fair enough for the stars and stripes to hang out there in space. But it has been a long time since even the land of Coke could teach the world to sing. Why should the entire world be expected to embrace the British self-love that appears to be at the heart of the Olympics opening ceremony? Are we offering ourselves as the new America, a land so marvellous it can export its self-image?

A billion people around the planet are expected to witness the £27m ceremony conceived by film director Danny Boyle to start the Games. In details announced today, it emerges that he will turn the stadium into a vast model of an ideal and somewhat mythic British countryside. Complete with landmarks like Glastonbury Tor and entitled Green and Pleasant, the spectacle will treat the world to a romantic vision of our national landscape. Real farmyard animals will be grazing; in total there will be 70 sheep, 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese and three sheepdogs. There will also be clouds with fake rain in case the night is clear. "If it doesn't rain, we have created our own," said Boyle at the announcement, pointing to four huge clouds hanging from wires over a model of the stadium.

Look, I am not a huge athletics fan. Sometimes I watch the Olympics on TV, sometimes I don't. Is it the done thing to obsess about one's own national identity quite so overtly in the opening ceremony? By the sound of it, though, Boyle's spectacle will be far from complacent: with references to the aftermath of the industrial revolution and a cast that includes NHS nurses, it does sound as though he is offering an alternative, radical style of patriotism, not to mention laughing at national traits and the soggy climate. But radical navel-gazing is navel-gazing nonetheless.

There seems to be a unfortunate blur between this summer's jubilee and the Olympics. It is a culmination of a boom in self-regard that has made modern Britain ever more inward-looking. Waving flags for the jubilee was logical: the Queen is nothing if not British. But the Olympics? Surely, the Games are international.

The British Museum in London currently has a modest display of 12 objects recalling the ancient Greek Olympics. The highlight – which no one who visits London this summer should miss – is the Motya Charioteer, one of the masterpieces of ancient Greek art. Contemplating this sensuous statue of an athlete in a clinging robe, I could not help wishing the British Museum would put on a full-scale show about the history of the Olympics to celebrate us hosting the world's greatest sporting event. Instead, its big exhibition for the Olympic summer, in the same flag-waving mood as Boyle's sceptred-isle landscape, will be about Shakespeare. I am looking forward to it. But then I am British.

Is Britain playing host to the world this summer – or to itself? Why on Earth is the romantic Little England of Boyle's opener the appropriate way to begin a festival celebrating the human planet?

There's something very 1930s about all this. When we remember the Depression, we see the vicious hyper-nationalism of Hitler and Mussolini as nightmares never to be repeated – yet democratic countries too became inward-looking and self-obsessed in that age of austerity. British artists harped on about the landscape. Novelists feasted on British eccentricity. Now, in this new age of austerity, imaginations are once more preoccupied with homegrown qualities and known landscapes. Isn't the Olympics meant to be bigger and more generous than that? © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 08 2012

Yoko Ono profile: from John Lennon to a Wish Tree

An artist for the age of Occupy is given a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London

The most famous thing anyone ever said about Yoko Ono was, inevitably, said by John Lennon, and for years it held true. He called her "the world's most famous unknown artist, everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does".

As the artist, musician, film-maker and peace activist nears 80, that could be changing. After decades demonised as the witch who destroyed the Beatles she is emerging from the shadow of that complicated personal history.

Since a groundbreaking exhibition in New York in 2001 re-established her reputation, she has come back into focus as a significant artist, winning the accolade of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale. New generations of artists have discovered her as an inspirational figure.

Basement Jaxx, Flaming Lips and Lady Gaga have collaborated with her in recent years. Younger visual artists as different as Jeff Koons, Pipilotti Rist and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster cite her as an influence; the photographer and film-maker Sam Taylor-Wood even jokingly calls herself an "obsessed fan".

This summer the artist – a tiny figure, usually to be seen wearing trademark sunglasses and hat – will be the focus of a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

According to Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director of the gallery, it is her prescience as an artist that makes her an intriguing figure for today. "As her relationship with the Beatles fades into the past her own reputation is crystallising. What is so extraordinary is that her work chimes with the times we live in now. Her activism is immensely relevant for today, in the age of Occupy."

Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim, organised the 2001 exhibition at New York's Japan Society. She says Ono's importance is only just being fully appreciated "after 40 years of her being dismissed – either as a Japanese artist, or a woman artist". She adds: "What makes her so slippery is that she is so wide-ranging. She is a musician and a poet, a peace activist and a performance artist, a maker of objects and a conceptual artist – and married to John Lennon."

The sheer breadth of her output, says Munroe, has taxed curatorial and critical skills. But, she says, Ono's originality cannot be underestimated, even though it has often been unrecognised.

"She was the first artist, in 1964, to put language on the wall of the gallery and invite the viewer to complete the work. She was the first artist to cede authorial authority to the viewer in this way, making her work interactive and experimental. That was the radical move of art in the 1960s."

Ono's energy remains undimmed and she continues to make new work and harness new technology. Her Twitter followers number 2.3 million. Recent works include her Imagine Peace tower (2007), a column of laser-light on an island near Reykjavik, and My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004), an image of breasts and vagina that was exhibited on posters around the city of Liverpool, causing controversy in some quarters.

She was born in 1933 into a wealthy Japanese family firmly ensconced in the ruling classes; her father was a banker. She began piano tuition at two and was educated at a specialist music school as her family shuttled between New York and Tokyo. War brought unfamiliar deprivations to the aristocratic family. In 1945 she took charge of her siblings, at the age of 12, when they were evacuated to the countryside after the capital's fire bombing. They struggled to eat. Her father was imprisoned in a Saigon concentration camp.

After the war Ono completed her education, becoming the first woman accepted to read philosophy at Gakushuin University. The family moved to New York, where she studied at Sarah Lawrence College, and, in 1956, she married the composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. By this time Ono was discovering a downtown scene of musicians, composers and artists, with John Cage and La Monte Young key figures.

After the collapse of her relationship with Ichiyanagi she married the American producer and art promoter Anthony Cox, and they had a daughter, Kyoko.

By the early 1960s Ono was working on the periphery of the neo-Dadaist Fluxus group, organising performances and happenings in her Chambers Street loft in Tribeca.

A key work was her book Grapefruit, first published in 1964, which has artworks framed as sets of instructions, or "event scores"; as such it is an important early example of conceptual art. (One example, entitled Painting to Exist Only When It's Copied Or Photographed, runs: "Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.")

Another significant work of this period was Cut Piece, a performance work in which Ono invited the audience to take scissors and snip away her clothes as she sat, silent and still. The critic Michael Bracewell notes: "It is amazing how well that piece has lasted. When you see film of the piece done originally, she seems so vulnerable as a young woman, especially a young Asian woman. There are extraordinary undertones – submissiveness, the idea of the geisha. Enacted, it becomes incredibly tense."

Bracewell saw the piece when it was re-done in Paris in 2003. "The piece had automatically updated itself. It had become a piece about celebrity. The place was crammed to the gills, a couple of rows full of gilded young people, and absolutely no security. There she was, this elegant woman in her 70s and anyone could approach her with a bloody great pair of scissors."

For Munroe, Cut Piece was "absolutely revolutionary. "The idea that the artist's body in time and space is itself a work of art was totally radical."

In 1966 Ono held a show at the Indica Gallery, London. John Dunbar was the gallery's director. "I introduced John and Yoko," he recalls. "I was a friend of John and Paul, and suggested they come in; I thought John would enjoy it. Yoko had never heard of John. I had to explain that he was a rich person who might buy something … It wasn't immediately clear that anything was going to happen. She is a strong woman. John had never met anyone like her."

After two years they got together. But the corollary was that Cox, after a custody battle for Kyoko that Ono won, effectively kidnapped the child, and Ono did not see her at all between the ages of eight and 31.

Ono's union with Lennon of course represents the pivotal moment in her life. According to Bracewell an immediate effect was her artistic influence on Lennon – which also served to damage her, since she was "regarded as the demon face of the avant-garde and, particularly in Britain, what she did was largely seen as unintelligible".

Sean, Lennon and Ono's son, was born in 1975, five years before his father was gunned down on the street outside the Dakota Building in New York . Ono still lives there with her superb collection of art that includes Magrittes and Warhols. And mother and son have  collaborated on music projects in recent years.

An often expressed doubt surrounding Ono is that the peace-and-love mantra she expresses through her art and through her activism can look like a relic of a lost time, a statement stuck in the era of the 1960s.

For example, her Wish Tree, which she has instigated in various locations and will appear outside the Serpentine this summer, is a tree on which members of the public are invited to attach labels on which they have scribbled their wishes.

Bracewell, who believes Ono has suffered from "a sexist and racist response to her from people who regarded her as a giggling, inscrutable Japanese woman who had stolen one of our national treasures", argues that to regard such works as childish is unfair.

"Why would we have a problem with Yoko doing peace and love when we are quite happy for the Beatles to sing All You Need Is Love?" he says.

Perhaps Ono has, in the end, more right than most to tackle hatred and violence in her own way. She experienced war in Japan firsthand; her husband was shot down; her life was clearly soured by hatred directed at her from some Beatles fans.

It is her resilience in the face of disaster that, for the musician Antony Hegarty – who has collaborated with her on performances – makes her a personal as well as an artistic model. "She has  shown me, by her power of example, how to stand by one's values, even in the face of fear," he says. "She  has endured brutal storms and never surrendered."

Munroe agrees. The peace-and-love message, she says, is authentic. "She really believes in love as the transformative energy in the world. That's her faith."

Potted profile

Born 13 February 1933

Age 79

Career Ono has worked in the avant garde of the art world since the 1950s, her practice taking in music, film, poetry and performance – including her two famous week-long "bed-ins" with her husband John Lennon, a twist on the sit-in.

High point Meeting Lennon at a preview of her exhibition at Indica gallery, London, in November 1966; also her 2001 retrospective Yes Yoko Ono, which cemented her work's reputation.

Low point Ono was vilified for decades for breaking up the Beatles and even after Lennon's death in 1980 attracted little public sympathy. Also suffered the abduction of her daughter Kyoko by her second husband, Anthony Cox.

What she says "No one person could have broken up a band, especially one the size of the Beatles."

What they say "I learned everything from her … That's what people don't understand. She's the teacher and I'm the pupil." John Lennon, 1980 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 30 2012

Martin Creed: 'I don't know what art is'

Martin Creed wants everyone in the country to ring a bell for the Olympics – and he'll start with his own front door. The former Turner prize winner talks to Charlotte Higgins

• Scroll down for a world exclusive video

I arrive at Martin Creed's studio a few minutes before he does. I say studio: really, it's a flat above an Indian restaurant in Brick Lane, east London, so heaving with stuff you have to flatten yourself against walls to squeeze from one narrow space to the next. The main room has a double bed in it, piled high with boxes and brushes (he used to live here before he moved to a more central flat; he also has a base on the volcanic island of Alicudi, off Sicily). The walls are hung thickly with small paintings, many of them what he calls his "pyramid paintings", horizontal swipes of brush-strokes in different colours. Commissioned to make a poster for the Olympics, he submitted one of these because the shape reminds him of a podium.

The assistant, who works from a desk squeezed into a tight corner, goes out to buy milk and I am left alone, trying not to read a letter from Tate director Nicholas Serota that lies on top of a pile of papers (I fail: it's a thankyou for donating the original Olympics artwork to the Tate). Then Creed himself appears: a long umbrella emerges through the door, followed by a figure in an overcoat and neatly knotted scarf. His corkscrew curls spring out from a bowler hat and he has a droopy moustache. With his slightly melancholic look, he reminds me of Charlie Chaplin; but the photographer is right when she says he is the spit of Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now.

Creed, who was born in Wakefield in 1968 and grew up near Glasgow, came to popular attention in 2001 when he won the Turner prize. For the exhibition, he showed Work No 227, The Lights Going On and Off. It was exactly that: an empty room in which the lights would switch off and on. This was archetypal Creed: a work that intrigues yet slightly annoys you. He has also made works in which doors don't close properly, or curtains close and open themselves. He has a big summer ahead. There is a major Olympics project: his Work No 1197 aspires to have "all the bells in the country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes" at 8am on 27 July, to welcome in the Games. He and his band have their first album out in July, full of punky-minimalist songs with repetitive lyrics ("Fuck off", "Love to you"). And he is writing a new, 15-minute piece for classical ensemble; the London Sinfonietta will premiere it next week with his band.

Creed is an artist who sees no distinction between visual art and music. All his works are given numbers, a system borrowed from the classical-music opus system. He was brought up with music: his parents played cello and piano, a grandparent was a concert pianist. As a child, he played violin and, at one point, he considered studying music instead of art.

He also sees little distinction between making art and just being in the world. We hammer this out by arguing over trousers. "I don't think making these works is any different from trying to decide on buying a pair of trousers … It's all trying to live, you know." But surely an artwork, which may sell for a vast sum or be shown in a museum, is more profound than a pair of trousers? "I'm not saying the art is superfluous crap, but that [everything is] really important. It's all profound. Everything you do affects other people, and might have a terrible or an amazing effect. Not just paintings in a gallery. I find it difficult to draw a line."

I try again. Does making art feel different from choosing trousers? "No. I don't know. I don't know what art is. It's a magic thing because it's to do with feelings people have when they see something. If the work is successful, it's because of some magic quality it has." A magic quality the artist has put into it? "It's not in the work," he says. "People use the work to help them make something in themselves. So the work is a catalyst." Has a pair of trousers ever made you cry? (I happen to know he cries at Beethoven.) "No," he concedes. "But I don't sit listening to a pair of trousers for 40 minutes."

For his Turner prize show, Creed also exhibited scrunched-up paper and Blu-Tack. The Sun had fun with that, announcing a "Turnip prize" and inviting readers to suggest similar works. But something has happened to Creed over the past decade: like other once-controversial Turner-prize winners such as Jeremy Deller, he has settled into being generally liked. The Sun has since written about him with a sort of grudging respect, as if he has pulled the wool over the world's eyes with his eccentric art and deserves to be congratulated. The paper's coverage of the bell-ringing exercise was almost reverential.

Not that everyone was keen: Kate Flavell, president of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, went on her blog to declare the project "misconceived" and to state that they would not be working closely with it. The 8am timing was not suitable, she wrote, nor was it practicable to ring church bells for three minutes. Creed nears irritation when we talk about this. "I feel like it's really mean and stupid. It's like we're kids playing a game and we're saying, 'Does anyone want to play? Everyone's welcome.' But if someone's going on the radio specially to say, 'I'm not playing', that looks really mean. I think, 'Just don't play if you don't want to.'" The CCCBR is now supportive of the project, which invites members of the public to ring a bell off their own bat – or create an event with friends. Creed reckons he'll ring his doorbell.

His latest works involve making paintings with his eyes closed. "Because I am sick of looking at things. It seems to come out better sometimes when you've got your eyes closed. When you try to control something, it can be so dead." To make the paintings, he puts his hand and arm through a series of predetermined movements. There are a lot of systems in Creed's work – often relating to his inability to make decisions. The pyramid paintings, he says, came out of his inability to select a brush, so he bought a multipack and used the lot, combining restriction, indecision and the operation of chance in one fell swoop.

Similarly, the Sinfonietta work is a result of his inability to decide on what notes to use: he will simply use the entire pitch-range of the ensemble from high to low. But he may be moving away from controlling things. At the moment, he is also painting "blind portraits": looking at the person but not the paper as he draws. "It is trying to bypass my own tendency to make everything so tasteful and nicely designed. I am sick of that. A lot of the time, I look at my work and think, 'Oh fuck, that's so controlled – bleurgh!'" He makes a horrible puking sound. Creed once made a film of someone vomiting and he likens the blind portraits to that. "That's what the sick film was all about – just going 'Bleugh!' I know it might be horrible to watch, but maybe it's more true to life than some polite arrangement of shapes. I think living is trying to come to terms with what comes out of you. That includes shit and sick and horrible feelings. But the problem with horrible feelings is you can't paint them. But horrible vomit – you can film that."

What I hadn't realised about Creed's work before we met was that there is a kind of unassuming aspect to it, just as there is to him. He is worried about the Sinfonietta piece because it's 15 minutes long and the audience will be trapped in their seats, not allowed to leave if they are bored. At the same time, his two previous orchestral pieces, he says, are so short and compressed that "it's like someone speaking really quickly, not really letting you hear, because they are nervous". Barely three minutes long, the work he wrote for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2008 was described by the Guardian critic as "a terrible piece of music, but a profound work of art". And his visual works, he explains, are basically one-liners because he's too polite to detain you. "I think that's why I've made so many short songs, because I was scared of being rejected. And the visual work is insured against that. You don't have to look at them for more than a second to get what's going on."

The details

The gig
The London Sinfonietta's Evening with Martin Creed is at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 9 June.

The debut album
Love to You is out on Moshi Moshi Records on 2 July.

The bell-ringing
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May 28 2012

Lynette Wallworth: the alien world of coral reefs

The Australian artist reflects on her underwater film, Coral: Rekindling Venus, which premieres to coincide with a rare astronomical event

Timing is always important in art but it is nothing less than crucial when your project is tied to an event so rare that it will happen next month – and then not again for 105 years.

The Australian artist Lynette Wallworth is in that position. She spoke of her hugely ambitious film work that has been five years in the making and will be premiered next month as part of the London 2012 festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad. "It is a call to action," she said. "A harking back to a possibility."

It is inspired by a rare astronomical event, Venus's transit of the sun, when that planet passes directly between the sun and Earth. The transits come in pairs, few and far between – 2004, 5-6 June this year and then not again until 2117 and 2125. The previous pair was in 1874 and 1882 and before that 1761 and 1769.

It is the 18th-century transits that have particularly fascinated Wallworth because they led to what was perhaps the first example of worldwide scientific co-operation.

One of the big challenges of the age was to work out how big the solar system was and how much distance was there between Earth and the sun. One man occupied with the question was English astronomer Edmund Halley who speculated that observing the transit from extreme parts of the globe would help scientists come close to the calculation.

"He also knew he wouldn't live to see it," said Wallworth. "That was the part of the story that, in the beginning, hooked me in."

Halley wrote a letter to the Royal Observatory, the astronomers of the future, "begging them that when the time came they would go in ships around the world to observe this event".

And they did. It has a resonance today because it was not a problem that could be solved in one place; observers had to be all over the planet – around 120 in 1761 (French, British, Danish, Swedish, German, Italian, Portuguese) and an even more in 1769. It was the reason Captain Cook was in Tahiti.

Some remarkable things happened. The French allowed British ships safe passage, even though the two countries had recently been at war and were far from friends. "It was an undertaking that was for the benefit of all humanity," said Wallworth. "An attempt by countries to act globally for a scientific problem. It was amazing … beautiful, sort of mind boggling. There are so many moments that caught me as an artist."

That inspired her to make a "call to action" film showing the extraordinary, almost alien beauty of coral reefs – one barometer of climate change. "Coral is the canary in the coalmine of the ocean," the artist said. "They can handle very little temperature change. It is impossible for us to imagine a sky without stars but we have to be able to contemplate an ocean without coral and they are extraordinary communities."

Wallworth commissioned filming by underwater cinematographers, including the Emmy award-winning Australian David Hannan who shot around three-quarters of it. The film is strange and beautiful to look at and will be even more incredible for viewers as it will be shown at planetariums across the world.

"People will think they are in space, think they are moving through stars," said Wallworth.

Almost trance-inducing music has come from artists including Antony and the Johnsons and the Australian Aboriginal singer Gurrumul.

Wallworth said the film is "a harking back to a possibility. Is there a way to think forward, like Halley did, in terms of imagining what we might need to do? Is there a possibility of acting in unison?"

The film will initially be shown at planetariums in 25 cities across the world but Wallworth hopes it will have a life beyond that. She said: "I'm hoping it will build a new audience and that is part of what makes it exciting."

• Lynette Wallworth's Coral: Rekindling Venus will launch on 6 June and be shown at the Royal Observatory planetarium in Greenwich, London from 7 June-6 July and the Birmingham planetarium at various dates in June. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 18 2012

Overworlds and Underworlds: The Quay brothers take over Leeds - video - video

Rooted in mythology, the Quay brothers' art draws connections between ancient cities and the modern metropolis. For Overworlds and Underworlds, a city-wide project for the Cultural Olympiad, they hope to transform Leeds into a walking wonderland. Here, Leeds Canvas organisers discuss the event, which runs from 18 to 20 May

'Getting lost is essential': the Quay brothers on their Leeds art project

Video: From 18 to 20 May, the Quay brothers will turn the whole of Leeds into a stage, as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Prepare for a labyrinth to get lost in

May 08 2012

Serpentine pavilion goes underground with Ai Weiwei and Swiss architects – in pictures

This year's Serpentine pavilion, designed by Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, will take visitors below the lawn of the London gallery into an underground maze of contoured cork

April 26 2012

The Olympics is about sport not art, so culture needs to drop out of the race

When the best the Cultural Olympiad has to offer is bouncy castles and BMWs, you know it's time for art to take a back seat

A question arises looking at the full programme for the London 2012 festival, and that question is: why? What's all it for? And how does it connect in any interesting way with the Olympics, or use that sporting even to further art?

As far a visual art goes there is nothing odious about the choices made, but nothing very coherent or spectacularly important, either. To be honest, from Jeremy Deller's bouncy Stonehenge touring the nation to an installation by Richard Wilson in Bexhill on Sea, many of the artworks for the festival sound a bit ... cheap and cheerful. A bouncy castle can't cost that much and Wilson is an artist of subtle ephemeral installations. It's hard to see how the festival is raising anyone's game here. Where's the ambition? Oh, there is, and its name is Anish Kapoor ...

Another element of the art programme that adds to the sense of public money being in short supply is that we are supposed to get excited about a display of BMW cars painted by the likes of Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol. This is an innovative and creative contribution to culture how? These painted cars have been around for centuries, and if the London 2012 festival is driven to rely on them as a major part of its programme it is in serious trouble. There is nothing special about a show of these pop art vehicles, nothing cutting edge, and the only explanation I can see is that the organisers are desperately reliant on sponsorship and grateful for BMW's involvement.

It hardly takes a world festival to elicit a new work from Antony Gormley, to take another art element of the programme. But it's time the cultural establishment, which seems endlessly deluded - and by which I mean curators, administrators, and us cultural journalists - woke up to the blindingly obvious fact that when the Olympics opens, we won't be the stars.

I once visited Athens ahead of its Olympics to review its cultural festival. Greece has more reason than most places to make a lot of cultural noise about the Olympics, and did so, with exhibitions on the ancient Greek Olympic games as well as a Gilbert and George show. None of this mattered when the games opened. The BBC did not weave a visit to the wonderful Cycladic art museum into its games coverage. This is about sport, not culture, and after all the fuss, the London 2012 festival implicitly recognises that by foregrounding entertainment (see Stephen Fry at your local comedy club!) and going easy on the brainwork. When it comes to visual art, this makes the whole thing pointless. It will add little to the life of the mind, but may give BMW a boost. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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