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Olympic art: Who benefits from these multi-million pound trinkets?

This article is over 11 years, 10 months old
The public art commissioned for the Olympics is at best inoffensive and at worst grotesque—and will do little for local people, argues Douglas Murphy
Issue 2306
The ArcelorMittal Orbit towers over east London   (Pic: ArcelorMittal)
The ArcelorMittal Orbit towers over east London (Pic: ArcelorMittal)

The plan for the Olympic Games to come to London was sold as the only possible way to get some funding into east London. The reality has been very different.

One of the earliest signs of this was a massive diversion of funds away from communities, culture—even from local sport.

That money was poured instead into the gigantic task of bringing the Olympic pageant to London.

This has been particularly bad news for up-and-coming artists—who are nowhere more concentrated in Britain than in east London.

The little public money still coming to arts and culture now passes through the mega-committees of the Olympic Delivery Authority. It is earmarked for public artworks intended to make the Olympics a more “cultural” event.

Most of the art created by these committees is inoffensive, simple and difficult not to like. Keith Wilson’s “Steles”, for instance, consists of mooring posts in the Olympic Park river that are decked out to look like colourful crayons.

Who could possibly be offended by something so nice? But also—who could be moved, or even interested?

This is typical for the public art created in the years since New Labour took power.

The 1980s was dominated by an intimidating “neoclassical” tendency—think of all those stock­brokers swanning around in front of mock Greek bronzes.

In contrast the public art of the late 1990s onward is friendly and supposedly “for the ordinary person”.


But all too often it lacks any kind of critical edge that might make viewers stop and think about the world around them.

The worst of all the Olympic art has to be the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a gigantic steel sculpture and viewing tower. This was not part of the original plans for the Olympics.

But London’s Tory mayor Boris Johnson decided he needed to make a monument to himself—and a particularly large and stupid one at that.

To make this happen he enlisted steel baron Lakshmi Mittal, one of the world’s richest men, along with artist Anish Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmond.

Together they have created the 115 metre tall orbit that dominates the skyline of east London.

So some of the most poverty stricken areas in Britain are now treated to the sight of a hideous multi-million pound trinket that celebrates the egos of Johnson and Mittal.

Unlike some of the sillier and cuter Olympic artworks, the Orbit harkens back to the worst excesses of imperial art.

It borrows its “utilitarian” style from engineering architecture—yet it is fundamentally useless, nothing more than a massive corporate and personal advertisement.

Neither the Orbit nor the smaller, more subtle, artworks will help local people when the housing crisis pushes them out of their neighbourhoods. That crisis, of course, has been made worse by the Olympics.

But maybe that’s the point—the Olympic artworks are designed rather as fresh decorations for the newer, wealthier residents moving in.

Douglas Murphy is an architect and writer living in east London. His new book The Architecture Of Failure is published by Zero Books


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