Some excellent commentary on the ArcelorMittal Orbit from other bloggers.
2012 will be the year in which the world will fail to spectacularly come to an end, and the year in which the Olympics come to east London. In a series of events that will come as a surprise to absolutely no-one, the Olympics are also bringing their usual blend of puffery, graft, and political swilling in the corporate trough.
Having not lived in an Olympic host city before, I’m unable to offer any opinion on the experiences of other places that have received the Blessing of the Five Rings. Nevertheless, as my money is going to pay for some of it, I’m entitled to comment. (As is every other person in the city; each of us has no choice but to contribute £20 each in additional council tax every year for the next few years for the privilege of hosting the Games.)
I’ve never had any formal education in art history. Yet even to my unpracticed eye, and probably that of anyone else who’s paying attention, it’s plain to see that the British art world has moods and phases, each accompanied by a media darling or two that comes to represent the current movement in the public eye (often given a leg-up on the way by a highly moneyed investor that has taken a shine to them). One obvious example would be the Young British Artists that rose to prominence in the 1990s. Their notorious Sensation exhibition, which I saw at the Royal Academy in the autumn of 1997, came scant months after New Labour’s triumphant seizure of control from John Major’s ailing Conservative Party. The group of daring young things from Hoxton became inextricably tied to the “Cool Britannia” media image of Tony Blair’s early years in power, and spearheaded a renaissance in conceptual art, unprecedented since its first wave in the 1960s and 1970s, that culminated four years later with the Turner Prize being won by a man who wired up the lights in an empty room to endlessly switch on and off.
Conceptual art faded not long after, helped in part perhaps by the Stuckist art movement publically declaring its death in the year following that of the man with the lights, and perhaps by simply having gone as far as it could in its time. However, during the conceptual art peak the British establishment hedged its bets against the instability of the YBAs and took sculptor Antony Gormley to heart. Gormley’s meticulous meditations on the human form were, for a while, almost ubiquitous, featuring in exhibitions, outdoor placements and daring large-scale commissions, such as the ingenious Quantum Cloud, which accompanied the opening of that great Blairite landmark, the Millennium Dome, in 1999.
As the post-millennial years ground on Gormley seems to have gradually drifted from the position of Modern Art Wunderkind. Perhaps his work came to be seen as too redolent of New Labour as the shine wore off, or maybe people just got bored of seeing endless variations on the shape of Gormley, no matter how sliced or fractally dispersed they were.
Gormley’s contemporary in large sculptural commissions in the Britain of the 2000s is Anish Kapoor, whose gimmick is making large objects that “blur the boundary between art and architecture”. They are usually of uncertain shape. They vary in texture, but are often reflective. In the case of his new commissions for the Tees Valley, they are also meaningless at first glance and, when you stop to consider them more closely, still meaningless. Occasionally he will let himself go a bit wild, maybe by splattering paint at a wall out of a cannon, or shoving a big lump of wax through a few doorways and making a bit of a mess.
However, to almost the last member, Kapoor’s oeuvre is bland. To cast your eyes over it is to be witness to a cavalcade of indeterminate lumps, blobs and tubes, usually sitting mutely in some kind of incongruous setting, emitting all the dramatic power of an unconvinced sigh. “I’m a sort of sphere,” murmurs one as you approach it. “Are you, now,” you reply. “Mmh…” comes back an anaemic answer; followed by an awkward silence as you both realize you have already exhausted the entire possible range of conversation available to you.
Nevertheless, Kapoor is the In Thing; and this week we’ve seen the announcement that the site of the fabulous 2012 Olympics are to be blessed by his vision. With this, “Orbit”.
It’s hard to know precisely what to say about this… thing. The immediate comparisons are obvious: a collapsed rollercoaster; a plastic copy of the Eiffel Tower that got left out in the sun; a tangled pair of fishnets pulled out of the back of a sock drawer; a spray-painted clarinet with a spring around it. In other words, shapeless and lacking any definite message – just like the rest of Kapoor’s work.
This matches, in a general way, the equally shapeless logo that was designed for the Games. At no small cost, naturally, it was unveiled by an advertising agency in 2007. There’s no need for me to even start addressing its failures; it was brutally, and rightfully, torn apart from all directions within moments of its appearance. It shares with Kapoor’s work, though, a sort of wilful disregard for ordered form, balance, or grace. This is where the British art establishment has arrived in 2010, and where the money is going to go for Big Art in the next few years. Shapes are out. Blobs are in.
The Guardian ran a piece about Orbit that merits close reading. This quote by Kapoor fascinates me:
Kapoor said one of his references was the Tower of Babel. “There is a kind of medieval sense to it of reaching up to the sky, building the impossible. A procession, if you like. It’s a long winding spiral: a folly that aspires to go even above the clouds and has something mythic about it.”
You can find the same quote repeated in a couple of other reports, with the accompanying mention of the Tower of Babel. Unfortunately, though, the Babel legend is contained in the Book of Genesis, chapter 11. The Old Testament of the Bible predates “medieval” anything by several solid millennia. So either Mr. Kapoor is extremely bad at history, or, more likely, he his comments have been edited crudely by newspaper staff.
However, if you read this Financial Times article on the same launch event, you will come across the source of the Babel reference:
Mr Kapoor said… “You need to journey round the object, and through it. Like a Tower of Babel, it requires real participation from the public.”
We can definitely find Kapoor guilty of mixing and matching historical similes a little too freely (and misusing articles, unless there were more Towers of Babel that I’ve not come across). But what is he saying here? The builders of the Tower of Babel, says the Book of Genesis, did it to “make a name” for themselves. That certainly does seem apropos. But Mr. Kapoor should remember that the Tower’s builders were struck down and scattered for their hubris – so perhaps this is not the best comparison for him to make.
The structure itself, however, is not simply going to be called “Orbit”. When I read what it is going to be officially named, I was unable to stifle a groan of disbelief. The full official title of the structure is – fanfare, please – the “ArcelorMittal Orbit”. Yes, it’s going to be constructed by ArcelorMittal, the steel company owned by Lakshmi Mittal, fifth richest man in the world and richest man in Europe. The same man who in 2001 got Tony Blair to write to the Romanian government suggesting it would help their chances of getting into the EU if they let Mittal buy their national steel industry… and then “coincidentally” donated a huge sum to the Labour Party shortly after.
Do the people who have approved this vertical scrap-heap think that we have completely forgotten the Mittal affair, only nine years later? Or are they so brazen that they simply do not care what the public think? It is appalling enough that this structure – both grotesque and dull in equal measure – has been approved to “improve” East London. But for us to be presented, every time we encounter it, with the name of a bloated, sleaze-tainted plutocrat who spent his way into the pocket of our corrupt government, it simply intolerable.
In 1951, for the Festival of Britain on the South Bank of the Thames, a graceful, soaring and slender spire, the Skylon. Here’s a picture.
It had everything that Orbit won’t – drawing the attention effortlessly, conjuring up images of lifting into the sky and bursting through the clouds towards space at the speed of sound, a bright and exciting future delving bravely into the unknown for the good of everyone. Orbit’s meaningless tangles conjure up at best a theme park ride, spinning around on itself before dumping its passengers out not in a bright future, but a morass of tat, obese children and fast food.
Apparently, a popular joke in 1951 was “Why is Skylon like the British economy? Because it has no visible means of support.” We can easily resurrect the joke with a tweak or two: “Why is Orbit like the British economy? Because it’s an ugly, tangled heap of crap.”
transcribed from a place mat
Being in the general vicinity and needing to kill some time, I decided to take a look at the Westfield London shopping center, which opened with a vast amount of publicity some eighteen months ago in Shepherd’s Bush. As I write this I am still in it, ensconced in a booth at a restaurant on one of the upper floors, looking down into the central arena of this wing of the structure.
Westfield is an unsettling experience despite, and in fact because of, the non-threatening image that it carefully attempts to project. Following the tradition of mall design that has evolved through the last half-century, Westfield London’s architects have sought to enclose space in the least obtrusive fashion they could devise. They have attempted to give shoppers the feeling of being outside even though they are in; and to give them the impression of being free to roam and roost, like chickens in a barn. In reality, the shopper is funnelled through a long and witless parade of prefabricated brand stores that bear no relation to the virtual landscape which has been created for them. Slotting into their allotted cuboidal spaces, each store bears a frontage that sets it apart from its neighbors in some fashion, yet is not distinctive enough to alienate it from its clone-siblings somewhere out there in the retail universe.
Shoppers, as they pass along the aisles of high-street brands, can take the weight off their weary feet on one of a variety of vaguely Eero Saarinen-esque semi-designer chairs. Like the information desks, signs and all other objects on a Westfield floor, these come in a range of gently curved shapes – as if they had simply washed ashore after a decade or two of being worn down on the seabed by tireless waves. While emanating a whiff of designer style and stylish enough to pass muster to the aspirational middle-class eye, the furniture is nevertheless not daring enough to lodge in the mind’s eye for much longer than the buttock-prints will last in the soft foam of the seat after the shoppers have risen. As they sit, consumers may choose to look up and ponder the smooth undulations of the Norman Foster Lite geodesic glass panel roof, lying dynamically – yet gently – like a blanket draped over a minor forest of treelike branching steel columns. The inside-out feeling presents itself once again, offering vague hints of being in some upscaled, 21st-century version of the Arabian souk, sheltered from the fierce noonday drizzle in a cool oasis of commerce.
This effect, along with the homely familiarity of the brands presented in the mall, serves to effectively decouple the visitor from any sense of locale. You could be in any one of a dozen countries, and never know which; nor would it matter. With its white-painted walls, marble floors, glass and steel panels, Westfield London is indistinguishable from any airport terminal built within the last decade. The similarity extends beyond mere appearances: Westfield is a terminal. With its inside-out, everywhere-and-nowhere nature, it is the midway point on a U-shaped journey to nowhere, beginning and ending in the shopper’s home. Like an airport in which you spend several hours waiting for a connecting flight in a country that you do not intend to visit, it offers you no exit beyond that of your scheduled journey. The outside world, for all intents and purposes, does not exist.
After spending a while circulating in the microverse of the terminal I began to suspect that had I gone far enough, I would simply have arrived back where I began, like an ant marching along a Möbius strip in an M.C. Escher print. Eventually I realized that I could draw comfort from the feeling. The notion that there was, in fact, some kind of world that Westfield was the gateway to was a terrifying prospect. I began fearing that I could accidentally trace some nameless rune with my footsteps and cause the Westfield Gateway to open into an unimaginable world, like the girl solving the puzzle box in Hellraiser.
The nowhere aesthetic is characterized by the restaurant I am in. It, like almost everything in Westfield London, comes in a limited palette of shades: white, gray, taupe, black. (After becoming used to this desaturated world, the strident colors on display on the huge screens of the movie theater lobby upstairs come as a shock. “The biggest digital screen in Europe,” booms an amplified voice as your eyes, drained of color for the past few hours, frantically gorge themselves on whatever trailer is currently on show.) The restaurant served me a hamburger and fries. It was competently-enough produced, and proffered hints of the style and quality that consumers expect from the type of modern hamburger chain restaurants which have sprung up in droves over the last decade, but wasn’t quite able to follow through on those hints. (The restaurant’s name, “Byron”, offers an equally vague hint of cultured sophistication.) The experience of the burger, like that of Westfield itself, is one of transient satisfaction that fades into a vague taupe blur in the memory.
The return leg of a shopper’s commercial vacation to Westfield London will find them emerging into the distinctly less salubrious, yet infinitely more personable, streets of Shepherd’s Bush. The Westfield complex has landed on this somewhat down-at-heel area and erected what Douglas Adams called a “Somebody Else’s Problem field” over itself. Inside Westfield, the council estates and grubby fast-food venues of Shepherd’s Bush simply cease to exist. Why worry about or even notice the real world when you’re on a visit to Nowhere Land?
It is now perfectly clear to me what is on offer in the near future in Stratford, east London, close to my own home, an area sharing the worn-down vibe of Shepherd’s Bush, where a second huge Westfield complex is under heavy construction in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. The Westfield developers have invented the geographic memory hole, where all awareness of culture and locale is muted. Visitors to London’s Olympic Host Boroughs will be smoothly funneled away from the grit and dangers of real life in impoverished urban areas, into a steel and glass wonderland where their anxieties will be safely dulled and deadened for a few hours – until, having shot their wads into the chip and PIN terminals, they begin the journey home with their new possessions.
Charmless, characterless, and endless, Westfield is a living death.