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    Bob & Roberta Smith: ParaIympic Poster (detail)

Designing London 2012: How did the Cultural Olympiad fare?

Posted by Liv Siddall,

It can be hard to concentrate on the artistic side of things when you’ve got some of the world’s most amazing sports men and women doing things on your TV screen that you had never dreamt of before (did you see the rhythmic gymnastics?). But while all of the sporting triumph was going on, in the background lurked something that had been in the making since 2008 – The Cultural Olympiad.

Whilst the actual games themselves were taking place safely contained within the 500 acre piece of Stratford, the Cultural Olympiad – something of such scale that it was almost too much to take in – was going on all over the country, all the time, with some events getting little or no coverage at all.

So what exactly was the Cultural Olympiad and did it affect us at all? The answer is yes it did, possibly in subtler ways than you may have thought. The Olympic website claims that 16 million people were involved in the Cultural Olympiad at some point or other, not counting the London 2012 Festival which provided “over 10 million chances to see free world-class events throughout the UK.”

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    Anthea Hamilton: Olympic Poster

The Olympic posters

Cast your mind back to soggy November 2011 when from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was setting the record for the highest video game ever sold (6.5 million) the other subject on people’s lips was the unveiling of the much-anticipated posters designed specifically for the Olympics and Paralympics. Some of our most famous artists including Tracey Emin, Martin Creed, Fiona Banner, Chris Ofili and Bridget Riley took up the mantle and the results were hotly-debated. Anthea Hamilton’s graceful-yet-powerful design of the legs walking upside down on the Olympic rings contrasted nicely with Tracey Emin’s heartfelt words to the Paralympic athletes. Ignore the predictably scathing comments from the more traditional art lovers, and this set of relatively controversial posters actually seemed to go down pretty well.

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    Rachel Whiteread: Olympic poster

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    Tracey Emin: Paralympic Poster

Jeremy Deller – Sacrilege

Nothing screams “fun for all the family” more than an enormous bouncy castle replica of one of the most mystical, respected landmarks of Great Britain. Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege – which, by the way is the same size as the actual Stonehenge – toured the country stopping at 25 locations where it paused long enough to let as many people as possible bounce on its luminous surface for 15 minutes each. Being one of the funniest concepts for a piece of outdoor artwork for a long time, this all-welcoming public artwork has put smiles on the faces of pretty much everyone who’s heard about it – let alone those who were lucky enough to get a bounce.

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    Jeremy Deller: Sacrilege

Martin Creed – All The Bells

Now this is a good idea. With people being forced to re-mortgage their houses in order to pay for seats at the opening ceremony (not really, but nearly) Martin Creed’s plan to get everyone ringing a bell, no matter what kind or size, as hard and as fast as possible all over the country to mark the beginning of the games was absolutely inspired. So on the morning of Friday July 27, millions of people around the country grabbed whatever bell they could get their enthusiastic mitts on and rang it for exactly three minutes. This enormous event ranged from the Royal Navy ringing bells from ships along the shoreline, to almost every dusty bell-rope in the land getting a good old yank, to people merely playing ringtones aloud on the Millennium Bridge. See a fairly strange interview with the much-loved artist and man behind the idea below.

Lucien Freud at the National Gallery: Portraits

In a show beginning almost a year after his death in 2011, some of the most sought-after and exquisite portraits were exhibited in London’s National Gallery to a staggering 175,000 people, the largest amount ever to come and witness a single show in the gallery’s history. With people flocking from all over the world to witness this surpisingly large amount of paintings, the intimate show which revealed so much more to the artist than anyone could have anticipated was, according to director Ruth MacKenzie, only possible through Olympic funding, and was undoubtedly one of the cultural highlights not just of 2012 but of the decade.

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    Lucien Freud at the National Gallery: Portraits

David Hockney at The Royal Academy

Similar to the Freud show, the Hockney exhibition of homages to the British countryside managed to utterly capture the hearts of Great Britain with impeccable timing. With queues extending out into the rain at ungodly hours, this was an almost ludicrously busy exhibition throughout its three-month stint at the Royal Academy, and (as far as I know) received no bad reviews. Proving that he is one of the most important and dedicated artists in the world, Hockney’s images of wild, rolling English hills (some created on iPads no less) cheerfully reminded everyone that viewed it that no matter what was to happen in the ever-looming and all-encompassing Olympic Games that there is a lot more to be proud of in this country than just showcasing our organisational and sporting skills. This exhibition will truly go down in history as one that restored faith in the astoundingly impressive artistic legacy that Britain has to offer.

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    David Hockney at The Royal Academy

So, as the games are dismantled and the athletes go home, we will be left with not just a spare velodrome and a lot of light-up mattresses going up on eBay, but with an enormous amount of people that bit more involved in the arts than they were before this whole thing started back in 2008 – and that is a marvellous achievement. Let’s hope post arts-funding cuts we can find some ways to continue it.

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Posted by Liv Siddall

Liv joined It’s Nice That as an intern in 2011 and is now one of our editors. She oversees itsnicethat.com and has a particular interest in illustration, photography and music videos. She also runs our London listings site This At There, and is a regular on our Studio Audience podcast.