At long last: the cultural wing of the London Olympic Games has its first tangible talking point. Anish Kapoor’s monument for the Olympic Park, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, was unveiled with no little sense of relief by Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, at an exuberant City Hall press conference. Finally we had something to look at, other than the dizzying procession of zeroes that attaches itself to the Games’ debit column whenever our attention wanders.
The mayor was in prime form. The conference was, even by the standards of this most jocular of authority figures, a light-hearted affair. Boris joshed with Anish, Anish shared a laugh with steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, whose £16m has made the project possible, and the famously austere Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, part of the committee that made the choice, was pictured in the accompanying literature in – gasp – an open-necked shirt and no tie.
This, contrasted with the air of solemnity and mild panic that afflicts most official discussions on the Cultural Olympiad, marked a striking and welcome change of tone. Johnson set the tempo with his grandiloquent attempts to describe Kapoor’s 115m-high tower a giant treble clef, a shisha water-pipe, a “super-sized mutant trombone”. Kapoor took all descriptions in good grace. The mayor went on to reveal the genesis of the project: he had approached Mittal, he said, in a chance cloakroom meeting at the Davos economic forum last year. Their conversation lasted 60 seconds. Wrong, said Mittal: more like 45.
OK, it was hokey stuff, but I liked it. It reminds us that the creation of art can be a haphazard business but that it is also sharply determined by material matters. Johnson was a man in search of a monument, so he hustled the man in charge of the world’s leading steel company. Mittal wants to raise his company’s profile, so he zeroes in on the most widely watched event on the planet. There was nothing fey about this transaction. The commissioning of culture can be a robust business, and that hasn’t changed since the time of Pope Julius II.
More importantly, Kapoor’s structure is something close to a masterpiece. True, it is not self-evidently beautiful. It doesn’t thrust into the sky with the elegant swagger of an Eiffel Tower. It doesn’t declare London to be the most important city in the world, nor its Olympics to be the most mind-blowing event of all time. It does the far more subtle job of removing some of the bombast from the enterprise. Its intentions are humble; but its significance is profound. This is a monument for a post-monumental age.
The Orbit’s principal theme, said Kapoor, was instability. That in itself is a radical statement of intent. Of course we Londoners know that we live in an unstable city. Yes, its multiculturalism is to be admired. There is, still, in our hyperlinked and superfast world, a residue of gentleness and tolerance among its inhabitants that occasionally defies belief. But all London’s qualities are finely balanced against its shortcomings, its daily acts of aggression, violence and pettiness. Those too are palpable, in the shortest of tube journeys across town. And we scarcely need reminding that the attacks of 7/7 occurred as we basked in the glory of having been awarded the Games just 24 hours earlier.
The Orbit gives us a physical impression of that instability. It winds and twists with bewitching insistence. It demands a multiplicity of viewpoints so that we can make sense of it; that we approach it, go through it, climb it, and drink cups of tea from its viewing platforms. It needs to be engaged with. In that sense, it is anti-iconic. Icons were created by the Orthodox church to render metaphysical truth in two dimensions. The Orbit does the opposite: it makes meaning less tangible, more slippery.
The Orbit is a remarkable companion piece to Antony Gormley’s “One & Other” installation on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth last year. Gormley, who was also on the shortlist for the Olympic project, wanted to provide an “open space of possibility” in an area that has in the past unquestioningly celebrated the nation’s military triumphs. His theme was transience, and the shifting nature of personal identity.
“One & Other” was also a post-monumental monument. Together with the ArcelorMittal Orbit, they are works that resist simple definition, and embrace the complexity of our time. But it is especially bold of London to use the occasion of the Olympic Games, an event that is besotted with the sound of its own voice, to launch a spatio-philosophical enquiry bang in the heart of the action.
But that is what is meant by leaving a cultural legacy: the remnants of the Games should be a deep and long-lasting questioning of who we are. And that is why art is fundamentally different from sport. The blue-riband event of the Olympics, the 100-metre sprint, is all over in fewer than 10 seconds. Kapoor’s monument is forever. He needed to provide the forthcoming Games with an intelligent counterpoint to their vainglorious couple of weeks in the sun, and he has succeeded admirably.