London 2012 – Orbit (the Red Monster)

2012 London Orbit
I went out yesterday to Pudding Mill Lane, to an overlook area where you can see the progress on the London 2012 Olympics construction. Of particular interest to me is a public artwork called “ArcelorMittal Orbit” (although the locals are already referring to it as “Orbit” – dropping the reference to the ArcelorMittal steel company who has provided some funds for its construction in return for the sculpture bearing its name). I am choosing to refer to it as “the Red Monster”. Although it claims to incorporate the five Olympic rings – red is all I can see, twisting and turning in a form that is less focused on being aesthetically pleasing – and more focused on being ‘twisting and turning’. I also feel that the artist has borrowed heavily from the concept of a Klein bottle, but that is not a bad thing.

In a BBC interview with the artist, Anish Kapoor’s enthusiasm, pride and glee comes pouring out as he speaks about the sculpture, and the long term legacy that he feels the statue will hold. It is great that he gives tremendous credit to Cecil Baumond, the engineer on the project. He also speaks of the sculpture as being “truly 21st Century”, and they speak further about the “permanance” of the structure as a component of the London landscape… almost to the point of predicting that it will be “the” defining element of London”. This exchange at the end of the interview seems to sum it up nicely:

BBC: “and will this be permanent, then, on the London Landscape. Its going to be an artwork forever?”
Anish Kapoor: “That’s the idea.”
BBC: “New York’s got the statue of Liberty, and London is going to get The Orbit.”
Anish Kapoor: “Indeed.”

The comparison to New York’s Statue of Liberty is a bit disconcerting from my perspective, given that the statue of Liberty was created to be the enduring image of a new life, a new set of opportunities for folks who were for all intents and purposes the astronauts of their time… leaving behind all loved ones and all that they have known to start a new life in a new world. There is a reason behind why the statue of Liberty has become the iconic image of New York – and the United States – world wide. There is a reason why it has endured. It is the symbol of the hopes and dreams of wary travelers – those who would become Americans. It is the symbol of the lowly peasant or worker leaving it behind to attain greatness. It is a symbol that represents the imagination of those who never made the journey as much as those who did. It is the iconic experience their families and friends would envisage when they spoke of their loved one going to America. It encompasses hopes and dreams as well as sacrifice and lament. And the statue of Liberty represented generations upon generations of immigrants and their families. The statue of Liberty represented anyone who was willing to take a chance. It was not elitist – it welcomed the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

The Orbit, on the other hand, represents the hopes and dreams of a very select group of international athletes in one given summer. It has been designed to look like it is falling over, and to be very “new”. As anyone who has ever purchased a new cutting edge piece of technology can attest – everything new gets old fast. The newer it is – the older it seems to get. The defining artistic concept behind this work is that it looks as though it is going to topple over – that it does not appear to be inherently sound in structure. It appears as though its demise is imminent. And that, I believe, will be the legacy of the Orbit. Its demise is imminent… but the darned thing just won’t fall. Rather than being the timeless icon of generations of hopes and dreams, the Orbit represents a boat load of money being spent on the frivolous by and for the elite.

The Orbit will stand proud as an icon of the 2012 Olympic games… countless television stations will use dynamic camera moves panning out and away from orbit and then pushing in towards the stadium with that booming kettle drum and sharp brass horns music in the background that is so recognizable as the sound of the Olympics. There will be early morning versions, and mid-day, and of course the ubiquitous night time scene framing some of the highest interest track and field events. Every morning talk show worth its salt will have time booked at the main observation level for a morning broadcast or two. The Orbit will be the toast of the games. Each commercial break will be preceded by a shot pulling away from the Orbit, and you will know that they are done selling you car insurance and toaster strudels when the Orbit re-appears in all its red shiny glory. The Orbit will be the icon of the 2012 Olympic Games. And then the games will close. The stadium will be handed over to West Ham. And the Orbit will still just be there.

The biggest issue I have with the Orbit – and the 2012 games in general – is where they have decided to put them. It was one heck of a trek to get out to the area where the games are. Getting home to Walthamstow involved taking a DLR train (every 20 minutes in rush hour) to an overground train (running every 15 minutes in rush hour), to an underground tube station, to a transfer, to a bus. I skipped the DLR train on my way out to the site, in the hopes that I would be able to take a stroll through the local area, and perhaps get a feel for the setting.

The stadiums are set back behind miles of highway overpasses and barrier walls and all sorts of traffic confusion. I cannot imagine that they will be able to come to a safe and efficient method of transporting the millions of people that are likely to visit during the course of the games to this site without massively increasing the public transport options during the duration of the games. They will set up train lines and bus service to efficiently move people from some central London location and plop them right smack dab in the center of the Olympics. Walking to the site will be discouraged to the point of making it darned near impossible. The roads and highways in the area simply cannot handle that kind of foot traffic. The grand majority of tourists coming for the games will not set foot in East London. If the Olympics stadium grounds were Disney Land, East London would be the tunnels and behind the scenes areas used only by the Disney employees. Entrance into East London by the tourists will be strictly discouraged.

East London is not going to benefit from the hoards who come out to the Games while they are taking place, but they will get a big boost in the economy for the summer. Having the games means having loads of new jobs paying a premium price for unskilled labor. Local pubs and restaurants will get a huge boost from the increase in discretionary income many of the residents will gain.

Once the games are complete, the efficiencies in mass transportation bringing Olympic participants to the site will be shut down. Getting to Pudding Mill Lane, or to the stadium grounds and Orbit, will be a pain in the arse. It will take at least forty-five minutes to an hour to get to the site from anywhere in London. It is not a trek that anyone is going to want to make more than once. It will be limited to the odd tourist who is taking advantage of extremely low rates for coming to London post 2012 games. There will be a glut of hotels built up to meet the demands of the Olympics, and in the aftermath – no one around to occupy them. London tourism will fall rather than rise after the games – based on the “you should have been there last summer” mentality. “Why go to London now? You missed the games.”

Perhaps more problematic is the fact that you will not only have a massive tourism die-off – but the jobs associated with hosting the games will quickly dry out. Unskilled labor that was previously being paid a strong premium for working in the area will hit the rolls of the unemployed simultaneously. They will also have an artificially inflated sense of what their time in employment is worth. Jobs post-Olympics are going to be problematic in the area.

East London in particular is going to have a rough time coming down from the high of hosting the 2012 Olympic games. It is going to be a downer. And the symbol of it all – right in the middle of the stadium grounds wrapped in highway overpasses and a forty-five minute ride on mass transportation away will be the Orbit. The symbol of it all. Unwieldy. Unstable. The statue that just won’t go away. Fading. In desperate need of a washing. Home to pigeons and all that they do. Faded by the occasional bit of sun, and the weather and rain.

The worst part is what comes next. The economic downturn and sense of abandonment will hit the locals hard. Someone is going to snap. Someone is going to have enough. And the Orbit is going to be there, taunting them, as the symbol of when times were better. A reminder of a broken promise that they were pretty sure they remember someone making about East London rising. That damn statue. Someone is going to climb that statue with no interest in coming back down the easy way. That statue is going to be there when the best of times are gone, staring them in the face. That statue is going to be far too easy to climb when the hoards of security guards are long gone. That once bright red statue now faded in luster and dull in patina is going to take on a new meaning for the locals of East London. That statue should have never been red from the start.

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