Art and the Olympics

Commissions for the Cultural Olympiad are unveiled

Today, the winning commissions for Artists Taking the Lead, one of the main schemes in London's Cultural Olympiad, were announced.

Each of the 12 commissions, worth £5.4m in total, was picked from more than 2,000 entries, and will represent the nine English regions and the nations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Until today, there had been relatively little to show from the Olympiad, which has been criticised for lacking leadership and direction. But since the Royal Opera House chief executive, Tony Hall, was appointed this summer as the Olympiad's new chair, it seems at last some progress is being made.

The artists presented their winning ideas at the Oxo Towern, about six miles away from the Olympic site at Stratford. Among the most impressive and ambitious projects were Craig Coulthard's Forest Pitch, for which the artist will be "hiding" a football pitch in a forest, and Alex Hartley's nowhereisland. Here, the artist brings Nymark, an island he discovered in the High Arctic region of Svalbard, to the south-west of England. Some of the other projects seemed less successful, but they were at least far-ranging in scope (giant lion sculptures, bus stops and Lady Godiva, to name a few).

Sebastian Coe told the New Statesman that although the Olympics is predominantly a sporting event, the Cultural Olympiad will be one of the "most serious legacies" of 2012. "One of the accusations was that it [the Olympiad] was going to be the metropolitan 'elite' talking to each other, and it would be very narrowly defined . . . But we could not have been much broader in our approach, from the London bus stops through to the Leeds Canvas where you are using film, dance and theatre all within the same framework."

There has, however, already been a prolific response to the London Olympics from artists in east London. For an "alternative cultural Olympiad", visit the Wick Curiosity Shop.

Picture: STAVROS DAMOS
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Jonathan Safran Foer Q&A: “I feel like every good piece of advice boils down to patience”

The author on delivering babies, Chance The Rapper, and sailing down the Erie Canal.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the novels “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, and the nonfiction book “Eating Animals”. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

What’s your earliest memory?

Falling asleep on my dad’s chest on a swing at my grandparents’ house. But the memory is a bit suspicious because there is a photograph and I remember my mum taking it, so I guess I wasn’t really asleep.

Who are your heroes?

The only person I have ever been nervous to meet, or whose presence felt larger than life, is Barack Obama. I don’t think that makes him a hero but there are many ways in which I aspire to be more like him.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Man Is Not Alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a meditation on religion – not really organised religion but the feeling of religiosity and spirituality. I can’t believe how clear he is about the most complicated subjects that feel like language shouldn’t be able to capture. It really changed me.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

There was a period of about two years when my kids and I would go to an inn every other weekend so maybe the inns of Mid-Atlantic states? I’m not sure Mastermind would ever ask about that, though, so my other specialism is 20th century architecture and design.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would be very happy to return to my childhood in Washington, DC. In a way, what I would really like is to be somewhere else at another time as somebody else. 

What TV show could you not live without?

I really like Veep, it’s unbelievably funny – but I could definitely live without it. Podcasts, on the other hand, are something that I could live without but might not be able to sleep without.

What’s your theme tune?

I don’t have a theme tune but I do have a ringtone, which is this Chance The Rapper song called “Juice”. Every time it rings, it goes: “I got the juice, I got the juice, I got the juice, juice, juice.” I absolutely love it and I find myself singing it constantly.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It isn’t really delivered as advice but King Solomon says in the Bible: “This, too, shall pass.” I feel like every good piece of advice I’ve ever heard – about parenting, writing, relationships, inner turmoil – boils down to patience.

When were you happiest?

I took a vacation with my two sons recently where we rented a narrowboat and sailed down Erie Canal. We were so drunk on the thrill of hiring our own boat, the weather, the solitude, just the excitement of it. I can’t remember being happier than that.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

An obstetrician. No obstetrician comes home on a Friday and thinks: “I delivered 20 babies this week, what’s the point?” The point is so self-evident. Writing is the opposite of that. I managed not to fill any pages this week with my bad jokes and trite ideas, flat images and unbelievable characters. Being a part of the drama of life in such a direct way really appeals to me.

Are we all doomed?

We’re all going to die. Isn’t that what it is to be doomed? There is a wonderful line at the end of Man Is Not Alone, which is something along the lines of: for the person who is capable of appreciating the cyclicality of life, to die is privilege. It’s not doom but one’s ultimate participation in life. Everything needs to change.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel “Here I Am” is published in paperback by Penguin

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem