Borrow, build, abandon

A haunting new photography exhibition captures an Olympic legacy abandoned.

Jamie McGregor Smith has a thing for empty spaces.  In the past, the British photographer has taken his camera to derelict environs as diverse as Detroit’s auto factories, Laybourne Grange’s abandoned lunatic asylum and Stoke-on-Trent’s forsaken pottery industry. He documents the decaying, the crumbling, the once useful  - now forgotten.

Recently, it is the un-peopled post-Olympic structures of the 2004 Athens Games that have attracted his attention. In a new project titled Borrow, Build, Abandon – now on display in London – he turns his gaze on the city’s failed exercise in legacy planning; a site that now sits almost entirely disused, accruing disrepair - a home for rogue vegetation, graffiti, even drying laundry. As journalist Helena Smith wrote after a visit last May, “Athens's Olympic park, once billed as one of the most complete European athletics complexes, is no testimony to past glories. Instead, it is indicative of misplaced extravagance, desolation and despair.”

McGregor Smith’s documentary series explores this legacy of destitution: “Eight years after the games came to a close,” he writes. “Only three of the 22 Olympic stadiums, built at a cost of $15 Billion, are currently in public use, the remaining requiring an annual £100 million in upkeep costs.”

Lessons on Olympic legacy, highlighted by the Barcelona and Sydney games, were shadowed in Greece’s case by pressures of completion and a delayed three-year construction timeline. Caused by political intervention and government elections, this rush for completion allowed little thought for post game usage and trebled its construction budget.

In  of our own moment of post-Olympic splendour, it’s no surprise that a photographer of Smith’s disposition was drawn to Athens. The product of political floundering, budget cuts and a lack of foresight, the buildings are a government’s failing embodied, and an example of what McGregor Smith calls industrial entropy – “the forces that effect the transition and the decay of matter and energy in a broader sense, evolving economic trends and industrial stability – a change that is natural and unavoidable.”

He further elaborates:

In the years of sovereign debt crisis, these white elephants of peer pressured national pride, much like the factory shells in defunct industrial cities, are testament to humans continued failure to comprehend inevitable entropic social change. We need to consider the possibility that all human construction in the future could have the technology of functional adaptation.

The work hopes to achieve an appreciation of aesthetic architectural qualities, in cohesion with their contextual relationship to the societies they were constructed for and by. In the cases of abandonment the effect of their power, achievement and status on human landscape, equally exaggerates their failure, in the context of their functional disestablishment.

With Boris Johnson at the helm of the London Legacy Development Corporation, permanent tenants secured for seven of the eight Olympic venues and a promise “to promote and deliver physical, social, economic and environmental regeneration in the Olympic Park and surrounding area”, legacy planning is undoubtedly an issue that London 2012 has enthusiastically addressed.

And yet these portraits – stark, unyielding, silent - are a curious reminder of an evolution that is often beyond our control. We can build it, but can we master it? We’ll wait and see.

Borrow, Build, Abandon: Athenian Adventures in Concrete Steel is Jamie McGregor Smith's first solo show; now on at the Print House Gallery, 18 Ashwin Street, London E8 until 3 October.

 

(All photographs courtesy of Jamie McGregor Smith)

An olympic stadium in Athens sits empty. (PHOTO: Jamie McGregor Smith)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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