Pinky Says: Orbit Sculpture

What swirls and twirls and is red all over? It is the new Orbit sculpture designed by Anish Kapoor for the London Olympics. Kapoor is the creator of the BEAN for the city of Chicago and is a celebrated artist with an international reputation. Orbit has been built by three men of southeast Asian descent as a gift to London and the British nation. It received its beginnings when the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, ran into Lakshmi Mittal at a coat checkroom at the World Economic Forum and pitched the idea of building something that would add artistic panache to the Olympic Park. Mittal is one of the world’s richest men and CEO of Arcelor Mittal a huge steel manufacturer. The U.K. did not have the kind of money to spend that China had in the previous Olympics and so private capital sources were important. Mittal’s contribution provided the entire budget for Orbit including the 2000 tons of recycled steel; materials were procured from every continent in which Arcelor operated. In 2010 Kapoor joined by Sri Lanca engineer Cecil Balmond won an open competition, designing something that would delight and excite and contrast with the white stadiums and buildings that comprised Olympic Park. They took inspiration from the tower of Babel and Vladimir Tatlin’s Tower which was never built. “We thought that London needed a high energy something. We thought this idea represents flux, change,” said the engineer of the project, Balmond. Kapoor said he wanted the Orbit to be a collective interactive experience. Kapoor said, “All the white buildings on the site were banal and horizontal; our design had all its elbows sticking out. I think it’s awkward and it refuses to be an emblem. It’s about going in, going up.” The steel is supported not by 4 legs but by orbiting around itself.” Kapoor wanted the 377-foot high tower to project whirling, baffling, lopsided instability. He wanted this sensation of instability to be without a singular image from only one perspective. He thinks of it as a tower of Babel that compels the visitor to journey around it and through it; he wanted it to be like London itself with its many diverse nationalities. To Kapoor it was about intense spirals of concrete and whimsical steel flying through space.

However art, architecture, and public opinion do not always coincide and make for interesting conversation. Public opinion has been loud and angry referring to it as a roller coaster caught up in a spaghetti junction, Tatlin shagging Eiffel, a super sized mutant trombone, a big red clot on the landscape, a contorted mass of entrails, Spiderman on crack cocaine. Surely the public view was obviously not considering it as an attraction to rival the London Eye or Big Ben. And they constantly asked, “What is it?” The creators felt that it was a structure that seemed to be unstable, seemed to be propping itself up since the entire structure is a twist. They could not deal with the structure’s lack of a center; it simply was neither centered nor quite vertical. The public listened and denied the veracity and esthetic of the artists. One funny quote was made by the mayor of London who said, “There’s nothing too vulgar for me” a statement that drove the citizens to fury. And yet some art critics found the work daring, imaginative, and exhilarating. Good art often annoys and great art often annoys greatly, said one critic. Perhaps Orbit is an embattled hero of public art. Kapoor accepts that discomfort is OK. Orbit is controversial and that is a start. “This is an asymmetrical tower that is not really an image; it’s an experience that reaches up to the gods.” he says. Belmond advises us that we are looking at a completely new language, and that it presents a radical advancement in architecture. Perhaps it is a folly that is reaching to the sky. We must remember that the Eiffel tower was referred to as that “truly tragic street lamp”; it took many years to be recognized as a symbol of Paris.



Perhaps the most sensitive fact to the public was that this work of public art was to be permanently built in a derelict district in East London, a blighted area which could use all the help it can get to be revitalized. After the games the area is be part of a public plaza surrounded by a housing development, a park and shops, thus relegating it in egalitarian citizens’ minds to a dump for those less fortunate. What the site does have are superb views of the Olympic stadium area; what the designers of the tower wanted in addition to a viewing platform was that it should represent flux and change because the city is full of change with many ethnic streams coming together, making a collective interactive experience. What they wanted was a tower of Babel that would unite the people and allow them to celebrate diversity and move through the sculpture discovering all of London as they were taken up to the viewing platforms and as they descended the 477 steps to ground level.

Public art has the reputation of being slightly odd and elitist. Orbit seems to be representative of this to the British. While the artist wishes to have people explore the tower by moving through it, we should remember that for most visitors this is not the case and that Orbit should be seen and experienced as sculpture. In many ways it seems to have been a structure that was dreamed up by a committee. Yes it is taller than Big Ben and the statue of Liberty but it is only 1/3 the size of the Eiffel Tower. And yes it might well become as beloved as that structure. But for the present it seems to be simply that ugly red shapeless thing that represents nothing to the citizens of London, who feel that it is a parable akin to the Emperor’s new clothes –a sculpture designed by artists, engineers, and businessmen who were to produce a new landmark for London and failed. Now it is your turn. What is your take on Orbit?





3 Responses to Pinky Says: Orbit Sculpture

  • Orbit is at the leading edge of where the most daring art is taking us. The key descriptive sentence above is: “Kapoor said that he wanted the Orbit to be a collective interactive experience.” In that sense, he echoes the words and concepts of artist Tino Sehgal, whose art “experiences” have been shown as exhibits in the Guggenheim, the Tate, and many other prestigious art museums. With Sehgal’s art he goes a step further – there is no “art object” at all, there is only the experience of interacting within a space. Those who attend the exhibit become PART of the art simply by interacting with the space and trained question-askers (Sehgal is known as “The Question Artist”).
    The Orbit’s concept is a brilliant one: by inviting people to interact with it, become one with it, they move beyond the usual passive role of spectators, to become part of the change swirling around them. Sehgal takes it even further by eliminating any fixed object — there is nothing to “view” other than one’s own humanity interacting with itself and others. (See the August 10 isue of The New Yorker for more on Sehgal – if I were wealthy I’d fly to London just to see his current exhibit at the Tate — and the Orbit, of course!)

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