THE “art of with”. That’s how the director of Tate Modern, Chris Dercon, described the line-up this week, as the cultural component of the Olympic Games gets into full swing. You have to imagine him saying it emphatically, in his heavy middle-European accent, as he did at this week’s festival press briefing; it comes out a bit like “the art of writh”, and at first is a bit hard to understand.
Here’s the serious theory. Much of art produced in the past, from violently passionate Renaissance tableaux to Damien Hirst, has been about “shock and awe and separation”. But the artists prominently involved in the Cultural Olympiad, and the London 2012 Festival it has produced, like Jeremy Deller with his fairground-style inflatable Stonehenge, or Martin Creed’s national bell-ringing on the games’ first day this Friday, are about embracing and inclusion.
“Now we see something completely different, the art of with, of joining in,” says Dercon. “It’s not something we invented, it’s there because artists felt they had to invent another way of dealing with artistic messages, they said we want to embrace the public, we want to engulf the public, we want to create an art of proximity.”
In the spirit of testing what he calls the “comfortable, comforting, and contemporary”, I headed to the Tate Modern Turbine Hall. There, the Anglo-German artist Tino Sehgal has recruited 200 people for an artwork intended to take you unawares: working in a kind of subtle flash-mob, the performers alternately walk en masse (rather creepily, in the half light), chant, and engage you in conversation. They have stories to tell, meant to reflect modern London, and you’re meant to share your own.
A woman came up and talked to me about ringing muffled bells for a friend who died; another talked rather dully about seeking meaning with her father. A nice man in his thirties told me about a kindly schoolmaster who taught the game of Fives without really being able to play the game, but educated him in human understanding. It turned out it was my old school, which was certainly comforting, in an old-boy network kind of way.
Perhaps for a journalist, hearing total strangers tell me intimate and faintly rambling stories about their lives was not exactly new – nor, compared to the Fringe, where audience participation is usually not of the comforting variety, was it terribly memorable.
But the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson is doing another public-engagement show in the Tate this weekend, which I’m looking forward to. Clutching hand-held solar-powered, sun-shaped torches – the project is called Little Sun – 500 visitors will get to wander the gallery at night, peering at artworks.
Martin Creed’s Work No. 1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes, is the current darling of Olympiad organisers.
Set for 8.12am on Friday, with Big Ben due to ring 40 times, it seems to have that Jubilee spirit; it’s inclusive, amusing and, I suppose, reasonably cheap, compared with the (so far) ill-fated Forest Pitch project in the Borders. Creed’s work has not always been the darling of the public – his Turner winner, The Lights Going on and Off, had that hoodwink quality – but this one seems to have caught the mood.
Supporters proudly report that they’ll be ringing bells from the Isles of Scilly to Aberystwyth, on Unst, in Shetland, on navy ships, in embassies and in the Scottish Parliament. People are encouraged to sound off on anything that comes to hand, except fire alarms – such as bike bells, or mobiles, maybe using Creed’s exclusive ring tone, Work No. 1372, downloadable via www.allthebells.com. For your average punter, it seems a nice way of letting off a little steam before settling down to the Olympics on telly – though you could just watch the bells on the box, as it will be broadcast all over the Beeb.
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