From Stonehenge to the Pyramids, Trajan’s Column to the Eiffel Tower, the building of huge structures seems to be a universal human urge. But why do we still need to do it today? In an age of computer aided design and precision engineering, when we can see almost surreal architecture every day in our cities, what place does the monument have in the 21st century?
Officially launched tomorrow, Anish Kapoor’s Olympic sculpture, the Orbit will be a permanent artwork for the Olympic park at Stratford. Kapoor worked with structural engineer Cecil Balmond (as he has often before) to create the 115m high, bright red, looping steel structure.
Mayor of London, Boris Johnson explains his take on the project:
We decided we needed something extra, something to distinguish the east London skyline, something to arouse the curiosity and wonder of Londoners and visitors …
Our ambition is to turn the Stratford site into a place of destination, a must-see item on the tourist itinerary and we believe the ArcelorMittal Orbit will help us achieve that aim.
He positions the Orbit squarely as a traditional monument – a powerful reminder (or reminder of power). Like the Eiffel Tower it will display mankind’s technological mastery or perhaps, like Trajan’s Column, it commemorates the power of an event or a person. The Orbit will be something very visible across London and technologically awe-inspiring. And you can travel up in the lift and get a great view of London (or even maybe even a peek at the men’s 100m final) from it.
Kapoor himself suggests something rather more epic and affecting for his tower:
There is a kind of medieval sense to it of reaching up to the sky, building the impossible. A procession, if you like. It’s a long winding spiral: a folly that aspires to go even above the clouds and has something mythic about it …
Traditionally a tower is pyramidal in structure, but we have done quite the opposite, we have a flowing, coiling form that changes as you walk around it. … You need to journey round the object, and through it. Like a Tower of Babel, it requires real participation from the public.
The Orbit was conceived by the artist as a piece of sculpture (you can see some of his process drawings and models). It clearly references Kapoor’s other works (in colour and from and even monumental scale) like Marsyas at Tate Modern.
It is in the tradition of art on a monumental scale, from Michelangelo’s David (high art with a strong power message) to Richard Serra’s minimalist site-specific sculptures (where no clear message is built into the work), taking in participatory work like Carsten Höller’s Test Site slides. It looks directly at the idea of making a tower – like Tatlin’s Tower – and asks what a tower might be for today.
So what is this particular sort of public art for? Why do we need it, and keep commissioning it?
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