“God help us all,” I wrote on first seeing the renderings of what is officially known as the ArcelorMittal Orbit. “That is by a considerable distance the worst piece of public art I have ever seen. Please stop it.” Some voices, however, say they quite like it: one newspaper at the time of writing, the Standard, has bravely come out in support of it. Others may rally round. And of course it is a normal public reaction for people instinctively to dislike anything new, large, unusual and expensive, and some at least of those may grow to like it later. But let’s assume the majority is behind me on this one, and that it is very bad indeed. Why is that so?
1. Is it by a bad artist? No. I’m not a huge fan of Kapoor, I’ve described his work as “art for the Yentob tendency” after the notoriously self-satisfied BBC arts veteran of that name, but I wouldn’t call him bad. However the larger his pieces get, the less I like them. There’s increasingly a sense of an artist turning out lazy one-liners and hoping that the scale and technology of some of them will compensate for the paucity of imagination and the dearth of feeling. His giant mirror bean in Chicago, for instance, has an eerie perfection to it and is very large and – that is all, really. Possibly it is beautiful, it is certainly not ugly. Others of his works are ugly, such as the huge trumpet-like installation he made in the turbine hall of Tate Modern, but ugliness is not a definition of bad art, any more than mere beauty is a guarantee of good art. So the Olympics monument – from the ugly end of his oeuvre – should not be dismissed on that account. No: Kapoor may be over-rated by some, may be over-stretching himself badly, but he has done some fine work, is by no means a bad artist and his work is always interesting. It’s not like he’s the author of that kitsch horror, the giant bronze embracing lovers in St. Pancras station. So that’s not it.
2. Is it a meaningless symbol? Nearly, but not quite. True, this is monumentality largely for its own sake. It’s not a potent symbol like the (slightly smaller) Statue of Liberty. It looks as if Boris Johnson, the London mayor, wanted a big televisual image for the 2012 Olympics and did not find it in the architecture of the sporting venues. There is no equivalent of Beijing’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium to be found in London. Our temporary stadium by Populous and Peter Cook is actually very good in a minimal-structure kind of way, but it does not have the widescreen wow factor. Zaha’s Aquatics centre is too small, Hopkins’ velodrome too restrained. Could something be made of the intersecting rings of the Olympic logo, perhaps? It’s a banal starting-point, but at least there is a universally-recognised meaning to those rings. Moreover, by ascending to the top of the observation platform, you will see all of London spread out before you, east and west. It’s a flat site: this allows you to appreciate it. Again banal, but at any rate it relates the Olympic site to the rest of the capital. As often with Kapoor, I cannot detect any real feeling in the work, in the way you can with an old trouper like Antony Caro, say: it’s just the chilly working-out of a deeply flawed and thoroughly compromised geometric idea. But it is not quite devoid of all meaning.
3. Does it successfully combine its sculptural and functional purposes? No. This is where everything goes wrong. As Caro found with his “sculpitecture” experiments years ago, it’s one thing to allow people to clamber over your work, quite another to make it genuinely habitable. Suddenly you’re up against Building Regulations, Health and Safety, the full panoply of specialist consultants. It’s death to art, really, and you see art dying here. Just take a close look at Kapoor’s model and look at the stairs spiralling up it. Those are building-regulations stairs with the regulation landings, not a sculptor’s idea of stairs. There’s a lift shaft: it has to be vertical and the rest of the asymmetric composition, which appears to lean, has to be wrestled to make that vertical element possible. The observation deck is a little building – but sculptors don’t do buildings, and engineers have no flair for them. So it’s an out-take from all those cheesy communications towers around the world with revolving restaurants on top. And – given that Cecil Balmond is meant to be some kind of poet-engineer-genius – why is the structure so ludicrously clunky? Is it just to get as much of Mr. Mittal’s steel into the thing as is humanly possible? Because it is a deliberately unstable form, it meets the ground in a thoroughly unsatisfactory way, like an old woman leaning on a stick. Look at the stadium alongside it: that’s an object lesson in the lean use of structure.
Conclusion: the form is terribly misconceived: a mash-up of Kapoor motifs from various of his other works, combined with a desperate attempt to shoe-horn something of the Olympic logo into the form. That would be bad enough at any scale, but then the whole thing is blown up to superscale. It gets worse: this is a sculpture that also tries to be a building. That’s not the same thing as a sculptural building at all. A sculpture that tries to be a building, rather than merely referencing a building, is bound to fail. Finally: engineering-wise, it has no purity of structure in the way that the Eiffel Tower does, say: all the engineering is doing is finding a way to stop a deliberately unbalanced thing from falling over. So: misconceived, ugly, banal, compromised and downright embarrassing, that is why it is, by a considerable distance, the worst piece of public art I have ever seen.
It will probably look great on television, particularly at night.
© Hugh Pearman, April 1, 2010. Image courtesy of Arup.
Kapoor describes the work: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8597497.stm