Less than 24 hours after it was unveiled, Anish Kapoor’s mammoth Orbit sculpture for London’s Olympic Park has unleashed a firestorm of controversy. This in itself is impressive; Londoners as a whole aren’t renowned for getting all that passionate when it comes to public art or the public realm.
When oil giant Gazprom publicised plans for their controversial new skyscraper in St. Petersburg last year, planning meetings descended into riots. Conversely, when Richard Rogers first proposed part-pedestrianising Trafalgar Square in the Royal Academy’s seminal ‘London As It Could Be’ exhibition in 1986, it took 17 years to happen. The pendulum of publicity has swung much more quickly for Kapoor, but not in the right direction.
Responses so far have ranged from ridicule to outright profanity and even though determining the true extent (or value) of ‘public opinion’ is always a perilous task, we can safely say that the Orbit has not gone down well. The controversy it has attracted is not particularly surprising. Orbit is big, expensive and modern, all characteristics bound to unleash the most animated armchair histrionics.
But even worse, it’s abstract art and regardless of what the cultural establishment would have us believe, many people find it difficult to relate to abstract art. Paul Day’s huge ‘Meeting Place’ sculpture in St. Pancras station – as figurative and un-abstract a piece of art as you will ever find - has received a relatively warm public reception. Yet it has been mercilessly pilloried by legions of art critics who have lined up to dismiss it as melodramatic kitsch. However, the fact that Kapoor’s works seems to have garnered criticism from critics and the public alike renders it, in this regard at least, unique.
So it Orbit any good? Is this volley of criticism unfair? Does the criticsm even matter? Victor Hugo skilfully summed up popular public opinion of the day when he quipped that the best thing about the Eiffel Tower was that it was the only building in Paris from where you couldn’t see the Eiffel Tower. Few would be brave enough to cast such aspersions today.
Visually, Orbit is certainly provocative. It’s a strangely formless, brooding hulk of twisted metal that is apparently, among other things, a distorted interpretation of the Olympic rings. It leans menacingly over the Olympic park like a vast, crushed television antennae and provides the kind of asymmetric, deconstructionist aesthetic that clearly informed the equally controversial London 2012 logo. However, its bleak, post-industrial, tortured form does seem somewhat at odds with Olympian ideals of unity and hope.
Is it beautiful? No. Is it ugly? Probably. But what this crude, subjective assessment doesn’t ask is a far more important question: what does it say? And this perhaps is Orbit’s biggest flaw and the reason why it has attracted such negative publicity.
To the mayor of London and the London 2012 organising committee, who have been gushing profusely about the sculpture since it was unveiled, it clearly provides a big, pop-art symbol of the games that will doubtless look good on TV and divert attention away from the fact the London Olympic Park lacks much of the architectural ‘wow’ factor so clearly evident in Beijing.
But to the public, its symbolic value – beyond the fact that it has a viewing platform and its chief benefactor is a steel magnate, hence all the metal – is virtually non-existent.
Kapoor has stated that the formless shape allows multiple interpretations. But if most people aren’t able to perceive a single one of them, then the sculpture itself becomes difficult to understand and, even more damagingly, impossible to value.