2012 round up part 3 – celebrating our institutions

There is no denying that 2012 was the year of sport and celebration. The Olympics brought us all together under the banner of sport and human excellence, but for those of us not so sport inclined, there was still plenty to be proud and excited of. London institutions realised the mass influx of visitors that was due to arrive bright eyed and wanting, as well as a expectant and hard-to-impress stay at home crowd. We were treated to an array of inspired shows, which took elements of the topic of the year as inspiration for something more.

The Design Museum provided a podium for the design behind the winners, with ‘Designed to Win’. Over 100 pieces of sports related pieces were on display, making you realise just how much human power and energy goes into the races, before the starting gun is even shot. As well as the equipment and facts, there was also nods to cultural changes when it comes to sports focused design products. The trend for sportswear as fashionwear was highlighted, with pieces from British designer Stella McCartney on display.

The V&A took the opportunity to showcase the best of British, installing proud-to-be-here-ness amongst designers here a few weeks before the opening ceremony, when it seemed to hit everybody else in the country overnight. The show ‘British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age’ was the first show of its kind to chart the history of British design across fashion, architecture, product, graphics, advertising, technology, craft, manufacture and more. It was great to see how much as changed since the Olympics games of 1948, to the current day, but also how much has stayed the same. British sensibilities such as playfulness and sharp wit were present throughout each era. One thing which stuck a chord with me was the innovation of ‘a new Diploma in Art and Design’. Today there are so many courses we take for granted and assume it is a given these ways of training exist. This idea came from government aiming to professionalise the training of artists and designers in the 50s, it is a far cry from the cuts and omission of arts and design in the curriculum that we are seeing today.

The Wellcome Collection continued with its strong tradition of exhibitions which fuse science and the arts with just all round natural curiosity with ‘Superhuman’. This exhibition looked at human modification and enhancement, from lipstick to the next stage of evolution. The exhibition also looked at sporting enhancement including prosthetic limbs for people with physical impairments and the baffling ‘Whizzinator’ – a prosthetic penis and drug free urine kit for athletes to give the impression of supplying a true (and clean) sample. Along with curiosities we were shown stunning photography and film from contemporary artists which questioned the future for these themes. This convincing mockumentary by Floris Kaayk about a man who becomes infected by mechanical parasites was a highlight.

The Tate galleries celebrated the nation by showcasing our ‘best of British’ with a massive Damien Hirst retrospective (which we covered here) and a show exhibiting the official Olympics posters from artists including Fiona Banner, Martin Creed, Gary Hume, Chris Ofili, Bridget Riley and Bob and Roberta Smith. Despite an uproar from the design community regarding the decision to use artists and not designers (and one disappointing rival show to voice this), I thought these original prints were a triumph. One thing all the prints hold in common is really capturing the energy of the games. Howard Hodgkin’s interpretation ‘Swimming’ stood out for me, a joyous expression of water and movement in such a simple but beautiful execution shows a very bold, brave and British spirit.

Also using the games for a different agenda were too-cool-for-school outfitters ‘Opening Ceremony’, taking advantage of the inevitable Google search hits by opening a pop up boutique in Covent Garden. This launch also tied in with a collaboration with official sportswear sponsor of the games Adidas. All in all – a very smart move which lead to a permanent shop space in the heart of the city.

The euphoria and enthusiasm which accompanied the game quickly died, leaving us all feeling like we had a gaping hole in our lives. Tate Modern captured this feeling by providing ‘A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance’ which opened after the games had closed. The show opened with a David Hockney piece which encapsulated many of the sensations surrounding the games. ‘A Bigger Splash’ depicts a splash of water from a swimming pool – one sudden moment frozen in time and captured through the medium of paint. Though the inspiration for this painting lasted for less than a second, the details took Hockney hours to paint the layers which lead to the depth and motion which ultimately gives the impression of jumping water. He intended to make this process a slow one saying; “When you photograph a splash, you’re freezing a moment and it becomes something else. I realise that a splash could never be seen this way in real life, it happens too quickly. And I was amused by this, so I painted it in a very, very slow way.” This piece is fitting for the nature of the Olympic races, especially the much anticipated 100 metre final. Years of work, thought, anticipation and hype all go into 10 energy fuelled seconds, which then last forever through the never ending slow motion replays, leaving iconic and lasting images in our minds.

In this age of blockbuster shows, I am so glad to live in a city with institutions that are brave, curating shows which are not the expected, but while also choosing themes which reflect the spirit of the times to really hold resonance with us, rather than just being a means to impart knowledge.