ArtIssue 16

Barely Qualified: the Art of the Olympics

TO say that the world is in a state of disarray is an understatement. Despite protestations that we are living in the safest time, the turbulence within Europe this summer and the ever-present threat that groups in the Middle East seem to pose have burdened the greatest optimists – even those partial to a Stephen Pinker TED talk. Nevertheless, in troubled times the quadrennial Olympic Games provides a temporary distraction, as this year’s in Rio de Janeiro didn’t fail to do – though not always for the right reasons. And, providing a distraction from this distraction, there was the art of the games.

The first official artwork undertaken managed to set, in Olympic spirit, a world record. Rio’s Praça Mauá port now boasts a 62ft long, 3,000 square metre mural – the largest ever – called Etnias (‘Ethnicities’), which was painted by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra. The mural depicts the faces of indigenous men and women from five different continents, including Mursi from Ethiopia, Kayin from Thailand, Tapajos from Brazil, a Supi man from Europe, and a Huli from Papua New Guinea. Kobra needed four other artists, working twelve hours a day for the past two months, to help him to complete the work before the opening ceremony. He noted that “we’re living through a very confusing time with a lot of conflict. I wanted to show that everyone is united, we are all connected.”

It is perhaps not the most original message – he shares the aim of ‘connecting people’ with Nokia – and whether it has come to apply depends on how you take it: head of the European Olympic committees, Patrick Hickey, connected himself with tickets, attempted to connect himself with an illegal profit for them, and then had his hands connected with cuffs; a Zika epidemic brought some athletes together, causing Jason Day (golf), Milos Raonic (tennis) and Tejay van Garderen (cycling) to withdraw; Ryan Lochte connected with a gas station and its staff, to vandalise the former and be held up by the latter.

Kobra was also one of the artists asked by the Olympic Committee to design a poster for the games representing the city and its diversity. His is the best of the thirteen designs, but the competition was not stiff. The disasters include Olimpíadas, Juarez Machado’s ultra-Michelangelo-esque runner on Copacabana Beach – who looks more like an escaped puppet in a headcloth – and Cores em competição by Guto Lacaz, which is essentially a bunch of swirls. But the greatest abomination comes from artists Gringo Cardia and Geléia da Rocinha; Acquaplay has to be seen to be believed. This nightmare, I contend, is the real cause of the green waters of the Rio diving pool which the organizers initially blamed on ‘a proliferation of algae’ and then hydrogen peroxide; Cardia and Rocinha offended the water deities. Kobra almost saves the day by contrast with his poster, which features a child flying a kite over a favela. Ever the social commentator, considering his choice of medium it seems an opportunity missed that he didn’t team up with another well-known street artist and France’s answer to Banksy: JR, who also took part in the artistic conversation at these Olympics, and created by far the most interesting work.

A self-described ‘urban activist’ and ‘photograffeur’, JR flyposts large-scale monochrome photographic images in public spaces, appropriating built environments in a manner akin to Basquiat. The artist has involved himself in socio-politically challenging issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (2007’s Face2Face) and most recently made the Louvre’s 27-year-old modernist glass pyramid ‘disappear’. This was done through adhering enlarged black and white photographs of the portion of the Louvre that is behind the pyramid to the front, making passersby look twice. Still operating anonymously and currently represented in his home city of Paris by Emmanuel Perrotin Gallery, JR repeated this trompe-l’œil in Rio with three site-specific installations using construction scaffolding to create extraordinary sculptures: a high-jump athlete in the Flamengo neighborhood, a diver in the Barra area of Rio and finally a woman swimming butterfly in Guanabara Bay. The artist has thus attempted to give a glimpse of triumph to those athletes who could not compete at these games; the high-jumper is Ali Mohd Younes Idriss, a 7’5” athlete from Sudan who was unable to participate due to an injury, but who now leaps over an entire apartment block.

The ‘artist-in-residence’ of these games, JR’s work plays gargantuan over a city which came, this summer, to stand for something even bigger than itself, as the – relatively unknown – artists he made massive came to stand for something greater than themselves: human ele­gance and achievement in general. It’s a pity that most of the artists didn’t qualify.