Capturing the essence of London was one hurdle too many for the artists of the Olympics posters, writes Rory Olcayto
Remember those Olympics posters designed for the 2012 Games by the likes of Tracey Emin, Bridget Riley and Rachel Whiteread? Neither do I. They were launched last November and, despite Tate director Nicholas Serota’s claim that they are ‘compelling’, in general they are super-dull. Gary Hume’s is perhaps the worst of the lot - a rough abstract of leaves and circles, in off-greens and off-reds. According to the artist the large circle at the bottom of the poster represents the wheel of a wheelchair and the smaller one a tennis ball. Hmm.
You can see them for real now, at the Tate Modern as part of the London 2012 cultural festival. But as BBC art editor Will Gompertz said at their launch, the first thing you’ll notice is ‘how abstract they are, and how they could be for the Olympics at any time’ and that ‘with this collection, you wouldn’t know where the Games are being held’.
That’s an interesting point because Games posters usually serve as a visual symbol of the city or host nation and the Games entwined. In 1992, Barcelona referenced Spain’s flag, Sydney in 2000 went for a boomerang to express its ethnic heritage while, more specifically and more successfully, Munich ‘72 mirrored the striking modern architecture created for the event - Günter Behnisch and Frei Otto’s tent-like stadium canopies and the city’s iconic broadcast tower were central to the poster’s appeal.
Thankfully there is another set of posters, also designed for the Games, that is far more interesting in terms of what it says about London. If you live in the capital, you’ve probably seen them already - on bus shelters, the underground or in the free newspapers you read on your way to and from work.
They form Transport for London’s Get Ahead of the Games campaign and feature cartoonish athletes and Londoners mingling on the city’s transport networks. Their aim is to encourage citizens to take alternative routes to work during the month-long sports programme.
If you were to describe the tone of these posters, you’d probably say, ‘light-hearted’. One shows two massive weightlifters squeezing through the doors of an underground carriage, with the message: ‘Certain journeys will be affected during the Games’. Another reads ‘Taking a different line may be quicker during the Games’ and shows a smug guy reading his paper on the down escalator alongside one going up that is packed with athletes and commuters looking on enviously.
Unlike the official posters by Emin and co, these ones - by Tokyoplastic for Picasso Productions - catch your eye and stick in the mind. They are ‘compelling’, in the way Serota’s pick are not, largely for their consistency. Despite using 25 artists to make them, the overall vision of a city at peace with modernity, tolerance and civic pride feels unified and thought through.
But for all the effort to present charming images of London and its people, there’s something not quite right, something irritating, about them. And its not simply down to the characters having the same easy smiles as the mindless avatars that populate Second Life. Nor is it the occasional daft blunder like showing a red telephone box actually being used to make a phone call. Or even the blatant unreality of Londoners being cool with each other under pressure. It’s more about what’s not shown. Look again. Almost everyone is white. It’s a strange mistake for TfL to make.