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Road to 2012: Aiming High, National Portrait Gallery, review
Sprinter, sailor, torchbearer, chef... those who have paved the way to the London Games are the subject of an inspiring new show Aiming High at the National Portrait Gallery, says Jim White.
By Jim White
18 July 2012 • 6:08pm
It is an extraordinary structure, swirling upwards, outwards and downwards simultaneously, a swoosh of an Olympic totem that seems to defy all established boundaries of physics. Not Anish Kapoor’s Orbit, the supersize steel sculpture that dominates the Olympic park, but Boris Johnson’s hair. As captured by Jillian Edelstein in a new exhibition of work at the National Portrait Gallery, the London mayor’s barnet is a mane of quiet magnificence, the stylish epitome of indifference to styling. Looking at the work, you imagine, hovering just off camera, a small army of mayoral aides who carry with them the official hedge through which their man is regularly dragged backwards in order to achieve the required effect of studied enrumplement.
Johnson, whose voice currently oozes out of the public address at every Tube station, welcoming the world to the capital, is one of several dozen subjects who, in one way or another, symbolise the London Games. Road to 2012 is the biggest photographic commission the NPG has ever undertaken, a three-year project reaching its culmination this month to celebrate the festival of running, jumping and diving about to take place seven miles to the east.
Spun across several of the NPG’s galleries, the intention is that visitors absorb different parts of the show as they make their way through the regular display of kings, queens and Kate Moss. As you might expect, there are plenty of images of the athletes. They look, particularly in the work of Anderson and Low, singularly prepared for their moment in the glare of public scrutiny.
These are not quick snaps or candid behind-the-scenes revelations. Anderson and Low shot rowers, swimmers and gymnasts in their training environments, positioning them with painterly care, lighting them with precision to create the formality and feel of a fine art portrait. The picture of the women’s hockey team, photographed against the trees and water of Bisham Abbey, reminds you of Constable’s English landscapes, a Hay Wain with hockey sticks and Lycra.
Here are the heroes of our time, modern gladiators, serious-minded, determined, unflinching; photographed with a reverence in which, in previous times, warriors might have been recorded ahead of going into battle.
Take Nadav Kandar’s study of Lawrence Okoye, which greets visitors as they enter the gallery. A muscular, rippling giant shot naked against a plain black background, Okoye broods, his eyes distant, his attention elsewhere, his mind on a more pressing imminent engagement. You imagine, looking at his vast shoulders and intense stare, he can only be on his way to war. In fact, he is about to throw a discus.
Mind, it is not just the performers on the front line who have their moment of heroic record. Administrators, organisers, the owner of the nursery where the thousands of semi-mature trees now planted in the park were grown, are all here. And all look unflinching, serious, resolute. Even the chef at the athletes’ village is brandishing his sieve as if as it is a weapon of mass destruction.
Take Philip Shepherd, without whose contribution the Games would last much longer than anticipated. Shepherd is the man whose responsibility it was to re-score all 205 national anthems so that they could fit into the medal ceremonies. He was shot by Edelstein in a field in Suffolk, playing his cello with determined intent. It is not stated, but we are left to imagine this was where he was inspired to find a way to reduce Ethiopia’s epic anthem to a more manageable 60 seconds.
My favourite section, however, is Local Story, Katherine Green’s pictures of sporting activity within the Olympic host boroughs. And it is not all football on Hackney Marshes. Those living within the shadow of the new stadium sail, row and ride horses. Plus, in the case of Gary, a member of the Blackheath Fencing Club, twirl a foil. Staring hard down the lens, this inner-city d’Artagnan broods and bristles, his weapon at the ready for a quick thrust. You would need to be brave to take him on.
As brave as Levi, perhaps, the young pugilist at the Bethnal Green Boxing Club whose portrait is one of the few in the show to raise a smile. A picture of red-shirted determination, Levi does his best to look as warrior-like as he can while wearing a pair of over-sized boxing gloves that take up most of his arms.
It is a lovely piece, warm, inclusive, not a little inspiring. Precisely what we hope the Games will turn out to be.
Until September 23
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