07/26/2012 08:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

ARTINFO's Guide to the London 2012 Festival's Best Visual Art Offerings During the Olympics

LONDON -- The "once in a lifetime" rhetoric has been on everybody's lips for months. And it's likely that even the British Isles' most dogged recluse knows by now that the Olympic Games are twinned with a cultural celebration of behemoth proportions: the London 2012 Festival.


Design for Ensemble 2012 by Meschac Gaba, featured in Manchester city-wide exhibition We Face Forward: Art from West Africa Today / Credit: Meschac Gaba

No matter how often they are repeated, the figures remain staggering: the London 2012 Festival involves more than 12,000 events and performances, over 25,000 artists from all the countries taking part in the Games, 137 world premieres, and 85 U.K. premieres. It's dizzying -- not to say daunting. There is dance, music, comedy, theatre, fashion, art, and film. But even if one considers only the visual arts, the London 2012 Festival is a tricky one to navigate. To help you find your way among the Olympic cultural frenzy, ARTINFO UK has cherry-picked some of the most exciting projects on offer.

The list has to start with Martin Creed's "Work No 1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes." Against the odds, Creed's project to have all the country's bells ringing at 8:12am on Friday has gathered an incredible amount of support. Even Big Ben will join the party, sounding merrily outside its regular schedule for the first time since the funeral of King George VI in 1952. Another highlight is Jeremy Deller's Stonehenge-shaped bouncy castle, which will move around various locations across the U.K. for the duration of the festival. Critiquing the use of culture as mass entertainment has never been so family-friendly.

All the museums are on their best behaviour. And although one might regret that Tate Modern has chosen Damien Hirst as the artist to champion during the Olympics, the disappointment is offset by the institution's fantastic new underground spaces, The Tanks. Not only are these two galleries the first museum spaces in the world to be permanently dedicated to performance art, but they also allow for experiments with the exhibition format itself. Over the next fifteen weeks, they will host a festival-cum-exhibition, articulated around a rolling program of performances by the likes of Ei Arakawa and Tania Bruguera. From this weekend onwards, Tate Modern will also black out every Saturday night and invite visitors to discover its collection using an Olafur Eliasson-designed solar-powered lamp "Little Sun." Over in Kensington Gardens, the Serpentine Gallery hasn't been left behind: besides its cork-clad pavilion, courtesy of Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron, it is hosting the first Yoko Ono exhibition in London in more than a decade.

Despite its moniker, the London 2012 Festival isn't a capital-only affair. Manchester is putting on a citywide African festival. Packed with events, "We Face Forward" is conceived as an exploration of "the links between Manchester and West Africa," and spans three galleries, two museums, four music venues, as well as spaces dotted around the city. Down south, Richard Wilson's life-size replica of a coach, dangling off the roof of the De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, is perhaps the maddest commission of all. "Hang on a Minute Lads, I've Got a Great Idea," recreates the final scene in the iconic 1969 British heist film "The Italian Job," in which the characters are trapped in a vehicle full of gold, but are unable to reach the treasure without risking toppling the bus into the void. It's a real "cliffhanger of a work," according the artist.

The London 2012 Festival is also a fantastic opportunity to experience art outside its usual venues. In Wales, artist Marc Rees has taken on the ambitious task of bringing the wreckage of a DC-9 airplane -- first presented as a sculpture in 1992 by Spanish sculptor Eduardo Cajal -- to three locations across the country: Swansea, Ebbw, and Llandudno. The Adain Avion is activated each time by a full program of events reflecting on the history of the area.

Thanks to its breathtaking scope, the London 2012 Festival has been able to incorporate particularly sensitive issues. In Belfast, Columbian artist Oscar Muñoz has designed a moving piece of public art in response to his visit to the city's notorious Crumlin Road/Flax Street intersection. For "Ambulatorio Belfast," he has sealed maps of North Belfast under a sheet of cracked glass. The London 2012 Festival is perhaps at its best with these kinds of projects: when the energy and money afforded by the Olympics allow for a real engagement with local communities, away from the glitzy stadiums.

-Coline Milliard, BLOUIN ARTINFO

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