British Artist Richard Patterson In Defense of the London 2012 Opening Ceremonies

Over on Frontburner, Tim sets the scene for a conversation he had with Richard Patterson over the weekend about the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics. Local TV watchers were unimpressed, while Tim, Richard, and myself all loved it. Even the mess of the “love story” segment, which could have been easily dismissed as crass and commercialized, I thought was ingenious precisely because of the apparent ugliness of it all, which, as I wrote to Richard, I saw as an elegy to what western freedom truly is and implies: “God save the queen” in the shrill, sniveling cadence of Johnny Rotten.

But here is what Richard had to say, all of which is very much worth reading:

For me, and I expect a lot of British: The Queen and Daniel Craig, David Bechkam in a speed boat, Rowan Atkinson and Simon Rattle with the LSO, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child catcher, The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Brunel, the simulation of forging an Olympic ring right there in real time in the stadium, chimneys rising from nowhere, bucolic scenes with sheep, multiple descending Mary Poppinses emulating a Magritte painting, a rain cloud, the NHS sequence, children trampolining on giant Great Ormond Street hospital beds, Bradley Wiggens and the largest tuned bell, forged in Whitechapel, David Bowie and jetpacks, and, and I don’t know what to say. It touched so many nerves — emotional stuff.

I was stunned and humbled by what I saw of the ceremony. And proud. Been in tears, as were some of my 50-year-old stoic post-stiff-upper-lip compatriots that I talked to on the phone this morning. It was more than a national pride thing, but something else. I’m not sure what. A type of cultural catharsis perhaps.

I guess it’s the opposite of the implied corporatism and innate fascism of other ceremonies — the mock globalism/glocalism and jingoism of so many ceremonies that have to incorporate many things in a singular nebulous potpourri — and so become geometric abstractions that become empty symbols signifying cyphers for “achievement” or “discipline” in the “traditional” Olympic spirit. But this one was very different. All of these ceremonies, whether they do it consciously or not, project a politic of some description and it is interesting how each host nation, like it or not, can not help but reveal their true characteristics.

The British ceremony, wasn’t just a ceremony. It was truly wonderful theater and certainly not a potpourri from what I can see, but a genuine montage and rethreading of a nation’s shared historic identity that is war-torn and rebuilt many times over, reimagined and repopulated. It sought to reiterate certain achievements not necessarily unique to Britain in a manner that no one else would have thought or perhaps dared do — a suffragette sequence for example. One could argue all this stuff is culturally implicit and no longer necessary to illustrate, but no one thought to do this before and the cumulative effect of each theme became more and more poignant.

In essence, it was saying that sport alone is not conquering, just as love sometimes succumbs to darker forces. People have been excluded in the past. Sport is attached to culture as culture is attached to politics and society.

People forget or perhaps don’t care where things come from. Ai Weiwei was still being bopped on the head by Chinese authorities, despite (or because of) the fact he designed their stadium, long after the Beijing games were over. Americans will herniate at the idea of a NHS for seemingly centuries to come. All of these things are huge political realities and challenges.

The ceremony was not about a nation of slightly bonkers people. It was an expression of a very sane and tolerant people. It was truly an exposition on the triumphs of difference and expression, conflict and strife, fear and illness, toil and invention, ambition and imagination. It was the opposite of “plastic,” fascistic, communist, or corporate.

What was so touching about this, beyond its brilliance, was the lack of interference by the British government, who could so easily have objected to the NHS sequence; or how it allowed a collective independent voice (in a similar manner that the BBC used to have) that was not state run but was not commercial or saccharine either, that somehow remained a cultural political and creative tool at everyone’s disposal.

Instead of trying to project a spirit of freedom through vapid slogans, it projected a genuine democracy, including allowing the London Olympic committee and Danny Boyle to use the world’s stage to make an implicit criticism of current government cuts in NHS healthcare. Boyle was really simply celebrating and thanking the achievements of the NHS. It was of course all these things at once. But it’s commendable that Britain allowed the very process of freedom and democracy to be artfully acted out in encyclopedic form.

I’m sure aspects of the ceremony, or its whole timbre, will seem a bit Monty Pythons to many. It sort of is and it isn’t. To see it only as whacky or unhinged misses its point. To see it in that way might indicate the New World’s desire for culture to be reduced to information that is statistical, scientific and finite, sport-specific and apolitical — instead of porous, alive and in a constant state of flux. I can’t imagine a more ambitious statement than to underscore the value of allowing language, invention, and sport to converge into a poetic living thing.


  • Miles

    I couldn’t agree more. On a second viewing, via a repeat after the Olympics, I found it made even more sense, rather like those blockbuster movies that require another sitting to take in everything that the FX team probably spent years on.
    Like those sort of films, maybe some of the dialog was corny, and some scenes did not quite come off, but its the boldness of the overall vision that counts, and you have to give Boyle credit for having the audacity to try to make the dynamism and poetry of cinema come alive in ceremony – and largely pulling it off.