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London 2012 Olympics: why we reinvented the Union flag for the Closing Ceremony

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London 2012 Olympics: why we reinvented the Union flag for the Closing Ceremony
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PostPosted: Sun Aug 26, 2012 5:28 pm Download PostRate Post

Es Devlin, who designed the set for the Olympic Games Closing Ceremony, on how Damien Hirst helped her reclaim the Union flag from Right-wing extremists

Eighteen months ago, when we began work on the design for the Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Games, the show’s director Kim Gavin asked me to create a performing area from the form of the Union flag.

The way crowds embraced the flag this summer has helped shift attitudes towards it. But for many, it had long been tainted by association with racism, epitomised in the National Front’s sickening 1980s slogan, “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack”. The thought of filling the stadium with this deceptively simple and historically troubled icon risked horrific misinterpretation.

In order for it to work, it had incontrovertibly to spell out “inclusive” and not “possessive”. We needed a bold graphic revision that was iconic enough to hold its own.

Designed by James I in 1606, the first Union Flag was, in a sense, an astounding act of wilful imagination on the king’s part: as monarch of the separate kingdoms of England and Scotland, he instituted his emblem a century before the actual union of the two states in 1707. The inclusion of the St Patrick’s Cross came with the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, a union characterised by centuries of brutal conflict.

Fast forward through the decades. When post-war pop culture erupted, it brought a new kind of cultural colonisation: The Beatles took the Union Jack on tour with them as they set off to conquer the US in 1964. It became emblematic of Carnaby Street and swinging London. In the 70s, the Sex Pistols created one of its most iconic, energised and anarchic re-interpretations. But by the 80s, skinheads and the NF had commandeered the symbol, their leader John Tyndall calling for the “Union Jack to become to n------ what the swastika had been to the Jews”.
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The surge of national optimism that marked the advent of New Labour in 1997 brought a revival of positive, if largely retro, references to the flag: Britpop, Noel Gallagher’s guitar, that Geri Halliwell dress.

How to resolve the flag question came to me last October, as I landed at a grey, cloudy Heathrow. As I looked out of the oval window, I imagined a centrifugal explosion of red, white and blue paint covering the stadium floor, to celebrate the anarchy and diversity of British pop art, and by extension the energy and multiplicity of contemporary British culture. The stripes would be formed by ramps covered with humble newspaper. On closer inspection, the text would quietly celebrate the British literary imagination, quotations from everyone from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Carol Ann Duffy.

The largest spin painting ever reproduced required one of Britain’s most celebrated living artists. If any icon could hold its own in this context, it would be Damien Hirst. I had found the answer: now I had to make it happen.

Last November, full of trepidation and armed with a budget of just £1 for use of Damien’s work, I sent him my proposal. The project caught his imagination immediately. His artwork from which my design was formed is called Beautiful Union Jack Celebratory Patriotic Olympic Explosion in an Electric Storm Painting (2012). Damien’s titles never fail to hit home.

His studios are on the same street as mine in Peckham, south London, and throughout the spring of 2012, the work flowed between his team and mine. To transform each centimetre of his painting into a stadium-sized print, 176 photographs first had to be taken. Graphic designers then worked for three months to prepare super-high-resolution files for printing each coloured tile.

When the day of the Closing Ceremony arrives, it’s all hands on deck to get the stage ready, and my hands are soon covered in blisters. The hourly-updated weather forecast predicts a thunderstorm at 7pm, to coincide with the start of the pre-show. Mercifully, we are spared the rain, and the final printed segment of the flag goes down moments before the gates open.

As I take my seat in the crowd, at last I get my first chance to view the design from the perspective of the audience as they arrive: and all at once it reads, to me, as an exuberant expression of love for our beautiful, diverse culture, and I am filled with hope – that this work might just have played some part in taking us a step closer to a more functional relationship with our flag.

* Es Devlin was Designer for the Closing Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. She has designed tour sets for Take That, Pet Shop Boys, Lady Gaga and Kanye West

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