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We Gave Medals to the Best Art at the Rio Olympics

Installation by JR in Rio (photo via @jr/Instagram)
Installation by JR in Rio (photo via @jr/Instagram)

They’re all about sports, but that doesn’t mean the 2016 Rio Olympics have no room for art. In addition to the 13 official posters designed by 12 Brazilian artists, visual art — from sculpture to murals to even a graphic novel — has been popping up in Rio de Janeiro in the spirit of the games. And like the athletic competitions, some artists are more deserving of a gold medal for their efforts than others. So it’s time we have an awards ceremony! Here is a rundown of the art projects that have emerged so far, from the best to the humdrum.

 Rio de Janeiro - Medalhas olímpicas e paralímpicas são apresentadas pelo Comitê Rio 2016 durante cerimônia de divulgação no Parque Olímpico (Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil) Gold Medalists

Foto: Leo Aversa - Crédito obrigatório.
Mariko Mori, “Ring: One with Nature” (2016) (photo by Leo Aversa, Courtesy of Faou Foundation) (click to enlarge)

Women sweep the gold this year, with Mariko Mori and Adriana Varejão both introducing two stunning, large-scale installations. Incidentally, both also center on water. Over five years in the making, Mori’s “Ring: One with Nature” sets a luminous acrylic ring at the peak of the 190-foot-tall Véu da Noiva waterfall in Cunhambebe State Park. An amped-up version of the ring she installed at her past exhibition at New York’s Japan Society, this 10-foot-wide hoop changes color from gentle blue to gold as the sun strikes it at various times of the day. It is a simple but enchanting work that successfully evokes a message of oneness with nature and, echoing the five-ringed symbol of the Olympic Games, reminds of the interconnectedness of individuals across the world. That message will remain past the Games’ end, as the installation is a permanent addition to the natural environment.

To celebrate the Games in her home city, Varejão has covered the new Olympics aquatic center with what appears to be her signature, blue-painted Portuguese tiles assembled to form a tumultuous sea. They are not real tiles, however, but rather printed reproductions of her work “Celacanto Provoca Maremoto” (2004–2008), installed at Brazil’s Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim. According to the New York Times, Varejão’s walls make up the Olympics’ largest commissioned contemporary artwork, but the work is not a winner simply for its size. Pairing together fragmented, historic Baroque motifs such as parts of angels, the cracked tiles offer a beautiful vision of layered, rolling waves, but one that also nods to a darker, not-to-be-forgotten past of colonialism.

  silverSilver Medalists

Tying for second place are JR and kinetic sculptor Anthony Howe. JR has planted three huge figures supported by scaffolding around Rio: a diver plunging into Barra Beach; a swimmer in Guanabara Bay; and a high jumper representing a Sudanese athlete whose injury prevented him from participating in the Games. While these are monumental, meticulously constructed tributes to athletes, they are also pretty expected visuals from JR, who only recently covered the Louvre’s pyramid with a similar installation — which, as Hyperallergic contributor Zachary Fine succinctly put it, “beckons to be photographed more than studied.”

There is always a way #IOPRio2016 ??

A photo posted by JR (@jr) on

Meant to wow, Howe’s piece became world-famous when it debuted during the Games’ grand opening ceremony, holding the flaming Olympic cauldron. Intended to resemble the sun, the two-ton metal and glass piece, which boasts a 40-foot-long diameter, is made of hundreds of spheres arranged in concentric circles. The effect is mesmerizing when it moves, with the piece endlessly folding into itself, reflecting light in all directions. It is, like JR’s works, very photogenic.

bronzeBronze Medalists

Freshly finished and earning a bronze medal is “Somos todos um” (“We are all one”‘), a mural by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra, known for his rainbow-tinged, kaleidoscopic street art. He’s attempting to earn a Guinness World Record for creating the largest mural ever created by one artist, with the final product spanning over 620 feet long and 50 feet high along the Olympic Boulevard, a waterfront square meant as a huge event space. Depicting five figures from five different continents, the message of “Somos todos um” (“We are all one”) is similar to Mori’s but much louder and very overt.

No Medal for You

JR is actually one of three artists of a new, official Olympics residency program, the first of its kind in the history of the Olympics. He’s joined by German writer Tilman Spengler, whose creation of a graphic novel inspired by the Games is forthcoming (and, therefore, not judgable), and by Gerald Andal, described as a “digital talent.”  It seems unfair to not at least mention Andal, dubbed a “viner-in-residence,” but I simply refuse to award someone a medal for recording mostly videos of himself dancing.

Foto: Leo Aversa - Crédito obrigatório.
Mariko Mori, “Ring: One with Nature” (2016) (photo by Leo Aversa, Courtesy of Faou Foundation)

Mural “Todos somos um” em andamento no Rio de Janeiro ! work in progress in Rio de Janeiro

A photo posted by Eduardo Kobra ?? (@kobrastreetart) on

Mural “Todos somos um” – Povo Chukchi – Wall “We are all One ” Chukchi People #somostodosum

A photo posted by Eduardo Kobra ?? (@kobrastreetart) on

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