A towering presence

With its bloodied silhouette snaking and swirling against the sparse grey expanse of Stratford’s skyline, Anish Kapoor’s looming ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’ tower demands recognition. Funded by Indian steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal, Kapoor’s tower won the prestigious commission from a shortlist which included Antony Gormley. It stands now, in the final days of completion, shedding off its last scraps of scaffolding, like a burning scarlet monster, a demented helter-skelter, at the centre of London’s Olympic Park.

The observation tower cum sculpture is Britain’s largest work of public art to date. Located between the park’s Olympic Stadium and the Aquatic Centre, the Orbit will impress itself upon the press coverage this summer as an ambassador for London’s Olympic Games as well as a new and immediately recognisable emblem of contemporary British culture.

Looking at photographs of the 115m tall Orbit, this might seem concerning. The structure looks undeniably sinister, unstable and even apocalyptic – like Dr Evil’s headquarters or a supersized clotted artery. Standing in front of the Orbit however, I was very happily surprised.

Whirling and swooping red tracks sweep up and around towards the sky in loops that just scream out with energy and a sense of dynamic movement. And whilst Boris Johnson continues to force comparisons with Paris’ Eiffel tower, and Rome’s Trajan Column, Kapoor’s tower immediately conveys a feeling of newness and genuine originality that is difficult to ignore.

Aesthetically, the Orbit is not perfect. Its upward, whooshing forms are halted along its centre, bunged up by the functional grey staircase that twists around its core to the viewing platform. The tower lacks the elegance and seamlessness of the London Eye or Eiffel Tower, and perhaps for these reasons has evoked such divided and vehement responses from critics.

But Kapoor is an artist who so far has shown that he knows how to connect with his audience. In 2009 he was the first living artist to have a major solo exhibition at the Royal Academy where his interactive and pioneering sculptures attracted more visitors than any London exhibition has ever seen. In Chicago’s Millennium Park, his enormous, stainless steel bean-shaped sculpture titled ‘Cloudgate’, draws in visitors daily, walking in and around the work, playfully admiring themselves in its warped and polished reflective exterior.

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It is the interactive capacity of Kapoor’s £19.6 million Orbit that will, if anything, ensure the sculpture longevity, past the brief window of 2012’s summer games. Boris and the Olympic Park Legacy Company hope that the Orbit will attract up to one million fee-paying visitors per year and will help to regenerate Stratford, making the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park a tourist destination for generations to come. It still remains to be seen that whether, in the depths of a recession, the British people will come to appreciate or to resent such a distinctive and important work of public art.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit tower is due to be  completed in May 2012