Road to 2012: Aiming High, National Portrait Gallery, review

Take Nadav Kandar’s study of Lawrence Okoye, which greets visitors as they
enter the gallery. A muscular, rippling giant shot naked against a plain
black background, Okoye broods, his eyes distant, his attention elsewhere,
his mind on a more pressing imminent engagement. You imagine, looking at his
vast shoulders and intense stare, he can only be on his way to war. In fact,
he is about to throw a discus.

Mind, it is not just the performers on the front line who have their moment of
heroic record. Administrators, organisers, the owner of the nursery where
the thousands of semi-mature trees now planted in the park were grown, are
all here. And all look unflinching, serious, resolute. Even the chef at the
athletes’ village is brandishing his sieve as if as it is a weapon of mass
destruction.

Take Philip Shepherd, without whose contribution the Games would last much
longer than anticipated. Shepherd is the man whose responsibility it was to
re-score all 205 national anthems so that they could fit into the medal
ceremonies. He was shot by Edelstein in a field in Suffolk, playing his
cello with determined intent. It is not stated, but we are left to imagine
this was where he was inspired to find a way to reduce Ethiopia’s epic
anthem to a more manageable 60 seconds.

My favourite section, however, is Local Story, Katherine Green’s pictures of
sporting activity within the Olympic host boroughs. And it is not all
football on Hackney Marshes. Those living within the shadow of the new
stadium sail, row and ride horses. Plus, in the case of Gary, a member of
the Blackheath Fencing Club, twirl a foil. Staring hard down the lens, this
inner-city d’Artagnan broods and bristles, his weapon at the ready for a
quick thrust. You would need to be brave to take him on.

As brave as Levi, perhaps, the young pugilist at the Bethnal Green Boxing Club
whose portrait is one of the few in the show to raise a smile. A picture of
red-shirted determination, Levi does his best to look as warrior-like as he
can while wearing a pair of over-sized boxing gloves that take up most of
his arms.

It is a lovely piece, warm, inclusive, not a little inspiring. Precisely what
we hope the Games will turn out to be.

Until September 23

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