Currently at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit’s ongoing photography project, The Olympic City, invites viewers to ponder what happens when the Olympics sweep into town—with all their color, grandeur and masses—and then promptly leave, leaving large-scale expectations echoing throughout [April 19-June 15, 2013]. The exhibition is installed in a small side gallery at the ACAC, leaving the viewer with contrasting walls of worldwide cityscapes.
Photographer Pack and filmmaker Hustwit began this project in 2008, shooting images of cities such as Barcelona, Athens, Mexico City, and Los Angeles—cities that still carry ghostly bones of former Olympic Games in their urban landscape. What emerges in this small yet cinematic exhibition is a sense of loneliness and poignancy of a global spectacle.
The Ancient Olympics of Greece were held in honor of the god Zeus, with the Greeks calling for an “Olympic Truce” so athletes could travel safely between city-states to compete, and crowning victors with laurel leaves. This heightened sense of grandeur feels even more ostentatious today, with the modern Olympics requiring grand-scale housing, top-tier training grounds and designer stadiums. So while Olympic athletes are like gods themselves—perfect physical specimens performing in the top of their respective fields—their respective Olympic cities become tourism hubs and media spectacles (and undoubtedly inspiring books like The Hunger Games), through increasing displays of pageantry and athleticism, which draw more crowds each year in person and on television screens worldwide. Cities compete to build beautiful homages to the Games and to be remembered for their opening ceremonies.
As The Olympic City illuminates, after the medals are handed out and the athletes board flights home to embark upon another four years of training, local city planning awaits a decision. Will the (former) Olympic sites be embraced as public spaces or decay into the landscape? Pack and Hustwit’s explorations express both possibilities.
The photographs are wisely divided by city, making mini-series within the collection. Printed wall text provides details about the location of each photographed site, some with more informative asides on how the space is currently being used. In Barcelona, where the 1992 Summer Games took place, summertime swimmers dive from enormous heights into the rooftop Olympic-size swimming pool (High Dive, Montjuïc Municipal Pool), which is now open to the public seasonally. Passersby stroll past “Olimpic Bar,” where the faded colors of the Olympic rings look like a time-capsuled restaurant the way a 50s diner recalls the past. A couple kisses on a stone bench in a mammoth hall overlooking a stadium.
While Barcelona revives such locations for modern purposes, the evidence of Sarajevo’s 1984 Winter Games has (neglectfully) blended into the land. Teenagers play pick-up games of soccer in a grassy field where wooden ski jumps, like slides for giants, are now overgrown with grass in the distance. In Mexico City (1968 Summer Games), the red movie theater for the athletes’ recreation is falling apart, the plush seating falling from its frames. In London, just a year after its 2012 Summer Games, graffiti reading “Everybody Here Hates the Olympics” plasters a brick wall, while a “Rent This Space” sign sits alongside the “Welcome” sign for Olympic Park at Stratford Station.
Some tributes to the Games feel the echoes before the Olympics ever arrive: In Helsinki, the Velodrome was built for the 1940 Olympics, which were canceled and thus unrealized due to World War II. In 1952, it finally saw its Olympic audience twelve years later. In Pack and Hustwit’s photograph, the massive stadium waits, empty, its black rows of seating curving out of view.
While some of the photography feels repetitive, such shots of subway trains slicing through stations with walls marked by the Olympic rings, each city’s mini-series aptly depicts the architecture and city planning that creates ‘Olympic-ready’ neighborhoods. Many of these grand structures still remain empty, looming above unused stretches of space. However, post-Olympic structures that readily adapt to public use more easily fold into a new cultural identity, their original purposes almost forgotten.
Though Atlanta itself is not featured in this specific photographic cemetery of Olympic legacy, Atlantans will easily connect the emotions of these images with their daily drives: many skeletons from the 1996 Summer Games are still around today. The Olympic Flame Tower juts out (rather unnoticed) along the downtown connector at I-20, and over in Stone Mountain an abandoned tennis stadium now sits by a closed-down Target. Conversely, Georgia Tech students bustle in and out of the former Olympic Village and children leap through the fountains at Centennial Olympic Park. Our exhibition is all around us.
The Olympic City is a small-scale exhibit, but its resonance is on a scale few art exhibitions can relate to as a familiar, global experience. Viewers won’t find groundbreaking photographic technique here, as many of the shots are straightforward captures of cityscapes—as they should be—but Pack and Hustwit’s driving concepts are clear: Half recordkeeping and half commentary on the effects of a worldwide athletic competition, The Olympic City reveals a footprint of the Olympic Games that we rarely notice, even as we walk in its shadow.
Hally Joseph is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, GA. After serving as Marketing Manager at Theatrical Outfit for two years, she is now working towards her MFA in Writing at SCAD Atlanta. Joseph won our student arts writing competition this Spring 2013.