Sarah Morris: Big Ben [2012]

'Big Ben [2012]', 2012 'Big Ben [2012]', 2012 - Photographer: Thierry Bal
Posted: Wed Jul 25 2012

Time Out talks to Sarah Morris about her track-side response to the Olympics and her new work 'Big Ben [2012]', which is at Gloucester Road station until early 2013

British-born New Yorker Sarah Morris is best known for hard-edged, abstracted paintings of skyscrapers but also explores urban environments through film, notably in two feature-length works looking at different aspects of the Olympic Games.

'1972' delved into the security situation surrounding the Munich hostage disaster of that year, while 'Beijing' presented a panoramic portrait of the last host city in 2008. On the eve of London 2012, Morris has unveiled 18 vinyl panels of 'Big Ben [2012]', for Art on the Underground at Gloucester Road tube station. She spoke to us about her installation and how the psychology of living in a city lies at the heart of her work.

Can we start with the poster commission that inspired the work?
'The original idea actually came before that. I was in discussions to shoot a film in London that didn't happen, but I was thinking of locations, and one was definitely Big Ben. So when I was then asked to design a poster for the Paralympics, I decided to approach this iconic symbol, which represents time yet is also somehow empty - it's perfect for me. What's fascinating is how all these Olympic years that come to represent certain cities are links to different places and spectacles both future and past, going two directions in time.'

Why choose the image of a clock?
'Because it's what the Olympics are about. What is the time? How fast can you do that? This idea of performance also goes back to performance in art; you can't escape the notion of time.'

That concept is hard to get across in a 2D work. When working on the poster, what were you looking for?
'I wanted a very graphic, streamlined image. I wanted to render it, interpret it through my vision as an artist and to transform it. It's a key tourist destination, but also the place where the political decisions are made. While it was good to line up this moment in time as a representation of London, the idea I'm working with is that you can't trust a surface.'

When you move past the piece on a train, it becomes animated.
'Absolutely, it flickers. The subway system is all about time; where you're going to, where you're coming from. Are you late, are you early?'

You can also view it as a frieze if you stand on the furthest platform.
'There were other things I was thinking about when planning, like the countdown on the trailer to a film: five, four, three, two, one. And a fallout shelter symbol.'

There is a tube symbol too.
'I hadn't even thought of that.'

Why did you decide to film in Beijing during their Olympics?
'I don't have any attraction to the Olympics. I chose that moment because it was a world event for China's “coming out” and a strange meeting between communism and hyper-capitalism. There was tons of tension and anxiety. There was a tank outside our hotel one morning. At the same time there were loads of people completely ignoring the Games, which I thought was great. Both ends of the spectrum were there; the idea of ignoring the spectacle and the question of who is authoring the spectacle. You can look at my films as time capsules and as portraits of a city.'

Having come into contact with architects like Herzog & de Meuron in your films, do you admire them?
'Sure. I admire them, some of them are really super talented. I am also very critical of them.'

Does making art about a city alter how you think about that place?
'Making art about anything changes things because the meaning of any moment is in flux, it's not concrete. By taking on something and playing with it, you transform it image-wise, psychologically and politically. It's impossible to avoid the political, even with the most reflective surfaces.'

Presumably living in Manhattan led you to make 'Midtown' (1998), but has London become too familiar?
'You can't be too familiar with any city. There's always some other frontier - that's why cities are great.'

'Big Ben [2012]' by Sarah Morris is at Gloucester Road station until early 2013 and her Paralympic poster is on show at Tate Britain until Sept 23.