Art in Every Direction

The ‘Art of London’ Summer season kicks off with one of the largest public art takeover the capital has ever seen

Art of London, a new cultural initiative for the West End, and the Royal Academy of Arts have collaborated on a unique and accessible art takeover for the Piccadilly area, seeing the global destination transformed into a canvas for one of the biggest public art takeovers the capital has ever seen.  

From 21 July – 31 August 2021, the area around Piccadilly will be transformed by 30 overhanging flags, 13 pedestrian crossings (the largest ever number of art crossings to take place in one area), as well as regular takeovers of the 780 sqm Piccadilly Lights. Audiences will be able to access and participate in a special Augmented Reality 10-screen experience and audio sync via their mobile phones. This will be the first time this technology has been used on the iconic landmark. 

Five artists associated with the Royal Academy, Michael Armitage, Vanessa Jackson RA, Isaac Julien CBE RA, Farshid Moussavi OBE RA and Yinka Shonibare CBE RA have been carefully selected to transform the area and to welcome people back to the West End after the COVID-19 lockdown period. The artists involved were allocated a specific area to design, where they could choose to repurpose an existing artwork or create something completely new.  

Michael Armitage, Farshid Moussavi OBE RA and Yinka Shonibare CBE RA have designed the art for 30 hanging flags positioned along with the famous cultural hub of Piccadilly. All three artists have very distinct and different backgrounds and mediums, yet their chosen pieces work in harmony together, with the tones, shapes and designs complementing one another in a celebratory sequence of colour.

The hanging flags will be on display at the same time as Michael Armitage’s exhibition, Paradise Edict, at the Royal Academy. Yinka Shonibare is also the coordinator for this year’s annual and 253rd Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, which will open in September 2021.  

Michael Armitage says: “Three of my images have been used for flags that will hang over Piccadilly. One is made from a painting honouring the work of key workers in London. It’s a painting of four of the refuse collectors in Hackney, near my studio, who worked throughout the pandemic, putting themselves at risk as a result. It’s an honour to be able to celebrate the people of London, as we welcome people back to the iconic area of Piccadilly.” 

Farshid Moussavi OBE RA says: “My four prints are two-dimensional representations of La Folie Divine, a curvilinear apartment block we (Farshid Moussavi Architecture) designed in Montpellier, France. The pinks and yellows are inspired by the season of summer and, as visitors to Piccadilly walk down the street, they’ll see the shades changing slightly from one canvas to another.” 

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA says“The first thing I thought of when I was invited to put work in Piccadilly was the famous Eros statue, so my very colourful flags are inspired by that. The real name of the statue is Anteros, which means requited love. The statue is shooting an arrow, but I changed this in my design to be shooting a rose. The idea of the rose is to express the love to people who want to come to London and how the city embraces them. With this commission we want to embrace and welcome people back.” 

Royal Academy Artists Michael Armitage, Vanessa Jackson, Isaac Julien CBE

Filmmaker and installation artist, Isaac Julien CBE RA, has designed the work that will be on display on the dazzling 780 sqm Piccadilly screens. Julien has chosen to showcase Lessons of the Hour, a poetic meditation on the life and times of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, which features British actor Ray Fearon. Visitors to the area will be able to view regular trailers from 21 July, culminating in a full 30-minute screening at the end of August. For the first time, the content on Piccadilly Lights will be combined with augmented reality technology, which will include an ‘audio sync’, allowing visitors to listen along on their mobile devices whilst they watch. Additionally, throughout the entire six-week commission, audiences will be able to connect to a 10-screen, fully immersive, augmented reality trailer screening of Julien’s work through scanning a QR code and watching on their device.  

Isaac Julien CBE RA says: “’Lessons of the Hour’ is a poetic portrait of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was a slave and who achieved extraordinary heights in his lifetime. He became a novelist, a philosopher, a statesman and a freedom fighter. The way he wrote about photography and image-making is astonishing and has a strong link to my own practice. Looking at the way Douglass wrote about photography and human rights in the contemporary context where we have to rely so heavily on digital representations of ourselves to communicate with each other has convinced me that Londoners – as they venture back in the streets of Piccadilly and meet the iconic screen again – should be greeted by his striking words.” 

Finally, the British painter, Vanessa Jackson RA, has created 13 pedestrian crossings in her distinctive abstract collage style that will transform the area in an explosion of colour. Entitled UpTownDancing, the crossings will display the playful transposing of her paintings and evoke the movement and joy of dance. The crossings themselves will be made using Decomark, a prefabricated material that is environmentally friendly and will not fade. 

Vanessa Jackson RA says: “In the crossings, which I’ve called ‘UpTownDancing,’ there’s an interaction in the colours and forms. I was trying to be a little bit electric and to keep it animated because I like to dance, and experience is an animated thing. I think this takeover will be great fun for everybody, and personally, I’m looking forward to people not just walking across my pavements – like Abbey Road – but actually, I hope they’ll be dancing.” 

Mark Williams, Director of Art of London, says: “The West End is a historical-cultural district for London, packed with attractions that draw locals and tourists alike in their droves. Sadly, the pandemic has hit the community hard and it has had to fight to survive.  

It’s Art of London’s hope, with the launch of the Art of Summer Season, to encourage people back to the West End with original, bespoke and exciting artistic initiatives that celebrate everything the district has to offer, and the resilience and passion that makes it so special. The Piccadilly Art Takeover aims to bring art to the masses with a gallery without walls, encouraging participation, inclusion and celebration of art in every form.” 

Supported by Sky Arts, Westminster City Council and the Mayor of London, this gallery without walls launches the Art of London Summer Season – three-months of planned activity celebrating art in all its forms across London’s West End, including: the Augmented Gallery, showcasing paintings from London’s leading institutions through an accessible augmented reality app; Pop-Up Exhibitions, filling vacant retail spaces and displaying the work of up-and-coming London based artists and creatives; and a new addition to the Scenes in the Square statues trail in the form of Game of Thrones’ ‘Iron Throne’. 

The colourful installations also form part of the Let’s Do London campaign, a £7m initiative launched by the Mayor of London, Visit London, Transport for London and the tourism industry. It brings together the capital’s world-leading hospitality, culture, nightlife and retail venues to promote all London has to offer. The Let’s Do London Family Fun season launched in July, showcasing all the incredible activities for all ages to enjoy in the city this summer. 

Emilia Bruce-Watt

Emilia is a recent English and American Literature graduate and a blogger for her own travel and lifestyle site, My Big Big World. If she isn’t planning her next foreign adventure, you can find her in the nearest coffee-shop, watching the latest blockbusters or signing up to yet another half marathon.