A highly-charged cinematic installation in a dramatic setting puts an interesting twist on the current Olympic obsession, as SARAH MAYHEW finds out

As news abounds about all things Olympic, ambitious, and epic, John Gerrard’s major new installation, Exercise (Djibouti) 2012, sits quietly, meditatively even, in the highly charged environment of the Old Power Station in Osney Town. Potently injecting new energy into the dramatic setting of the decommissioned Old Power Station Exercise (Djibouti) 2012 is a large-scale cinematic installation commissioned by the Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art, Oxford University Sport and Modern Art Oxford.

It forms part of the London 2012 Festival and RELAY, a region-wide programme of new visual arts commissions and live events across the South East marking the Olympic year. The concept behind Gerrard’s work originated from striking documentary images of smoke bombs, soldiers and their shadows spotted against the sandy backdrop of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.

The sun bleached sands and bright blue skies in the images reveal arduous US military exercises in secret territories. Seemingly stranded in the desert with nowhere to hide, the images informed the artist’s research into athletic achievement – endurance at its most extreme. After weeks trekking the African desert, often finding himself in perilous situations, Gerrard finally happened across the same landscape he had seen flecked with marines in a photo taken near Camp Lemonier. For Exercise (Djibouti) 2012 Gerrard has taken this backdrop and employed unprecedented use of emerging technologies in order to insert pre-recorded, choreographed footage of athletes into the landscape reworking the situation from a fine art perspective, in doing so reflecting on the relationship between competitive sport, military training, theatrical performance and dance, while at the same time doffing a cap to the hyper-real, addictive world of aggressive gaming. A cyclical experience in terms of process John Gerrard (born in Dublin in 1974) studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art in Oxford 15 years ago, and it was during his studies at the Ruskin that he developed an interest in creating sculptural photographs, and first experimented with the motion-capture technologies. Returning to Oxford to realise this highly energised installation, it is an installation that has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the cutting edge and forward-thinking Oxford-based organisation Audiomotion Studios, who are more used to creating the computer generated imagery we see in big budget video games and blockbuster films than with working alongside Fine Artists.

As one wanders through, up and around the imposing old power station, a building that sits still, yet wound like a coil, posed ready for the action that unfolds in the enormous void of an exhibition space within it, you are dwarfed by the most enormous, jaw-dropping screen that dominates its stage This is mind blowing, on every level. It poses a very fresh, new perspective on the London 2012 Olympic Games, and caused me to consider the political element of Olympic level power struggles, and engage in what the Olympics actually mean beyond disruptions to infrastructure, opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies, ticket scandals, and stadia legacy. Exercise (Djibouti) 2012 presents a contemporary response to the wider summer spectacles of athletic competition, collective cooperation, and the exercise and representation of power. A fascinating and phenomenal feat on every level worthy of our time, attention and careful contemplation.

  • Exercise (Djibouti) 2012 is open daily 12pm-6pm until July 29. A Modern Art Oxford exhibition presented in the temporary, offsite exhibition space Old Power Station, Arthur Street, Oxford, OX2 0AS .
  • See modernartoxford.org.uk / relaysoutheast.org.uk /  http://festival.london2012.com/