One of the early concepts for the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing (北京) considered incorporating the work of artist artist Cai Guo-Qiang. He is noted for his "fireworks painting" – where he draws the outline of a picture with gun-powder and then ignites the powder, creating a three-fold painting effect --"original painting," "fireworks painting" and "ash painting”.
The design team tested their idea out by selecting Picasso's Guernica, an oil painting condemning war atrocities. Performers stepped into a huge remake of the frame, poured gun-powder along the lines of the painting it enclosed, and thus turned it into a line drawing of Guernica. They then ignited the gunpowder from one corner of the painting; the fire soon spread to the entire piece, burning an outline of the artwork into the surface, and leaving behind beautiful ashes in the same shape.
However, the International Olympic Committee rejected the concept, as Picasso's Guernica might rightfully remind the spectators of war, not peace, thereby subtly communicating a truth they chose not to unveil to the masses. Additionally, the Chinese creative design team questioned the reliability and safety of the artform and were not prepared to experience embarrassment on the global stage. Therefore, after continuing to pursue this concept for half a year, they pursued other creative ideas designs for the opening ceremony.
It is sadly ironic that the initial concept of using Guernica was abandoned, for as millions throughout the world watched the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic games Russia and Georgia veered closer to all-out war, Mauritania experienced a coup which overthrew the democratically elected president, Pakistan continued their constitutional crisis that threatens its increased instability in the nuclear-armed state, and the remainder of the world continued with its interminable fighting and injustices that have become the “norm.”
The Chinese made inspired choices in their Olympic opening ceremony design team-- Zhang Yimou as artistic director and Zhang Jigang and Chen Weiya were selected as deputy artistic directors, Yu Jianping as director of the technology group and Lu Jiankang, production director. Anyone who watched the performance could not but be impressed by the sophistication, elegance, and state of the art technology used to produce the show. The lighting, music and human performances were meticulously coordinated; at times it was easy to forget that one was witnessing a spectacle extravaganza that was being delivered from a third world nation.
Early in the evening, I called a dear friend to remind her that the ceremony was about to begin. To my amazement, she announced that her husband was going to be watching “Hellboy” on their television instead. The Olympics from Beijing versus a movie? I couldn’t believe the choice he was making. However, I wonder in retrospect if he made the wiser decision based upon history.
The Games of the XI Olympiad were held in 1936 in Berlin, Germany. The German government saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to promote their ideology, particularly its promotion of the superiority of the "Aryan Race"; Adolf Hitler used the Olympics as a tool for propaganda.
While reflecting upon the exquisite pageantry of the Olympic Opening Ceremony at Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, I recalled that Dr. Jeffrey Seagrave , Professor of Exercise Science, Dance, and Athletics, at Skidmore College. wrote a fascinating essay on 1936 Berlin Olympics that includes a brief examination of how even the architecture played into the propaganda machine. Check it out at: http://hnn.us/articles/6875.html
When we consider how Hitler used the Olympics to imaginatively sway public opinion and promote his political agenda, is this any different than the Chinese using the opening of the 29th Olympic Games for similar ambitious purposes?
Let’s look at the basics of the four-hour show. It consisted of two parts: the first half, entitled "Brilliant Civilization," highlighted the past 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, and the second half, "Glorious Era," focused on the great achievements and portrayed the Chinese as a nation seeking to building harmonious relationship with the people of the world.
Of course, it was flawlessly executed with great artistic beauty within a framework of a Chinese scroll, on which performers demonstrated the development of Chinese culture through time.
On this high-tech stage, "moveable type printing," "Confucius' 3,000 disciples," "The Analects of Confucius," "Zheng He's ocean voyages" and "Chinese ritual music" were artfully synchronized and showcased. I particularly appreciated how the opening was orchestrated with the use of Fou drums and thousands of drummers, designed to impress, as well as to initiate a form of biofeedback perhaps of which only musicians, magicians or advertising agents would be acutely aware. Truly the entire performance from start to end was a stunning display of pyrotechnics and pageantry.
It is unfortunate yet interesting that 5,000 years of Chinese history all under the direction of Zhang Yimou, whose early films often ran afoul of government censors for their blunt portrayals of China's human rights problems, blatantly skipped modern historical events such as Chairman Mao’s ascent, the horrors of Tian'anmen Square massacre, and the more recent conflicts and controversies of note.
Too often, society has forgotten the power of art and its ability to move and inspire. Yet, it is far to easy to be distracted by beauty when we are immersed in an environment that begs us to examine the realities of injustice and suffering. Richard Mandell addressed the Berlin Olympic ceremonial as "an obscuring layer of shimmering froth on a noxious wave of destiny."
Perhaps those of us who watch and or report on the 2008 Summer Olympic games should heed the words of George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”