At the launch of the Southbank Centre's Festival of the World, which runs from 1 June until 9 September, the waiting press smile at a tree festooned with colourful balloons. Nicole Fordham Hodges is smiling too.
The balloons pop periodically as we wait. The debris of old balloons, we are told, is part of the installation. This is Life Life by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa who has also sculpted the concrete pillars between the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery using thousands of luminous green household baskets.
The Southbank Centre's 21-acre site has been transformed by an unprecedented collection of outside art. Much of it plays with ideas of the permanent and the transitory; what is sustainable or recyclable and what is ephemeral.
Adrian Paci's disquieting photograph Centro di Permanenza Temporanea (Centre for Permanent Temporariness) shows a group of people queuing on a moveable staircase with the plane itself missing: a comment on displacement.
Yet trees and their rootedness are also a theme. Pirate Technics and the students from Chelsea College of Art and Design have created Under the Baobab Tree. Made from stacked rings of fabric from around the globe. This huge tree sculpture reflects the way we live in cities: culture stacked on culture. I am moved by how deep rootedness has been created from displacement, so high on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
In Beuys' Acorns, artists Ackroyd and Harvey have displayed over 200 oak saplings, grown from the fallen acorns from J Beuys’ seminal artwork 7000 Oaks. Beuys saw his work as a catalyst to transform society. I imagine these saplings as grown oaks: the huge eco-communities they could each provide. What will happen to these oaks? I am told that for now they will continue to tour, property of the artists. Trees on tour until they find their stopping place. Is this a symbol of change in process?
Children – the equivalent of our oak saplings – are taken seriously at the Southbank Centre. The children of Hounslow Heath Infant and Nursery School, in collaboration with ecobuilders Small Earth, were central to the design of London Earth Creature, a gorgeously tactile, grounded playscape. Robot Collective, designers of ‘Everything is beautiful when you don't look down’, were helped by children from the Oasis Children’s Venture in Lambeth. Commenting on the installation of the huge humanoid figures on the roof of the Hayward Gallery, the unpretentious response of the designers was, 'Building it was good… it rained a lot… we became like kids.'
The Wonderland area in Jubilee Gardens, built around a 1920s Spiegeltent, has a bumper-car bar and tells us to 'expect oddities, curiosities and eccentricities around every corner and overindulge in a programme of shows.' This trippy sideline seems more indulgent – fun for its own sake. But mostly this festival promises playfulness with the serious intent and integrity of a child.
This Festival does not appear to be a balloon of optimism set to burst in an unusual summer but rather part of a positive ongoing commitment to make a difference through arts. The transformed Southbank Site, with its new meeting place, the Festival Village, is surely a place where things will happen. As Artistic Director, Jude Kelly, asks, ‘Can art change lives?’
Everything is beautiful if you don't look down. Bring on the festival with its astonishing array of artists, poets and musicians.