Thanks for the memory

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If this spectacular picture is any sort of indication, we are in for a serious treat.

The picture, revealed exclusively by the Yorkshire Post today, will soon be going up on billboards and advertising hoardings around Leeds and represents Yorkshire’s cultural offerings in celebration of this summer’s Olympics.

Overworlds and Underworlds, the two worlds represented by the photograph, are the creation of the internationally renowned artists the Quay Brothers. No, that’s not an error. The Quay Brothers really are going to create two worlds. They will exist in and around Leeds, over a weekend in May, when the city will be transformed as the centre of Yorkshire’s cultural Olympiad.

Timothy and Stephen Quay are American-born twins who have worked in the UK since studying at the Royal College of Art in London in the 1960s. Their strange, macabre, award-winning films have won them fans around the world and a cult following – Terry Gilliam selected their short animation Street of Crocodiles, based on a short novel by Bruno Schulz, as one of the 10 best animated films of all time.

The Quay Brothers are the lead artists for Leeds Canvas, the name given to Yorkshire’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad. There are 12 projects around the country being funded by the Arts Council to remind us that the Olympics are not just about the pinnacle of the physical world, but a celebration of body, mind and spirit.

A consortium of the eight major cultural players in Leeds came together to put together the bid for Leeds Canvas over two years ago, a bid which succeeded over shorlisted proposals including an epic poem carved into the rocks of Ilkley Moor and a five acre man-made hill in East Yorkshire. Leeds Canvas was given £500,000 for its idea – to bring together West Yorkshire Playhouse, Opera North, Northern Ballet, Phoenix Dance, Leeds Art Gallery, Yorkshire Dance, Leeds Museum and Galleries and Leeds Met Gallery and Studio Theatre who would then work together with an artist to create something spectacular.

The consortium approached the Quay Brothers – familiar to the city after they worked with Opera North on an installation piece around the production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 2007 – to lead the project.

They are used to working on tiny, intricate models. Giving them the whole city of Leeds as as theirs to play with was initially too daunting a canvas for the Quays and they said no thanks. They took some convincing to come on board.

“We work on such small scale that we were resisting the idea up to the last minute,” says Timothy. “Then one day we were discussing a piece of music – Central Park in the Dark by Charles Ives. It starts with the complete calm of Central Park in New York, in the morning and suddenly brass bands from opposite ends of the park begin to approach each other, cross in the middle, then pass away.”

Stephen adds: “It’s a seven-minute piece that features a series of collisions, but overall those collisions are tied by a calm piece of music.

“When we were wondering if we should work on Leeds Canvas, we thought about that piece of music and decided if we could do something that shared that sort of aesthetic, it would work.”

The idea of Central Park in the Dark was the starting point and an interpretation of that will be used to spectacular effect during the weekend. But the Quays have gone far beyond that small concept. One of the central ideas is that much of the weekend of Overworlds and Underworlds will surprise and delight visitors. You might come across a piece of dance out of nowhere, you may be walking through a well-known part of the city to find yourself in the middle of an installation that makes you look at the familiar in a different way, or you could suddenly hear a piece of music that alters the way you see the city. An important part of this, obviously, is the element of surprise, which means we can’t give away too many details here.

“People will see the city in a way in which will change it and them and they will never see it in the same way again. That’s what’s important to us – to have the city suddenly become strange to people,” says Timothy. Steve Dearden, associate producer for Leeds Canvas, says that, while some other projects around the country might be creating something permanent as part of the Cultural Olympiad, what the Quay Brothers create will become a permanent memory. “It will become a part of the way the city remembers itself,” says Dearden.

The Dark Arches, at Granary Wharf underneath Leeds railway station will serve as the main location for the Underworld, while the County Arcade area will be where visitors can experience the Overworld. Briggate, linking the two, will be another key area where the world of the Quay twins will come to life.

We can also reveal that a whole host of Yorkshire artists have collaborated on the project, after being selected by the Quays.

They are musician and composer Gavin Bryars, sound designer Mic Pool, librettist and playwright Blake Morrison and choreographers Daniel de Andrade, Gary Clarke, Charlotte Vincent and Douglas Thorpe.

Having selected the artists – all highly impressive in their fields – the Quays have given all of them plenty of scope. Stephen says: “We have pretty much left them to themselves, we haven’t tried to put ourselves in front of them in any way. We simply told them that this was the situation – overworlds and underworlds – and we wanted them to explore it in the way that plays to their strengths.

“We’re looking forward to being surprised ourselves. The whole idea is to have an interventionist quality to what happens. “Ambushes” will take place in the run-up to the weekend to draw people’s attention to the fact that something is starting to happen into and to the city.”

So what can we expect?

Well, although there are scant details we’re allowed to share, we can tell you that what we have been told sounds impressive.

Imagine the giant spider that crawled through Liverpool as part of its celebration of being the European Capital of Culture in 2008, or the Elephant that walked through London two years earlier as a public art installation celebrating the centenary of Jules Verne’s death.

Neither of those were lasting monuments, but they have passed into the story of the city’s history. While what we will experience in West Yorkshire’s biggest city won’t be on the scale of either the giant elephant or spider, it will be a similar sort of event.

What’s more, the real legacy of this is not just the events of a weekend in May and the “artistic ambushes” in the week leading up to those dates, but a new spirit of co-operation between eight of the city’s biggest and most important cultural companies, a legacy which the organisations hope will lead to a similar event every four years.

On April 24, the Quay Brothers will be at Leeds’ Hyde Park Picture House where four of their films will be screened. They will then be in conversation on stage talking about their work and Leeds Canvas.

Leeds Canvas: Overworlds and Underworlds May 18 to 20.