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Richard Wilson: Slipstream

24 April 2014 | Tom Butler

"I had to really work with my own imagination and then rely on the engineers"

The new Terminal 2 at Heathrow is the latest stage of redevelopment at the country’s busiest airport. Suspended proudly from the ceilings is Slipstream, an incredible piece of public art created by Richard Wilson. We managed to catch up with the man himself  and Mark Davy, founder of Futurecity and curator of Slipstream, at the launch to find out just how it became possible.

London Calling: Tell us about the competition and the process you went through when you heard you were on the shortlist?

Richard Wilson: Mark Davy contacted me and asked if I would be interested in being put on a long list. The next time he contacted me was to say “congratulations, you’ve made the shortlist as one of five that will be invited for interview in three months time to put forward a proposal.”

At that point I was sent a pack and so I had three months to come up with an idea. It didn’t have to be the finished thought, but it certainly had to be a very convincing notion that could be awarded with the commission.

We went into overdrive then. I’d already put the team together and spoken to various people involved. The price of my structural engineers, construction etc. I said, “let’s get it to interview level. This is what I want to do, what do you think of the potential of this, is it doable? Can it stand up?”

So we were already beginning to meet and discuss and I was playing around with a lot of sketches. The moment we heard of the top 5 bid that’s when we went into overdrive. A lot done on the computer, a lot of tests done with surfacing with the manufacturers and we were able to come in and deal with every aspect we predicted we would be asked about.

Questions such as, how would it last? How could it be made? How was the form derived? We were trying to cover all those aspects.

Mark Davy: I know Richard, I’ve worked with him before so I know that everything he says is doable. I had an open mind, it was a brilliant shortlist and there were some fantastic proposals. Richard, your work always comes to mind as a person who should be on the shortlist so I knew he could pull it off.

When he came in and turned this very clean marketing suite into his studio with drawings and sketches stuck on walls and models and the like, everyone was caught up in it.

I think there was quite a long time after that where there were a lot of discussions had because it was so radical what he was proposing. (the final version is 77 tonnes and 78 metres long, Ed - at interview stage it was twice as long), it took another 6 months to drill down and look at all the options before they could award the contract.

 

LC: You worked closely with a technology company in Hull called CSI. Was the technology involved restrictive? Or conversely did it enable you to do things you didn’t think possible?

RW: Funnily enough it was a bit of both, because I’m not that au fait with working with the virtual world in terms of realising stuff. I tend to be slightly wary that one can press buttons and immediately be given answers and be wowed by them and succomb to them. I was also aware of certain comments, looking at Zaha Hadid’s architecture etc, I didn’t want to venture too close to something that looked like it had been created just out of a computer programme.

So I had to really work with my own imagination and then rely on the engineers as an educated tool that dealt with my information rather than it conjuring its own information. So we got to that very wonderful moment where we had a plane in that virtual world and we were able to tumble it. There were 48 of those moments put together where we just went backwards and forwards and had to fine tune and make allowances for blockages and the conditions the terminal put upon us.

MD: My point about working with Richard is always that he starts in a traditional way. As an artist in the studio. It was brilliantly simple and then to see that get turned into an idea, a model, an engineering process and the final moment where we all sat in a room and Richard played with it on screen. Richard works on all those processes and as it gets bigger and becomes more complicated he has the same enjoyment of it as when he’s working with the original model.

LC: There was an instance when Slipstream was projected onto the side of a building in Hull. Was this the time when everyone had that ‘wow moment’ and realised the hard work had come to fruition?

RW: Well this occurred quite recently and was something that Mark instigated for them up in Hull because we’d manufactured up there. It was an attempt to assist in some sort of way, to mark the fact that the sculpture had come from Hull and we were basically putting it back in a virtual way as a projection.

MD: It was manufactured in this giant shed. I think they hired it for the purpose of building the sculpture and the interesting thing was that nobody knew about it. So there was Hull doing its normal arts and galleries thing, but unbeknown to them, in the background there’s this giant monolithic leviathan being constructed! So we got CSI to open up the studio space for an open day where everybody including the mayor turned up and he was the one who said “Made in Hull.” That was the key moment.

I think after that the whole thing about this project has been the generosity. They (Heathrow) have been brilliant clients, we have done some extraordinary things and gone off on some wonderful tangents. The whole city of Hull thing was something we went for and they supported. It’s been a really generous project and we’ve all enjoyed it. They’ve allowed us to say to Richard “just get on with it” and he has.

LC: And you don’t often get that private investment in public art…

RW: I think it’s at the outset where you have a set of conditions. You sometimes get those gigs and they’re offered to you but you have to say no because they’re too restrictive, but with this one there were no real restrictions.

That’s not to say on its course over the four years, there weren’t things which appeared where you had to compromise the situation so it would fit their wish. But in all honesty they weren’t there in any way to try and ruin it, they really wanted it, were really helpful and I think they compromised quite a bit to let us be able to work to such a huge scale. It was incredibly respectful both ways.

MD: Most of our projects are major projects and it’s been very tough to do them in this sector but this one will be held as an exemplar of what can be done.

The new terminal will be opened by The Queen on 23rd June 2014. Every year it is estimated 20 million people will see Slipstream.

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