Archive for July, 2011

So back to my Grand Tour idea…

My interest in the Grand Tour I guess stems back to a piece I made in the Lake District back in 2008. ‘Drop’ was a giant, reflective inflatable raindrop  which was designed to tour specific locations in the Lakes. It was commissioned by Cumbria Tourism – the tourist board for the region – to launch a ‘Cultural Tourism’ campaign. Through my research I discovered that in fact the Lake District was a cultural destination long before the invention of Gortex. In the 18th Century Thomas West created the UK’s first tourist guide as an alternative to the Grand Tour – most of which had come to a grinding halt due to Napoleon’s cannonballs all over Europe. In his book ‘A Guide to the Lakes’ of 1779, he not only talks of the many Roman sites in the county, but also about the diversity of architecture, and controversially for the time – how it works within the landscape. He talks of the bold contemporary mansion on Belle Isle (we’d call it Palladian today) and the character of a variety of architectural styles making up the village of Ambleside, nestling on the side of the fells.

For all sorts of reasons, ‘Drop’ ended up as an inflatable artwork. I’d done a number of inflatable pieces in the past – all reasonably large  – but this was by far the largest. As a piece within the landscape, designed to reflect the landscape, it had to stand at an appropriate scale with the landscape.

Drop at Buttermere, 2008

It was the size of a three storey building and standing inside while it was being deflated was quite incredible.

inside Drop - 2008

So started my interest in the Grand Tour, and a return to Paris – the traditional starting point for English tourists.

For this year’s Monumenta at the Grande Palais in Paris (a bit like the Tate Modern Turbine Hall series), Anish Kapoor  created ‘Leviathan’. An enormous inflatable sculpture which practically fills the entire space. All seemed a little familiar, so was top of my list of things to see.

Leviathan by Anish Kapoor

It’s a huge, shiny inflatable.

It was reassuring to note it was constructed in exactly the same way as ‘Drop’ – sewn seams – and in the same type of material. The inside space had the same acoustics – a weird type of spring reverb, but without being too lively to make it all chaotic sounding. By using a red coloured substrate to the fabric, the inside had a very strong coloured glow – even though the outside looks smooth and opaque.

inside 'Leviathan'

Outside, the scale really becomes apparent. It’s easily twice as high as Drop, and with three bulbous ends filling the nave.

leviathan and tricolor

For me though, the strength was in the way it not only explored the entire three dimensional space of the building, but the way the amazing architecture of the Grand Palais became a far bigger player in itself.

There was something even a little steam punk about the juxtaposition between the sleek, flawless and flowing contours of the artwork and the ornate fin de siecle cast-ironwork of the building. Like some illustration to a Philip Pullman novel.

It was good to see just how many of the thousands of visitors were taking picture as much of the building as the artwork. That for me was the real success of the piece.

Within my own work it’s all about location, location, location. If you’re going to play with an environment, it someties (but not always) helps if it’s a great environment in the first place.

On a completely different scale, across the road (literally), was another architecture and landscape work by Charlotte Perriand.

It’s a bit lost against Charles Girault’s Petit Palais, and elevated above head-height. Still, it wasn’t designed to be there. Instead this is one of a number of temporary shelters the designer / photographer created for mountaineers in the Alps in the 1930’s.

Perriand was a designer and photographer who created some fantastic bodies of work in both disciplines. It was particularly good to see themes crossing over between photography and furniture design. At the root of her work though, was an observation of nature and landscape. It was long walks through the landscape of the Alps which fascinated her more than anything, and led to a series of temporary hotels and walkers refuges.

Refuge Tonneau is a lightweight shelter made from modular parts which was easy to assemble and slept 8 people.

from a wonderful blog featuring some other rural art installations

There’s a good article here on the refuge Tonneau including a video of the transportation and construction of a replica a couple of years ago.

Over at the other end of town was another architectural battle. This time between two contemporary heavyweights: Jean Nouvel and Zaha Hadid.

Nouvel’s Institute du Monde Arab is stunning. Here is a western architect not just understanding but playing with Islamic design. From the outside it appears to be some middle-eastern inspired fretwork. The twist however is that these are not just decorative. Each element of the pattern is in fact an automated iris – like those found in camera lenses – which were designed to open and close in reaction to sunlight. OK, so light all big tech, it doesn’t work properly anymore- but the idea is nice.

The main archive at the other end of the building is a beautiful never-ending library which spirals up nine storeys without stairs. This is why Nouvel is perhaps the darling architect of Paris. There’s at least another half-dozen galleries and institutes by him in the city, and he’s appeared in a previous blog post And yet, for a few months it plays host to a pavilion by Zaha Hadid.

The Chanel Mobile Art Pavilion is a curvaceous, organic carbon fibre pod unlike anything else. It has no front, back or sides, instead you enter in through a slice along one edge. Still conforming to Islamic tradition, Hadid takes another direction in her influence of nature without replicating images of living things. Like some squishy flying saucer from the outside, inside it’s all spider’s webs and tree limbs. It’s an exoskeleton – the structural elements being the outside skin. The exhibition inside the pavilion takes you through a journey to understand where Hadid is going with all this. In it she talks about creating a new form of organic architecture. Actually, a lot of things are said inside…


Like Perriand’s Refuge Tonneau, and even ‘Drop’, this pavilion was designed with portability in mind, although I dread to think how many Stobart lorries it takes to move all the bits.

Again, there’s a lovely dialogue going on between the two buildings.


Somehow that doesn’t seem the right word. I think, what all of these pieces make me realise is that the line between architecture and art is increasingly blurred. A few years back I wrote somewhere about the changing roles of art,  fashion and architecture. For a long time art was where you went to to get an emotion response – if you wanted something to move you – make you smile, fall in love, cry. Whatever. Over the past decade there’s been an interesting change. Art is becoming more intellectually challenging – looking in on itself. Questioning its role – there’s more ideas-based work, more process-based work. Meanwhile the quest for something to move us – make us gasp in awe and wonder and revel in its beauty is increasingly being served by fashion and architecture.

I’m aware that my own work is becoming more architectural too. Although that conclusion is more down to the response from my structural engineers than anything else.

When I’m in the beginning stages of a piece, I like to try and isolate myself from what’s going on in other art. I don’t go to galleries, read book on other artists. I try to draw inspiration from the research facts and the site itself. Sure I can’t undo the knowledge I have of other artworks, but part of working in a remote place is the ability to cut off from the art world and do my own thing. So what’s nice to do afterwards, is to go and see other stuff that’s come from the same place as my thinking. Call them retro-influences. Inspiration after the event. They reassure me I’m not alone.

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