Last week saw the completion of a new artwork. It’s big. And red. And twisty. And in an internationally significant venue.
No, not Kapoor & Balmond’s Olympic titan. In that odd kind of serendipity I did my own twisty red thing last week. Made from around 50 miles of bright red polyester cotton in a former mill building in Derbyshire, ‘Twisted’ was finally completed.
Cromford Mill, located about five miles south of Matlock on the A6 is no ordinary mill. It’s the first one. The very first textile mill. In the world. Back in 1771 Richard Arkwright built the first water-powered cotton mill in the tiny village of Cromford. Drawing power from water out of the nearby lead-mines, he pioneered the powered means of production and mass production. In fact what Arkwright did back then was invent the factory.
It’s mind-blowing to think that places like China, whose colossal and rapidly expanding economy based on mass manufacturing, owes it all to a simple brick and stone building on the edge of the Peak District National Park.
In the 19th Century Shanghai was just a little port town, in the shadow of Suzhou – the region’s much older and more significant city 90km further north. But as a sea port, and effectively gateway to the rest of the world, it soon began to expand and consume ideas and technology from the west. The first cotton mill arrived in the 1880s powered by machinery imported from Lancashire, and by the end of the century the little Suzhou creek was lined with dozens of cotton mills. By 1900 it was thought that the Suzhou Creek mills alone produced enough cotton to cloth the entire Chinese population.
One of the largest cotton mills in town was the Tang Yin mill. It continued to spin cotton until the late 1980s. Around 10 years ago the site was developed into a cultural hub for Shanghai’s booming contemporary art scene – M50.
When I came to revisit the idea of creating a piece at Cromford Mill, I thought it would be a great idea to create a sister piece at M50. I knew loads of people there and had some great friends who could help me out. What’s more, I was heading back to China on another commission.
What I hadn’t anticipated however, was the fickleness of the Chinese Government. At some point earlier this year, the authorities decided that culture was a delicate thing and that all non-Chinese art had to be approved by the Central Cultural Bureau. What’s more, in Shanghai at least, this became rigourously enforced. By February my contacts in Shanghai told me that a number of high profile galleries had been raided and fined heavily for showing non-certified foreign art. The possibility of creating even a very temporary piece at M50 without a permit – which itself could take months – was just not going to happen.
Undeterred I concocted a plan to create a piece at night using red lasers. I found a little store selling lasers of all shapes and sizes. The owner tried to sell me one the size of a torch which he demonstrated would easily light a match! Wow- the fun you could have with that, starting fires with stealth…. Anyway, it was green and I needed red. Unfortunately red lasers aren’t as powerful, so I got the strongest small ones he had to test them out. That night I did a test – the beam was faint, but photographed really well. This was promising! It then started to drizzle a bit so I called it a day. I had one more night before I had to return to the UK. No problem, I’d start as soon as it got dark.
That night there was one of those incredible electrical storms you only get in subtropical climates. The sky sizzled with lightning and the rain came down in sheets.
The next night I went back to create the stealth masterpiece – the security guards wouldn’t even know what I was up to. I got everything set up. Camera on tripod, stick to keep the laser lines parallel. However, the previous night’s storm had cleared the humid air that had been building for days and the laser beam was barely there.
Such is the nature of installations outdoors anywhere. There’s no point battling nature – it’s always best to work with it where possible, and on that night nature just didn’t want to play.
So back to Cromford.
The first mill at Cromford is just a shell at the moment. After years as a colour and dye factory, the whole site is slowly being rescued by the Arkwright Society. Years of toxic pollution followed by neglect has taken its toll on the site. But slowly the buildings are being restored and the story of what went on in that historic site is being uncovered. Cromford Mill is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – as are the other Arkwright mills along the Derwent Valley. For me the opportunity to create a large and ambitious piece in such an important building was too good to pass up. Fortunately the Arts Council thought so too and have supported the piece in Derbyshire.
The piece was installed with my crack team of technicians in just four days. The thread wound between the two frames in a continuous line clockwise around the piece. Hi-tech big red elastic bands helped keep the tension even across the piece.
For visitors to Cromford Mill, the piece has temporarily given life and purpose to the otherwise empty building. While the piece is in place visitors on the regular guided tours will be given the rare chance to see inside this, the most important building on the site. There’s also plans to have open days over the summer months for anyone to see the piece. If you’re not already on my mailing list, just sign up here to find out open dates.
Standing over 6m high at one end and stretched over 35m along the length of the original building, it’s on a scale that explores the vast space of this first factory. The twisting motion recalls the heritage of the place whilst creating an architectural form which reveals itself only when you step inside the giant 4m frame. Like all my pieces, I think it has a presence which you can only experience by being there. while the shapes and the colour throw up some great images photographically, the scale of the piece – the way the lines zoom away from you up into the ceiling, the constant optical movement of the red lines, the way the piece from the side is barely there, and yet as you move around it seems to materialise and disappear in phases.
I guess you’ve just got to be there.