Its a cold, grey morning in Stockholm. The weather forecast says rain. What’s coming out of the sky is white and flake-shaped. Anywhere else they’d call it snow. It’s not really settling here but there are plenty of cars around with a half-inch coating on the roof. They’re all Volvos. All estates.
That’s outside. I’m now inside one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of little coffee houses that make up the city. No Starbucks in sight, but plenty of good strong hot coffee and pastries galore.
My professional development project* had been going at a much slower pace than originally expected. My first prospective mentors unexpectedly changed their minds and decided they didn’t know any more than I did already. Actually they joked I presumed they were professional and developed in the first place. Ouch!
So it was a great relief to finally meet up with someone who was happy for me to pick their brains about stuff. One of the areas I was looking to develop in my practise was the realisation of pieces of real scale in the landscape. I’ve been increasingly interested in the emotional effect of scale on an audience and how landscapes are immersive experiences. I’m currently working on three major landscape works: ‘Tangled’ is a textile piece stretching 90m across a valley in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire:
‘PaperBridge’ is what it says on the tin – a full-sized packhorse bridge made entirely of sheets of paper in the Lake District:
and ‘Whistle’ – a sound installation covering 18 linear miles in Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park. Artistically these are pretty well formed, however the realisation of pieces of such scale present a whole new level of logistical challenges.
There aren’t many artists in the world working with scale to chat with (I actually have a list and it fits easily on one page of my pocket notebook). In fact the only ones to have ever created an artwork over a valley and over a 20 mile distance are Christo & Jeanne-Claude. While it’s always good to talk with artists, for this PD project I’m more interested in the logistical side, so it was with great pleasure that I was able to meet up with Wolfgang Volz while I was in Stockholm.
Wolfgang has been a core element of Christo’s team for over 40 years. As well as being the eyes of Christo as a photographer, he is also technical director for all the large temporary installations. When it comes to realising immense temporary artworks in the landscape, there’s no one more experienced in the world than Wolfgang Volz.
Over that great Swedish tradition of ‘fika’ – everything takes place over coffee – we worked our way through the importance of finding the right engineers, managing install teams and testing everything every-which-way.
Because every project they do is different and every project is the first time something like that has ever been attempted, there’s no previous knowledge to fall back on. The only way to know how to do something and discover how it behaves is by doing it. It’s something I relate to in my own work but never really solved before. The solution that Wolfgang used was to do full-sized tests elsewhere first. Before they wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris (1985) they found an even older bridge some 30km away of a similar size over the same span and wrapped that first. Without the gaze of the public and media they were able to work out all the problems and the practicalities so when they came to do the final piece there were far fewer surprises.
The level of planning involved in the realisation of Christo’s work is mind-blowing. Yet, when working at that scale and level of public engagement I can see how it’s the only way to go. Large installs are built around a pyramid cascade of responsibility and management. Starting with the artist at the top right down to the unskilled install teams at the bottom. Even the unskilled teams undergo days of training beforehand so that come the day the piece just appears.
Of course all these extra things cost money. As Wolfgang pointed out, the older you get the more money your projects cost. But I’m serious about developing my practise and looking to make each piece of new work the best it can be. That ultimately is the most important for me.
Last year I went to see Christo’s Big Air Package in the Gasometer at Oberhausen in Germany. At over 100m high this was one of the largest single artworks I’d ever seen. The engineering was incredible for something so huge. Yet the €1m budget for the piece received no public funding and in fact was entirely self-sustaining through admission. That was a revelation to me – an understanding not only of the scale of the budgets involved but also that it’s possible for pieces like that to pay for themselves.
I’m sure this is something we’ll discuss further in future conversations. While each of my projects has its own unique logistical and technical issues, there’s much I can learn about the process of finding those solutions.
As Wolfgang said, he and Christo have been working out how to do projects for over 40 years now. They’ve never had the luxury that I have of learning from others. Of standing on the shoulders of giants. For that I’m grateful.
*my self-initiated programme of professional development is funded through the A-N Artists Information Company re:view bursaries and Arts Council England through Grants for the Arts scheme. This post has previously appeared on my secret professional development blog. Shh! Don’t tell anyone…