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Posts Tagged ‘sculpture’

There’s a TV station dedicated to weather. You can have weather on your TV 24 hours a day. Imagine that! 24 hours of non-stop weather…

Alternatively you can live in the North Pennines – there’s more weather here than you can shake a stick at. Why anyone would want to shake a stick at the weather and what they thought it would achieve is beyond me.

As an artist working predominantly outdoors all year, the weather is a pretty major thing for me. Besides knowing if I’m going to get frozen or soaked all day, there’s the practical challenges of making sure the weather doesn’t prematurely destroy what I create, or make them dangerously unstable for visitors.

There’s been a fair bit of stormy weather here n the UK over the past month. It seems that there’s an unusually large number of these storms heading off the Atlantic for the time of year. Last week, as my house was being battered by winds in excess of 80mph the weather station on Great Dun Fell recorded gusts of over 120mph.

wind speed graph

The weather was calmer yesterday as I set off up to explore Great Dun Fell for myself. Despite living overlooking the Eden Valley I’d never walked up any of the North Pennine Fells on that side so this was a first for me. Great Dun Fell, at 849m (over 2,700 feet) is the second highest peak on the Pennines after Cross Fell and are the largest mountains in England outside the Lake District.

It was a reasonable day in the Eden Valley as I set off from the village of Knock, skirting around the back of Dufton Pike. Walking these fells is much easier than the Breadalbane hills I’d been doing in the Highlands lately. The footpaths are well marked and the main Pennine Way itself is well trodden and maintained. However, by the time I reached Knock Old Man (2,0o0ft) there was a good smattering of snow on the ground and some beautiful rime on the cairn.

rime on old man knock

From there it’s a straight line over the top to Great Dun Fell and with the cloud cover lifted it’s easy to see where you’re heading.

There are dozens of weather stations across the UK and you can track their readings live online at any number of sites. However, Great Dun Fell is a bit special. The readings now come from the radar station – the giant white golfball on the fells that’s a bit f a landmark from both the Eden Valley and Upper Teesdale. Back in 1937 George Manley set up the first mountain meteorological record station in a small wooden hut on Great Dun Fell. That spot of the North Pennines was chosen as this tract of Pennine hills has the most variation of weather in England. When he started his collection of weather data in 1932 he noted:

“I was attracted by the Northern Pennines, in particular around Cross Fell, as the most extensive area of bleak uncompromising upland that England possesses”

Manley's Hut

For ten years Manley’s weather station recorded sun, rain, wind and temperature data every three hours, 24hours a day – at the time the longest continuous weather record ever made. As well as a substantial record of mountain weather data, his station also led to the understanding of the ‘Helm Wind’ – a wind phenomena that only occurs around Cross Fell where violent, roaring winds appear to come from nowhere, even on otherwise fair days. In his research into historical records of the Helm wind there are some great accounts of sheep being tossed around like balls of cotton wool, and brussels sprouts blown off the stalks and ricocheting around the gardens.

The legacy of Manley’s work 849m up Great Dun Fell was the CET (Central England Temperature) – a record of mean temperatures going back to 1649 – the longest weather record in the world. So when the weathermen say it’s the coldest March on record – that’s Manley’s record, started on the North Pennines in the 1930’s.

More importantly the length and depth of the weather record is at the centre of ongoing research into climate change – the Moor House National Nature Reserve, in which Great Dun Fell lies, plays a crucial role in that research today.

gt Dun Fell radar

Nothing remains of Manley’s wooden hut now. It’s all long gone when the radar station was built in the ’80’s. What does remain though is the access road to the radar station. Once a track for the myriad of mineral mines on the high fells, it’s now a tarmac’d road and officially the highest road in the UK. It’s also the only road in the UK that goes up a mountain and stops at the top. Unfortunately it’s a private access road so you can’t really drive it. The height of the snow poles show just how deep the snow gets up here anyway.

highest road

……..

This past year has definitely been a year of walking for me. I’ve always enjoyed walking but never considered myself a serious walker. I still don’t, but this year walking the landscape has been pretty central to my work.

Back in January I started a research residency on the West Pennine Moors. The first day’s walk caught the tail end of the January snowfall up on Darwen Moor with snow up to my knees.

deserted farm

Deserted farm on West Pennine Moors

February was a fantastic lull in the weather with some great long spells of clear, dry and often sunny weather and I got some great walks in over those moors and rediscovered my love of wandering with a camera.

The project finished at the end of March just as the worst of the winter weather hit and I was cut off for days behind 12ft drifts.

sledging coal

dragging coal to my house over a 12ft drift. Photo by Paul Kingston © North News 2013

However, by April the weather turned again and started a period of dry, hot and sunny days that seemed to last for most of the rest of the year. The end of April was the start of a joint project around ‘God’s Bridge’ on Bowes Moor. Besides being a great project for meeting other artists, it really got me out exploring my home turf – the North Pennines. The result of this project will be an indoor sound installation at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in the spring.

mountain pansy on Bowes Moor

Mountain Pansy on Bowes Moor

By June, summer was in full flow and positively roasting when the sun got going. I’d anticipated a wet week installing the 20,000 jars of ink on Lindisfarne and the workstation was all set up under cover for the purpose. Although it rained only on the day the TV came day the rest of the show was glorious sunshine with sunburn and heat stroke the major hazards when it came to take the piece down.

_DSC9238 - Version 2

I spent the end of September on Öland in the Baltic sea creating a piece for an ancient forest. Once again the weather gods were on my side and gave me a fortnight of glorious late summer sunshine. The weather was turning however and by the second week the temperature had dropped significantly. The Pavilion for Listening to the Forest was the first piece I’ve made specifically to survive significant snowfall. The fabric is waterproof and under enough tension that rain or snow won’t pool on the surface. It should also have enough tensile strength to withstand a large amount of snow if any manages to settle on it. December had a brief snowfall in Southern Sweden so I know it’s still looking good, but can’t wait to see how it looks when the real stuff arrives.

Pavilion in the first snow. Photo ©Helle Kvamme

The last part of the year has been spent in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland where I’ve been artist in residence since October. Once again it’s been great to get to know and understand the landscape on foot – walking along lochs and old railway lines as well as up some of the bigger hills.  In November I had a weather window of bright and clear conditions and managed to get up some of the less visited Corbetts (between 750 and 900m). The frosty air on the tops made for some cracking views of the surrounding mountains with the bigger ones getting their first real coats of snow.

view NW from Meall an t-Seillaidh

In early December the first of the storms to hit the UK came racing across Scotland. Glen Ogle – where I was staying, recorded gusts of 106mph, ripping down power-lines and felling hundreds if not thousands of trees which disrupted the area for days. Yet, less than 12 hours after those huge gusts, there was a gentle covering of snow on Glen Ogle and a clear,starry sky. With no power for miles and a dark cottage for the evening, I ventured out into the forests to play with some lights in the snow for my Christmas card.

red snow

In between all these projects I also created the ultimate version of the ‘Souvenir’ umbrella structures in Oxfordshire, built an installation from 4,000 remembrance poppies for a royal visit and worked on four other pieces that in the end never happened. It’s also been a year of research and development, not only for new work but professionally too.

souvenir in oxfordshire

It’s not been my busiest year and at times things have been very difficult. However, the time I’ve been able to give to each of the projects I’ve worked on I think shows in the final work and has made a year of good solid pieces. A lot of work has already been done for next years projects and hopefully sets a trend towards a more considered approach to my work.

I’ve got a good feeling about next year. It’s already looking busy – possibly the busiest its been for years. It’s going to be full on and really hard work. There’s some great stuff coming up – all will be revealed over the coming few weeks – and it’s all really exciting, but the proof will be if this time next year I can look back and be as proud of what I’ve achieved as have have been of this past year.

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It’s been a crazy week here. A two week residency is hectic enough. To research and build a whole new piece in two weeks is a little scary. To build a pavilion that people can go in and will last ore than my usual two week limit seems more than a little ambitious. To create a piece that responds to over 2,500 years of narrative. Well, that’s just nuts!

Well, sort of. I have to admit it’s not the first time I’ve created a piece from scratch in a matter of days. THere’s nothing like a tight deadline to raise the challenge and push the limits. The ‘Souvenir’ piece in Shanghai I first made back in 2006 was end to end in 10 days and I’m still really proud of that piece.

Souvenir in Shanghai

That first Shanghai piece also introduced me to the world of Chinese gardens. I’d kind of gotten into them through the Balls to Grasmere piece in the Lake District in 2005 and visiting Charles Jencks’ Garden of Cosmic Speculation near Dumfries. There’s a story in that too, but it’ll wait for another day as it’ll take me off this path.

Last year I got to work in Suzhou back in China and took the opportunity to visit some of the most important and oldest surviving Chinese gardens. In a nutshell, Chinese garden design is based on traditional Chinese landscape painting, which in turn is based on poetry and is founded on the human interaction with landscape. It’s both a physical and philosophical relationship and a series of ideas that go back over 2,000 years, yet in a bizarre convergence of thinking almost identical to that of English Romanticism born in the Lake District 200 years ago. In a similar resonance to the picturesque, Chinese gardens are built around a series of constructed views – each view as a framed image of the natural world – or at least conjures that up.

view of pavilions

Chinese gardens typically have a number of structures or pavilions in them. Each with a purpose and often very romantic names. The Master of the Nets Garden (1107 AD) includes a pavilion for looking at the fish, while in the Garden of the Humble Administrator – dating from a mere 1509 – there’s a “Who Shall I Sit With” pavilion and a ‘Pavilion for Listening to the Sound of Rain’. It sounds straight out of Cumbria yet pre-dates Wordsworth by 200 years.

Pavilion for Listening to Rain

There’s something very grounding about standing still and listening to the sound of the landscape. It’s something I’m increasingly drawn to on a few projects at the moment – including the piece I’m making for the God’s Bridge Project exhibition next spring.

A couple of days ago I went for a bike ride around the middle of Öland. Cycling and walking are great for getting to understand landscapes. Despite the apparent flatness of the island, on a bike you certainly feel every slight change in gradient and feel the lie of the land.

Karums Alvar

At Karum – just 6km from where I’m working – there’s a slight ridge in the land. It’s almost imperceptible driving along the road, but over 2,500 years the people who lived here and started farming the island noticed it too and had a reverence for it. The Karum Alvar is a plateau of limestone pavement. It seems strange that a high point of only 35m above sea level can be considered a plateau, but geologically it is very much one. Here the soil is very thin – only a few centimetres at most, and supports a micro ecology separate from most of the island. Like Widdy Bank Fell back in the North Pennines, here the plant life has an alpine feel to it, even though they’re not strictly alpine in nature. The landscape is dotted with yew and juniper trees growing out of what appears to be solid rock.

Noahs Ark

Up along the ridge is an impressive prehistoric graveyard. There are dozens of these stone graves – the bodies having been cremated, were buried under piles of rocks along with their treasured possessions – jewellery, swords, tools and food. Each grave marked with an upright marker stone. A slab of limestone pavement, or occasionally granite which look eerily like modern-day headstones. The most remarkable grave is ‘Noah’s Ark’ – a ship grave dating from around 1100 – 500 BC with stone posts fore and aft and appears to ride along the slight ridge from east to west between the coasts.

This is what Karums Alvar sounded like on Saturday:

It’s subtle (and a bit rough as just recorded on my phone) but none the less, it’s that gentle layer of sound that exists even in the quietest of places. This got me thinking about how I should respond to the forest here. How listening to the ambient sounds of a place can in some way connect you directly into it.

In the inter-war years – the 20’s and 30’s – a great deal of research was carried out around the world into the ability to locate advancing armies by listening to distant sounds. By exploiting the stereo field, left and right as well as up and down, you could get a quite accurate calculation of their position. The technology became RADAR, but for that short decade the ingenuity was amazing:

swedish listening device

Sadly I’ve not had the time to play around and experiment with these methods of listening for my pavilion. Instead I’ve been hacking some old telephones bought at the council clearance depot in Kalmar for  20 SEK a piece. The basics of how telephones work hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years so the circuits are really simple. Not got the sound quite right yet but had a good test of all the parts in the forest earlier.

speaker in the trees

Still to decide on a title for the piece, but it’s a pavilion for being at one with the forest. Somewhere quiet to sit and listen to the sounds and feel the movements of the place. I’m sure the title will come to me soon. It needs to. The invites go out in a bit and the farmer next door is already putting his pumpkins out for Skördefest. The pressure’s on…

pumpkins

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It’s afternoon on the first day of a brand new year. The weather is a touch brighter and calmer than it has been of late adding to that sense of a new start. It’s only a day different from last year, but that idea of starting all over makes all the difference.

A clean slate and all that.

As I sit here with the obligatory cup of Yorkshire tea and listening to Mahler’s first symphony, it seems like a good time to catch up on the past 12 months and put it to bed before moving on with the future.

The Mahler seems appropriate as 2012 was the year I fell in love with playing music all over again. Just 12 months ago I was polishing my old East German Lidl and oiling up the valves before blowing some dusty notes through it.

Since then I’ve joined a couple of orchestras and played with a few others and performed live in front of paying audiences. The repetoire has been almost unbelievably vast – from newly commissioned works through chamber pieces, a wonderfularray of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven, my beloved Tchaik 5, a whole day of Wagner overtures (to a horn player that’s like dying and going to Valhalla) and two who Mahler symphonies (including the one I’m listening to).

I got to play on a victorian bandstand at Beamish museum, at the Sage in Gateshead and in Bishop Auckland completely intimidated Joe McElderry who was supposed to sing Nessum Dorma with us but as we weren’t a backing track in his earpiece he couldn’t do it and showed himself to be no more than a vertically challenged karaoke singer. Bless.

In June I played in an emsemble at the opening of the new Tees Barrage and was picked out of the hat to meet the ACTUAL Queen. I have to admit she gave me a bit of a disapproving look – dressed as I was in jeans, un-tucked shirt and a waistcoat I bought to wear to an All About Eve gig at the Royal Albert Hall in 1990, and clearly doesn’t fit anymore, and I think she guessed. Still it was good to feel I’d played a part in the whole Diamond Jubilee thing and have my own memory of it.

queen

I finally got back into writing my own music again too. Still a little tentative although the eagle-eared among you may have spotted a couple of pieces slipping out over the year.

The other big thing of the year – if not the biggest for most – was the Olympics in London. I was lucky to get tickets and had an incredible day there with my kids. Words just cannot explain the roar for the home team in the venues. Just hearing it eminating from the main stadium sent inexpicable shivvers up the spine. Remembering it now has the same effect. Truly an unforgettable experience. Even Kapoor’s Orbit was more interesting in real life than I thought it would be.

orbit1

On the visual art side, it was another busy year. In the current climate this was something I’m particularly fortunate to have had, I know.

In the spring I went back to China to make a new piece for a Cumbrian Paper Mill. It was part of a series of works I’d been doing for a couple of years now exploring the connections between paper, its raw materials of wood and water, and playing with colour and form in the Cumbrian landscape. They even made a gorgeous limited edition calendar of all my paper pieces (there’s a little booklet about them here).

cortexspare

It was a far from smooth process working in China again this year – you can read about it on an earlier bog post here – but the offset was making the piece in Suzhou – home to some of the most important traditional gardens in China. Working there gave me an extra opportunity to get a better understanding of the importance of art and landscape in Chinese culture and helped make some imporatnt links in my own work. There’ll be another blog post about this no doubt.

chinese-shadow

At the same time. Let me say that again. At the very same time, I was installing and showing a piece back in the UK. It wasn’t really a new piece, but the first time this piece had been seen in the UK since the first version in Shanghai in 2006. ‘Brockhole Souvenir’ was commissioned by Mid Pennine Arts for the ‘Art of Destination’ conference on art and landscape. Through the miracles of technology I also presented at the conference from a slightly seedy hotel room in downtown Shanghai.

orange

Unfortunately some of the good folk of Preston thought differently about the pieces and were badly vandalised within minutes of them going up. This was the first time any of my pieces had been vandalised, let alone damaged while up. Maybe I’d just been lucky up until now. It was sad to hear of their too swift demise and even sadder too for the folk at MPA and the Brockholes people.

Still, the process threw up some interesting ideas which although couldn’t be realised there at that time of year were too good to let go of. Also, Khan’s visitor centre at Brockholes was criminally omitted from the Stirling Prize shortlist in a year when the Stirling prize became far more interesting than the Turner prize (discuss?).

brockholebubbles

The ‘Fairhaven Bubbles’ which resulted were one of my favourite pieces so far. A combinatio of a good client, the right budget and an enthusiastic team based at the lake ensured that the piece worked the best it could. The initial teething problems were patiently solved and even the unfortunate attacks on the pieces (what was wrong with you Lancashire?) were handled with a determination to keep the piece looking its best. The most flattering bit came when my artist’s talk at the lakeside cafe was not just standing room only but there were people standing outside who couldn’t get in who still enjoyed the sunset cruise around the piece afterwards.

bubble

A determination to finish a piece also resulted in ‘Twisted’ at Cromford Mill – a work that this time last year I was disappointed to not have managed to realise. This time I found all the funding and managed the project myself and the final piece was not only as spectuacular as I’d hoped, but its silent majesty and the way it remained in place for over six months and looked just the same on its final day as it did when it was first completed.

twistedwithkids

I was also fortunate to be invited over to Sweden a couple of times last year to do some talks. On the first trip I also got to have a little play in an ancient forest as part of a project looking at how artists can drive sustainable communities. Sometimes the most interesting work comes without a brief.

red

There were other projects and pieces. Some big, some tiny, and mostly enjoyable. I did lots of talks – the one in Presteigne is now up on the Culture Colony website (link here) if you want to know what they’re like. Another one on working in isolated rural communities was filmed at Li Yuan Chia’s place on Hadrian’s wall for the Museum of Modern Art in Taipei.

On top of this I’ve had yet another year living in the most amazing part of the world, where everyday the light and landscape never cease to inspire me.

landscape2

….

Well, that was last year.

Twenty thirteen, you’ve got a big act to follow.

But somehow I think you’re going to beat it.

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Oooh. Look at the colours! It’s Autumn again. My favourite.

These past coupleof weeks I’ve had some stunning drives through the Welsh Borders, The Derbyshire Peaks, the Lakes and glorious Teesdale. Each resplendent in its golden attire. There’s a nip in the air too, and with the nights drawing in again it’s good to light a fire in the evening and catch up with some reading. Last week I read a quite brief article in the Guardian on the potential fate of the Merz Barn in the Lake District. You can read the article here. A little historic background first though:

the Merz Barn at Elterwater today

Kurt Schwitters was a German artist of the first half of the 20th century. Although not as well known as many of his contemporaries, he was a key player in the Dada movement and is often regarded as the father of collage – creating abstract works from found objects. A process he called ‘Merz‘ after a fragment of newspaper in an early work mentioning Commerz und Privitbank. In the 1930’s the Nazi’s had a problem with abstract art and Schwitters fled to Norway. When the Germans arrived there he fled again to Scotland and ended up in London. In 1944 he moved to Ambleside in the Lake District – ostensibly to ‘get away from it all’ as is the case for many. He was an odd fit in 40’s Cumbria. He was a tall man – over 6ft – and spoke with a very heavy German accent. He would have stood out like a sore thumb in the village. Still, he did his best to fit in. He took on an allotment next to what is now the Armitt Museum, and made ends meet by paintng reasonably accomplished portraits for local people. He enetered the art competitions in the local agricultural shows and even became a member of the local artists society. Yet no-one knew his past or the imporatance his abstract work had on an international level.

‘A Shed for a Head’ – an instalation by Russell Mills and Ian Walton on the site of Schwitter’s allotment as part of FRED 2006

In 1947 the Museum of Modern Art in New York sent him a grant to recreate one of his merzbau destroyed by the Nazis in Norway. Unbeknownst to them at the time, he spent the money on a derelict barn at Elterwater and immersed himself in turning it into his largest and most ambitious projects. He called it his ‘Merzbarn‘. He died a year later having only completed one wall and bits of another.

The surviving piece of the Merz Barn before it was taken to the Hatton Gallery

The completed wall was removed in the 60’s and is now at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. What remains is the derelict barn Schwitters first bought. The farmer, when he discovered Schwitters was famous after his death, built a tearoom on the end in the hope of selling tea and cakes to visitors he hoped would flock to see the work. Only they didn’t.

Last year, local builders constructed a very convincing replica of the empty barn outside the Royal Academy in London for the Britsh Sculpture show. I was a little disappointed they weren’t selling cakes out of the little bay window, but oh well.

Also last week, as part of a programme of artists talks in Presteigne, I got the chance to see Sophie Fiennes’ ‘Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow‘ – a documentary about Anselm Keifer’s time at Barjac in France. In 1992 the painter moved bought a disused silk factory on the outskirts of Barjac and over the following decade or so transformed the 35 acre site into a complex of installations, landscaped sculptures, studio spaces and underground passageways.

Anselm Keifer at Barjac

In 2008 he just upped and left for an industrial unit outside Paris (although local farmers complaining about the speed he drove his sports cars may have something to do with it). The immense work at Barjac has just been left, abandonned. It was gifted to the people of France, but as yet there is no plan to open it to the public. A non resident caretaker looks after the perimeter fence while the work is left to nature. Sophie Fiennes’ mesmerising film is probably the only chance most will ever get to experice what he created there. Although, coincidently, two of the giant concrete towers he populated the site with, were also recreated outside the Royal Academy of Art in London in 2007.

view of Kiefer’s site at Barjac on Panoramio

There are lots of similarities in these projects. There’s even a bit of the ‘outsider art‘ about them, though not strictly Art Brut, as they were made by artists as art. But as an artist I’m really drawn to the idea of just being able to shut yourself away for years and just create. In many ways it’s the ultimate artistic act. It’s not working for a commission, or even creating something to sell to collectors. It can’t even be snapped up by enthusiastic curators. There’s no health and safety. No planning restrictions. It’s art at its purest. It’s not just Schwitters and Keifer who have sought the freedom of isolation in the coutryside to make personal works. There’s dozens of others. Just over the border from here is Charles Jencks’ ‘Garden of Cosmic Speculation‘ – a sculpted landscape exploring the ideas of quantum physics.

Up the road from there is Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Little Sparta‘.

Little Sparta on Visit Scotland

Italy has Niki de Saint Phalle’s final masterpiece ‘Giardino dei Tarocchi

Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden

while France has a chunk of them, including Jean Tinguely’s ‘Le Cyclop

Le Cyclop by Jean Tinguely (image from Bertrand’s blog)

and the grand-daddy of them all, the incredible ‘Palais Ideal‘ by Ferdinand Cheval.

early photo of the Palais Ideal

and while Keifer has bought another disused industrial site – a former nuclear power station no less – James Turrell continues to turn an entire mountain into a work of art:

Part of James Turrell’s Roden Crater project

Despite the obvious location aspect, there’s something very rural about all these. At their heart is the need to free the mind from outside influences. A need for non-conformism. While ‘Outsider artists’ may find this easy, it’s no so for established artists whose every work is scrutinised and critiqued by a very fixed set of artworld values. I can only speculate how liberating Schwitters found Ambleside in the ’40’s, when he was no longer a revolutionary artist, but just a tall German. Whether it’s a career-defining masterpiece, or just a diversionary side project, to have that space and freedom to just create at will is a fascinating space in itself.

So, all I need now is an empty barn or some-such and a bit of time to create my own little world….

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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 first mill

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.

suzhou creek mills

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.

test of twist shanghai

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.

failed twist test

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.

installing twisted

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.

twisted

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.

twisted

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.

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I guess you’ve just got to be there.

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