Success. It’s a great concept, but what do you mean by success? Sure fast cars, big houses and pots of cash can be a fair indicator, but success can exist at all levels – like when your Yorkshire puddings rise evenly or when you put a piece of IKEA furniture together and you don’t have any pieces left over.
But what about art? When would you consider yourself a successful artist, or even how do you measure the success in an artwork? These are the kind of things you have to evaluate for funding reports and consultations. Stuff I don’t like doing and generally try to avoid, mostly because it’s full of questions like this.
Sure, last year’s PaperBridge in the Lake District seemed to be a success. It went up and stayed up. It even went down well with visitors attracting nearly 10 times what I’d anticipated. Pictures of it went around the world and it appeared on TV on four continents. That’s pretty successful isn’t it?
Well, if being popular with the general public is the measure of success then yes. But as a work of art, how do we measure success for that? Did it do all the things art needs to do? I’m not sure how we work that out. I’m quite sure it didn’t fail though. That’s a different thing.
One recent TV interview asked me about risks involved in putting up a bridge made of paper. In particular they wanted to know how sure I was that the one in China would take a car going over it. The honest answer to that was I wasn’t sure. It had never been done before at that scale so how would anyone know? In fact there was a very real risk that it wouldn’t work. It could so easily have failed and collapsed and trashed a £100k car. Sure we took lots of precautions and did lots of complicated calculations. We even enrolled a world leading structural engineers to check it all over with the latest hi-tech computer modelling. But at the end of the day they had to admit there were too many unknowns involved in building big structures out of sheets of paper – a material not made for building bridges out of – to sign it off as safe. In short – no one knew for sure it was going to work.
On one level the risk-taking was part of the deal. That element of peril was part of the narrative. If it was easy it wouldn’t have been as big a deal. If it was easy someone else would have done it before, I’m sure. Actually, as I’d built a bridge before I kind of knew how they behaved and was sure it’d be fine, so I probably over did the risk bit for dramatic effect – but I certainly didn’t tell the client.
What was important was that everyone involved was aware of the risk and was happy to take that risk with me.
There’s a real element of risk in all my projects. Someone once said to me – if you have a 100% success rate, you’re not taking enough risks. When you’re pushing at the boundaries of things, that’s where the excitement comes in and if you manage to pull it off then that’s where great things can happen.
In that respect, the opposite to risk and success is mediocrity. There’s nothing more dangerous than playing it safe. Taking the easy road. That’s where things get stuck or become so half baked they start to deteriorate into something much much worse.
Failure on the other hand isn’t so bad. Every now and then I have a project fail in me. More often then not it’s at such an early stage no one ever knows. I’ve lost track of the number of times projects I’ve been asked to get involved with have failed at the proposal stage. Some don’t even get that far. Mostly these are because the client doesn’t want to take a chance. Play it safe maybe. In which case, they’re just not the people I want to work with. Occasionally a project will get all the way to the final piece and then fail in spectacular style. That’s a different issue. I once had a high profile piece that was supposed to be up for 5 months, however it blew away after 5 days. Still, it went in if only for a short while, and even led to a chapter in a large international publication about just why it failed – the reasons were really interesting. I’m not sure the client saw it that way mind.
And then there’s the times that failures aren’t really failures. ‘Metropolis’ – the fritz Lang cinematic masterpiece. The first film with a final budget in the millions. It was only ever shown at one cinema before being deemed a flop by the studio. It was subsequently re-edited to a shorter story in an attempt to reclaim the costs.
Schubert never heard any of his symphonies performed. Very little of his orchestral music was performed at all during his lifetime, yet his ‘Unfinished’ symphony is now regarded as one of the greats of its time.
More recently, Anish Kapoor’s ‘Orbit’ became the victim of a playing it safe mentality with the producers and suffered from an incursion of mediocrity that has now extended to installing a helterskelter slide down it. I think time is yet to decide on that piece.
If I’m being brutally honest, I think there are problems with most of my pieces. There’s always something that doesn’t go to plan or work out quite how I wanted it. However, in most cases these are things other people generally don’t notice. Or I make a feature of them. That line between success and failure is so fine. So delicate in fact it’s barely there. Or at least not so you’d notice.
Since writing this bog post (sitting outside in the sun with a cup of tea) I’ve just stumbled across this wonderful book on failure by Erik Kessels. He does it so much better than me. Not sure why I bother sometimes…