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Twelve years is a long time. Twelve years ago was a very different place for most people. Twelve years ago, on a whim, I did something I’d never done before and it’s shaped my life ever since.

March 5th 2005. I don’t normally remember dates of things, but I seem to remember this one. It was a calm, sunny day and we were rowing giant red balls across Grasmere in the heart of the Lake District.

The year before I’d helped create a new festival of art in the landscapes of Cumbria and the Lake District in the North of England. Off the back of that, the local tourist board wanted to know if I could do something to get a bit of media attention for the Lakes out of season. Maybe something big? I think their original idea was something along the lines of a big red nose for Comic Relief. The normal PR stunt thing. But while they were thinking of something 12ft tall, I was thinking something over a mile long.

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The original idea was a dotted line weaving the length of Grasmere – north to south. Needless to say the budget didn’t run to that, so a much smaller version was devised whereby the balls would rush towards the southern shore beneath Loughrigg with the balls getting progressively larger to accentuate the perspective.

The piece I believe was to be installed for a week or two. The balls were PVC and commissioned from a fabricator based on a farm in Devon and arrived in three large boxes that fitted in the boot of my Renault Clio. Lengths of sinking line were bought from the Ropemakers in Hawes, Yorkshire and concrete breeze blocks were bought from my local builders merchant in Kirkby Stephen for anchorage.

Grasmere was chosen as it was both a relatively small lake (one mile by half a mile, approx.) and conveniently placed at the edge of two local TV regions in the hope that both would show up and double the coverage. However, Grasmere has a little-known by-law prohibiting the use of powered vessels on it. The only way to get the balls in position was towing them in rowing boats.

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The largest ball at 4m diameter. Photo © Tony West

Luckily, the Faeryland Tearooms at the top of the lake had a small fleet of boats to hire and kindly stepped in to help, along with a bunch of artists volunteering for the cause. The prevailing winds off the Helvellyn range blew north to south in the mornings and with a relatively still day the elements were on our side. That’s not to say there’s anything even vaguely easy about towing big inflatable balls the size of a small house 3/4 mile across a lake. There was a small window in mobile phone coverage so the fine-tuning of the installation was done with me halfway up Loughrigg with binoculars and a cell-phone calling the people in what from there looked like very small boats.

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Starting to tow out the balls. Photo © Tony West

From the clients’ perspective it worked well. We had TV and radio coverage across the whole of the North of England, some cracking photos and a good news story of artists doing things with the iconic landscapes of the Lake District National Park.

For me it was a very steep learning curve and baptism of fire into doing things of that scale. Among the things I learnt were practical things like the importance of calculating wind drag on large objects on water (they drifted lots), and the general volume of logistics to do something that looks quite simple.

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Installing the balls. Photo © Tony West

But I also learnt lots more fundamental things about work of significant scale – the way light and weather affects and adds to the piece; the way colour works in landscapes; the interaction of people in appreciation of scale; what it feels like to experince work of that scale.

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The ‘final’ installation

The public were similarly receptive too. We were a little apprehensive as to how people would react to such a bold statement, but the fact that it was temporary, had a very light touch and used the surrounding landscape to become part of the work rather than challenging it drew visitors in their hundreds. We have no idea just how many people came to see it – we weren’t even thinking about that – but the local National Trust Estates Manager reckoned it was thousands based on the carpark use alone.

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Me 12 years younger!

We had no idea what the longer term effect would be. Nothing like this had ever been attempted in the Lake District. There was a perception of overprotection from major stakeholders like the National Trust and the Lake District National Park Authority. However, that the piece was successful and very positively received made it so much easier to do similar works in the landscape in the future. Certainly from where I stood it was the piece that created a significant mind change in those organisations.

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The following morning the balls had drifted a little. Photo © Tony West

As landscape works go, this was very simple. It was made with very little thought to a wider context or depth of meaning. In the wider scheme of things it’s not a great piece of art. This wasn’t the first piece I’d done outdoors or using the landscape, but in terms of scale it was a new benchmark. I was hooked and almost every piece I’ve created since has a direct link back to that piece.

And it was 12 years ago today.

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The middle of winter is certainly feeling like it this year. It’s not particularly wintery in the weather, but it certainly feels darker and more gloomy. Anyway, we’ve past the shortest, darkest day, technically. Now the days are getting longer again we can look to the future and think about the year ahead. But it’s also that time of year where we look back at the past year and take stock.

For me 2016 has felt like a particularly busy year. The tail end in particular was a bit hectic at times. But it’s been a productive one. Lots of new things – new people, new works and new places to work with.

‘Lotus Souvenir’ – large origami lotus flower installation at Bicester Village, Oxfordshire. UK. in February.

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Lumb Mill Viaduct

‘The Scenic Route’ was a short research residency walking two former railway lines in Lancashire.

‘PaperBridge’ had a variety of outings over the year – includig being featured on a TV show on the Discovery Channel, being in a book on micro architecture and being presented to the King and Queen of Lesotho. A smaller working model was shown in an exhibition of paper design in Chicago, while drawings and a short documentary was shown in Nova Scotia and Montreal.

September saw the start of a series of back-to-back installations right across the North of England, starting with ‘Tower’ – an architectural intervention at the Festival of Thrift in Kirkleatham.

From September to November I did a series of installations across Lancashire for a commission. ‘When the Red Rose…’ saw temporary interventions in Preston, Blackpool and Lancaster. A fourth on the canal at Blackburn sadly didn’t happen, but I’ll keep that one back for another day.

The major piece of the year however, was just three fields away from where I live.

Three barns were wrapped in slow-motion projections of waterfalls from the nearby River Tees. Over six short nights over 2,000 people ventured to see the work, in the dark in a quiet, remote corner of County Durham. Blessed by a harvest moon the first weekend and by clear skies with resident milky way the second, no number of photos or videos can ever capture the experience those lucky 2000 had.

While it was a good year for interesting and ambitious new works, for me ‘Waterfall’ stood out as probably the best piece I’ve done so far. And to do it on my own doorstep, in front of my own local community was a particularly special thing to do.

Just as good as being able to do all those installations, exhibitions and workshops was all the wonderful people I got to work with. None of these can happen without teams of people dedicated to making them happen – from those commissioning the work and those fabricating some of the pieces to those who work tirelessly to promote the work or organise the epic tasks they can sometime become. So hopefully I haven’t missed anyone off but here goes:

Nancy Kryzanowski, Gemma Jackman, Sally-Anne Blaise, Caroline Ruddick, Paul Gray, Phil Carr and Alan Carr Print & Design, Premier Papers in Gateshead, Nick Hunt, Melanie Diggle, Diana Hamilton, Roy Halliday, Nick Lund, Julie Tomlinson and James Cropper plc, Lexi Gerry, Jon Stynes, David Metcalf and October Films, Aleta Florentin, Vianna Newman, Harvey Lev, Judith Bauer, Diane Spark and all at UTASS, Ian Hunter, Paul Chaney, Alex Murdin, Henk Keiser, Brenda Vrieling, Jan Hartold, Vicky Holbrough, Nicola Golightly, Stella Hall, Trevor at Kirkleatham Old Hall, Christina Hesford, Janet Rogers, Paul Murray, Becky Nicholson, Kirsty Childs, Jill Bennison, Karen Marshall, Kate Percival, Lowri Bond, Sara Cooper,  Jane Shaw, Fiona Goh and Holmfirth Arts Festival, Sarah Branson, Jamie Frost, Thomas Charveriat, Sarah Gent, Sarah Mayhew-Craddock, Lucy Jenkins, Rebecca Turner, Harry and Kate Vane, Ewan Alinson, Jill Cole, Malcolm Walton, William Burton, Chris Woodley-Stewart, Nicki Cullens, Shane Harris, Mark Tyler, Ryan May and Hightlights, DCC events team,  Lyndsey Waters, Tim Joel, Richard Baxter, Rita Whitlock, Ella Byford, Justina Ma, Sally Jastrzebski-Lloyd, Anna Izza, Hannah Leighton-Boyce, Keri Sparkes, Jen Morgan, Catherine Shaw, Philippe Handford, Jamima Latimer, Louise Miller, Mike Neale, Stacey Walker, Julie Brown, Sandra Blue, Brent Lees, Friends of the Storey Garden, Rebecca Johnson, Laurie Peake, Sarah Steele and Preston Methodist Chapel, Alex Rinsler, Mykey Young, Richard and the Lightpool team, Zoe Dawes, Jenny Needham, Flossie Mainwaring-Taylor, Trevor Brookes, Martin Paul, John Gillmore, Heather Fox, Jennie Collingwood, David Turner, Andrew Barton, Paul Kingston…

I hope I haven’t missed too many off. That’s quite a team and a huge thanks to everyone on the list – I seriously could not have done all I have this year without each and everyone of you.

So, that’s it for this year now. Next year is another year. It’s going to be an interesting one for so many reasons, but I hope it’s more in a positive way.

Onwards and upwards…

 

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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?

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‘PaperBridge’ in BBC Focus magazine

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.

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RangeRover on ‘PaperBridgeChina’. Suzhou, November 2015

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.

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Mediocrity in all its splendour. This ad screen in Newcastle is sturdy, health and safety compliant, practical and meets all the planning regulations. What’s not to like? errr…. (image © James Perry via twitter)

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.

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photo: Alex Stocker (1896 – 1962) – Ufa-Pavilion, Berlin. 1927

 

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.

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‘Orbit’ by Anish Kapoor at the Olympic Park, London. 2012

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.

 

post script.

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…

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