Ian Bank’s article Tampering with Architecture was commissioned by RIBA North West’s A-Magaine in 2007, and is an exploration into the notion of “live performing buildings” as described by the artist Richard Wilson.
The piece includes a critique on the artistic background and curatorial context behind Richard Wilson’s installation called ‘Turning the Place Over’ in Liverpool, following completion of this major work installed as part of Liverpool Capital of Culture in 2008 and was part funded by the RDA’s ‘New Icons of the North’ public art programme for the north of England.
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Tampering with Architecture
The curious notion of ‘Performance Architecture’ was explored by The Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art1 in Sunderland recently, in an exhibition it titled Theatrum Mundi. In its exhibition notes, the actual meaning of the term ‘theatrum mundi’ (deriving from Plato, 2500 years ago), was explained by reference to the famous lines in Shakespeare’s As You Like It – ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players’, it quoted. The exhibition explored the metaphor of artists re-imagining our built environment as a living stage set; one where the public was indistinguishable amongst the architectural backdrops, like bit-part players. It was buildings rather than people that were seen as the ‘principal actors’.
The artist Richard Wilson does not see architecture as necessarily static, and has referred previously to working on what he has termed “live performing buildings”. He has had a long history in realising such theatrical interventions in architecture – often drawing heavily for his inspiration on the worlds of engineering and construction. He has called his work “tampering with architecture”, and as such, is now seen as one of the foremost exponents of installation art in this genre. His work has been shown widely over the past twenty five years: representing Britain in the Sydney, Sao Paulo and Venice Bienniales; participating in the Berliner Künstlerprogramm D.A.A.D Artists-in-Residence (1992-93); and being the sole British representative invited to the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial in Japan (2000). He was included on the unofficial Turner Prize shortlist in 1988 for his Gateshead contribution to a Television South West National Art Exhibition, and then commended again in 1989 for the evocative site-specific installations made in collaboration with the highly innovative Matts Gallery2 in London. Most notable of these, was his seminal work 20:50 – since described as “one of the masterpieces of the modern age” by the art critic Andrew Graham Dixon in the BBC television series The History of British Art. Wilson’s self-styled “party piece” has since been recreated as part of the permanent collection at the Saatchi Gallery.3 The installation involves a huge ‘sea’ of reflective sump oil bisected by a ramped sunken walkway entering the gallery space. The contrasting play of used engine oil set against the clean white lines of the gallery are deliberate. The flat-calm slick reflects and inverts the volume of the space, deliberately altering the viewer’s perception as they traverse the walkway, and knocking their perspective off-kilter.
Wilson’s latest major work, currently being installed in Liverpool City Centre is another radical inversion, with an intervention onto the existing façade of Cross Keys House at 37-41 Moorfields – a former Yates’ Wine Lodge. The work is being described by co-commissioner’s Liverpool Culture Company4 and Liverpool Biennial5 as “the most daring piece of public art ever commissioned in the UK”, and this sets a highly ambitious bench mark. Cross Keys House is currently owned by the North West Development Agency6 (NWDA), prior to its eventual demolition and redevelopment at some point in the future. As such, Wilson’s work Turning the Place Over is currently planned as a temporary respite for the building, being conceived for the Liverpool Capital of Culture in 2008. The work consists of an 8 metre diameter ovoid cut from the façade of the building, which is then made to oscillate in three dimensions. This revolving sliver of building is supported on a specially designed giant rotator, with technology borrowed from the mechanical industries, and acts as a huge ‘window’, offering unexpected glimpses into the building interior during its slow rotation in daylight hours. A manifestation of post modern deconstructivism perhaps, the installation actually required the physical disassembly of an entire façade across three floors of the building, before it could be painstakingly reconstructed, and fixed-back to a steel frame supported by a massive pivotal spindle. This extraordinary feat of engineering is intended to stun audiences on many levels – both disorientating them when they view it from a distance, and also providing a thrilling spectacle up-close, as the buildings façade swings out above their heads at street level. It is due to open in June, in time for Architecture Week 2007.
Along with Liverpool Culture Company core investment, Turning the Place Over is funded by the NWDA and The Northern Way7 (the unique collaboration of the three northern Regional Development Agencies). Interestingly, both these political heavyweights believe that major public art can contribute to their strategic aims on multiple levels: NWDA Director of Marketing & Communications, Peter Mearns thinks Turning the Place Over can push the boundaries of what can be achieved in public art, and in so doing, “can significantly add to the region’s world-class cultural offering”; Further to this, The Northern Way, through its current ‘Welcome to the North’ public art funding strand, believes that iconic art, such as Angel of the North and B of the Bang, can have a positive impact on both the local economy and quality of life issues; More specifically, Neville Chamberlain, Chairman of The Northern Way believes that “improving the North’s cultural offer, through such art will increase positive perceptions of the North, both nationally and internationally”. He has stated that it is qualities such as these that will ultimately attract more skilled people, entrepreneurs, investors and tourists to the North, whilst also improving the quality of place for people living here. Of course, the notion that ‘culture can prime the economy’ is a fairly recent phenomenon, and is an issue that is notoriously difficult to evaluate definitively. It is one that Lewis Biggs, Chief Executive of Liverpool Biennial, helped debate on Radio 4’s You and Yours programme in April. His concluding view on the programme was that the spiritual and social dimension of art should always be paramount, and that the “arts are about the arts” and “not about making money”.
It is not clear whether artist Richard Wilson cares for such lofty economic aspirations to be placed on his own art, or merely sees this as political hyperbole that clouds his main artistic purpose. He has certainly stated previously that he does not want to be seen as preacher or educationalist in his work. What is clear however, is that Wilson does have the power to unsettle or break our preconceptions of physical space – and in so doing, can radically challenge our viewpoint of the world around us. That he has previously achieved this through an art he sees as more akin to performance than sculpture is no surprise. He has a history of being fascinated by such live public spectacles – in a Victorian sense of grand entertainment and public display. Turning the Place Over achieves this through the transformation of what Wilson has previously called the “host body” of a building – which then begins to act as part of a bigger, interactive sculpture. More recent ‘architectural’ pieces have included his Slice of Reality, a 21 metre high vertical cross-section of a 600-ton dredger located in the Thames next to the Millennium Dome in London; and Set North for Japan (74° 33’ 2”), a full-sized steel replica of the outline of his Bermondsey terraced home, that was set at the same angle of elevation in Niigata Prefecture, Japan. Probably the closest direct comparison to Turning the Place Over however, comes in his permanent installation on the face of the Arc community arts and education centre8, completed in Stockton-on-Tees in 1999. Called Over Easy, it consists of a 7.5 metre diameter, disc-shaped section in the gallery façade that very slowly rotates back and forward – flush to the plane of the façade in this case. The work was Wilson’s first architectural installation created for an un-built conceptual design, and was carried out in collaboration with building designers RHWL Architects.
Back in 1983 Richard Wilson jointly formed the influential Bow Gamelan Ensemble, with the recently deceased free-improvising pioneer Paul Burwell, and performance artist Anne Bean. As Bow Gamelan their performance venues moved from clubs and pubs, to eventually the great outdoors – where their installations grew increasingly panoramic in scale over nearly 10 years. Bow Gamelan built surreal, junk-sculpture that were renowned for their kinetic spectacle of sound, light, fire and pyrotechnics. They were twice awarded the Time Out Award for Performance Art, with Time Out describing their interventions as “adventures in music, sculpture and performance” and as “unorthodox magic.” Since then, Wilson has also talked of a similar use of psychological illusion in his work – for example, in referring to 20:50, he talked of the creation of a magical “Tardis image”, that left his audiences hungry to know how the trick was achieved. Such illusion also seems a fitting ambition for Turning the Place Over. Like the playful sci-fi waffle in Dr Who’s ‘Time And Relative Dimension In Space’ theories, the work has the power to distort our sense of place and worldliness against a previously familiar backdrop – whilst at the same time letting us enjoy it as pure populist theatre. Ultimately, the probability is that the work will disappear after 2008, leaving only the memory of a bold piece of time-based performance art. This could actually heighten the illusion further – in granting it immortality through its own iconic mythology.
Architect Ian Banks is the Director of Atoll Ltd, a collaborative art and architecture practice. He is also the part-time Consultant Director of Public Realm at Beam, the Yorkshire-based centre for art and architecture – www.atoll-uk.com + www.beam.uk.net.
The research and writing of this article has been funded by both RIBA NW and by Arts Council England, NW – under its Grants for the Arts award programme – www.artscouncil.org.uk.
The Liverpool Culture Company was established by Liverpool City Council in 2000, to lead the bid to be European Capital of Culture 2008.
Liverpool Biennial is the celebrated promoter and organiser of Liverpool’s international festival of contemporary art and is a visual arts agency delivering public art commissions, such as Richard Wilson’s Turning the Place Over and Antony Gormley’s Another Place at Crosby Beach.
Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA) leads the economic development and regeneration of England’s Northwest.
The Northern Way is a unique collaboration between the three Northern Regional Development Agencies: Yorkshire Forward, Northwest Regional Development Agency and One NorthEast. Theres is a 20 year strategy to transform the economy of the North of England.
Turning the Place Over is funded by The Northern Way as part of its £4.4million Welcome to the North public arts programme, developed in conjunction with Arts Council England, the three northern RDA’s and Cultural Consortia.
Contractors working on Turning The Place Over are: Structural Engineers – Price & Myers LLP, Mechanical Engineers – F. Bode & Sons, Quantity Surveyors – Nic Porter Associates, Construction – Askham Construction, Steel fabricators – Lindhurst Engineering.