At the airfield: Introducing Richard Wilson’s “Slipstream”

The renowned sculptor's new work, an aluminium procession of twists and somersaults, is currently being installed at Heathrow's new Terminal 2 building. Last week the aerobatics pilot Paul Bonhomme attempted to illustrate its curves above an airfield in E

We watched as the plane rose vertically, then stopped. It seemed to hang in the air. With a quick tip of the rudder the vehicle swung out like a leaf and flipped onto its back. On the ground there was a light breeze. The grass was damp from rain the previous night. We stood in groups and looked up as the sound of the engine died away. The plane rolled and fell to the ground.

“No flight ever goes the way you want it to,” the pilot had explained in the hangar that morning. “It’s beautiful in that way.”

Paul Bonhomme was born to fly. His father and brother were both commercial pilots. His mother was an air stewardess. His prize-winning plane, the Zivko Edge 540, is a light aerobatic aircraft capable of rolling 420 degrees per second and climbing 3,700 feet in less than a minute. Last week, on a small private airfield in Saffron Walden in Essex, Bomhomme attempted to imitate a flightpath dreamed up by a computer. It seemed impossible, looking at the plans. His model was a procession of twists and somersaults devised by sculptor Richard Wilson to form the basis of his latest work, Slipstream.

In the sculpture world, Wilson is renowned for large, mechanistic works of art, and like his best-known pieces, Slipstream is about transformation. His project 20:50 was essentially a tank of reflective sump oil, now housed in the basement of the Saatchi Gallery. It takes time, upon entering the room on a raised platform above the oil, to realise that the floor isn’t solid. “You’d be arrested if you put a teaspoon of it down the drain,” Wilson said. “It’s hazardous, it’s waste – and yet people come out of that room talking about ‘beauty’ and ‘space’.” Another famous work is Turning the Place Over, for which a section of façade was cut from a neglected Liverpool office block and put on a rotating spindle.

The building was set for demolition, neglected by those who passed by. Heathrow is not. It is seen regularly. The new Terminal 2 building is expected to host 20 million tourists a year when it is completed in 2014. The courtyard where the sculpture will hang from four central pillars is roughly the same size as the turbine hall at Tate Modern. In 2010 Heathrow set up a competition to invite proposals for the space. Slipstream, the winning entry, is constructed of 23 independent bespoke aluminium sections, weighs 74 tonnes, is 70 metres long and is held together by 3,000 rivets. It is being driven from Hull, where it was manufactured, and is being installed over the summer.

A computer-generated impression of the finished work.

“It’s a metaphor for travel,” Wilson explained, waiting for Bonhomme to take off. “It’ll move and tumble from A to B just as the passengers are doing: they’re getting on a plane and getting off in a very different situation.” And here, if anywhere, is the dark note. Slipstream is a large and expensive piece of public art, but it is not pure ideology. It smuggles in a little of the inhumanity of the long-haul journey: the lack of control, geographical blindness and absence of time felt by passengers who step on board a jet in London and wake up 14 hours later in Hong Kong.

Heathrow has attempted to catch the attention of travellers before, to make them notice the activity around them as they wander through. In 2009, Alain de Botton became the airport’s first Artist-in-Residence. “While punctuality lies at the heart of what we typically understand by a good trip,” de Botton wrote in A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary, “I have often longed for my plane to be delayed - so that I might be forced to spend a bit more time at the airport.” He might be the only one. From the austere grey corridors to the tacky brands, bad attitudes and endless queues, airports are astonishing for their capacity to make us indifferent to the miracle of flight.

Bonhomme landed his gyroscopic jet to dense applause, and with his safe return to earth came the train back to London, to work. Another journalist asked Wilson if he would be going up on the next flight. “I’m not that into flying, actually,” he admitted. “I prefer motorbikes. It takes a few drinks to get me up in the air.”

Early sketches for Richard Wilson's "Slipstream", which the aerobatic pilot Paul Bonhomme recreated in Essex last week.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue