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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.