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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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times