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.

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses