Water Table, 1994. Billiard table, concrete pipe, ground water, and electrics, 3.7 x 2.1 x 4 meters.

Make Your Own Trail: A Conversation with Richard Wilson

Slipstream, one of Richard Wilson’s most innovative projects to date, translates the motion of a car rolling over into the aeronautical maneuver of a small propeller plane turning through the air at high altitude. The suspended, aluminum-clad sculpture twists through the central space of Heathrow Airport’s new Terminal 2 building like an elongated spacecraft settling for earth. The “wow” factor of Slipstream characterizes all of Wilson’s work. His architectural interventions—including his best-known work, Turning the Place Over, commissioned for the 2008 Liverpool Biennial—employ a creative synthesis of sculpture and engineering to create daring and sometimes disconcerting breaks in the fabric of everyday life.

Slipstream, 2014. Aluminum, steel, and plywood, 8 x 78 x 8 meters. Work installed at Heathrow Airport, Terminal 2.

Rajesh Punj: Could you explain the significance of scale in Slipstream? 

Richard Wilson: The scale question is interesting. The first thing that people ask is why it’s so ginormous. You have to understand that I’ve spent a good part of my professional career as a sculptor dabbling with architecture, playing with it and undoing it, and therefore I have to take on that scale. If you have an idea about spinning a façade, you don’t do it as a six-foot piece. A façade is looking at the extremities and thinking about what the budget will allow. So, architecture is an obvious determinant for scale, and the other thing is the canvas that I was given at Terminal 2—the empty void of the covered court area, which is supported in the middle by 11 columns. The brief that I was given stipulated that the sculpture could only be supported off of the columns. I have only used four of them, just over a third of the supports for the ceiling. In that respect, it’s not a very big sculpture; but it is big when you see it, which has to do with human scale, non-human scale, and architectural scale. I worked with the scale of the room, and I worked with the scale of the interior architecture. It only occupies one-third of the building, which includes the car-park arrivals area from London, the covered court area, and the terminal. So, I have the middle piece, and I’ve taken four of the 11 columns of that piece, therefore it’s not a sprawling work; it occupies only one part of the architecture. I think that it is right for where it is, and the size is right for where it is located. In terms of the visual, people like to see exciting things, dramatic things—things that are going to arouse them, dazzle them in some way, and startle their imaginations—and I think I work on that level. It’s a little rude in the sculpture world, but I use it; I suppose because I work a lot of the time in an environment where the audience isn’t well versed in art grammar. Twenty million people a year come through this terminal, and they are not all going to be au fait with the visual arts; they haven’t had the training, so I have to use something that gets the “wow” factor going. 

A Slice Of Reality, 2000. Sliced section of an ocean dredger, 21.34 x 10.6 x 8.84 meters.

RP: You appear to consider the external factors of a work—the volume of the space and your wish for the work not to overwhelm that setting in any way—as much as the work itself. Am I correct in thinking that? 

RW: I think that’s true. One learns to be very sensitive, and that comes about for various reasons. It is something that I’ve really had to think about and work with over the years. You can make constructions and build, which is what Slipstream is, or you can unravel, undo, and look inside architecture, which is what a lot of my previous work has done. When you do that, you tend to get critics talking about the artist as vandal, that you are attacking architecture and disagreeing with the architect—but it’s not that at all. My works are sensitively choreographed pieces. When you turn the façade of a building, plant a sculpture in the floor of a gallery, or take a window and bring it into the space to adjust the architecture, it needs to be incredibly thought out and sensitively worked. I wouldn’t say hundreds, but there are lots and lots of drawings, sketches, and models made to get a work to sit properly and right in the space. It’s not an attack, it’s not an act of vandalism. I’m not the mad ax man coming in to attack architecture, as has been written about me. 

RP: That comes across as a strange accusation to throw at someone so deliberate in everything he does. 

RW: I can understand it, because often people don’t know the hidden agenda of projects such as Over Easy (1999, The Arc, Stockton-Upon-Tees), Turning the Place Over (2007–11), and Water Table (1994, Matt’s Gallery, London). When you know you have been given permission to undo a window, for instance, and you have a very good understanding of how that window operates, as in She Came in through the Bathroom Window (1989), you can just unbolt it, bring it back in, and put it back up afterwards. With Turning the Place Over, I knew that I could do a pastry cut in the building, mount that onto a spindle and spin it, because the building was going to be pulled down afterwards. Those were the hidden agendas, given that information. The same with the 1996 Serpentine Gallery exhibition “Jamming Gears.” The gallery was going to excavate the basement, and they had been given lottery money to put an education room down there. Therefore I could dig the floor, because it was all coming up anyway. There was an understanding that I would follow the parameters of what was allowed and doable; and in that respect, I probably challenged the architecture. But in the museum environment, the architecture is sacrosanct, you can’t put a nail in the wall, you can’t undo a floorboard; it is difficult enough taking out a light bulb, there are so many health and safety restrictions. I research all of those things, determine the available parameters, and then work out what I can do within those parameters as I understand them. It is not vandalism: I don’t go in without asking or seeking permission and just assume I can do these things. 

Over Easy, 1999. Steel, glass, electric motors, render, and PVC seals, 8 meters diameter.

RP: How integral is drawing when planning a work? 

RW: Drawings are vital for me, because I am working with teams, and I have to be able to express my idea sensibly and in a coherent way, so that there is no misunderstanding. Sometimes I am invited to make drawings and models to assist in the securing of funding; you make a maquette in order to convince someone, perhaps a local authority, so that they can say, “Oh, I get it, I like it, let’s put money into that.” I do these things to the best of my ability in order to convey, in the best possible way, the concept as it is at that moment in time. I also make drawings as a kind of work-out. In the same way that people go to the gym, I use drawing as a mental limbering up. I have to get very familiar with the work, because once I am familiar with it, it is handed over. Slipstream was made in Hull and assembled here, on site. The work isn’t done in the studio, where you get time to look at it, duel over it, and change things—you’ve got to get it right, like the architect’s got to get it right. And you can’t be seen to be wasting money. You can’t say, “I don’t like the middle, can we get rid of that and do it again?” because you look unprofessional, and you are throwing money away at that point. 

RP: There must be a point with certain projects when you have to be much less attached to the work, when you are less able to come back to something. How do you operate under those circumstances? 

RW: Slipstream, like the other major works in which the sculpture is rooted in a building, required me to work like an architect. That means you work, and work, and work on the idea to get it fine-tuned to what you consider correct, and then you hand it over to the engineers and the manufacturers. You don’t lose control of it at that point, but you obviously can’t chop and change it after that. When a project like this takes three years, your most intensive period is probably the first six months, at the very beginning. After that, you are following it, signing off on bits of it, or asking for a reworking of a section, but essentially you can’t challenge your own aesthetic. You can say, “I don’t like that bit there,” but you can’t say, “I don’t like the way I have made that work, I want to get rid of all of that.” 

RP: There is something almost contradictory about your lexicon for public sculpture; there is your wish to be sympathetic to a space and then there is the artist as actionist. 

RW: It comes with age. You start to realize that sometimes you can be a bit belligerent. You think the idea is right—you have tried and tested it on your models and drawings—and then someone comes along and says that it can’t be that high, it’s got to drop down a bit so you can see an existing sign. So, you drop it, and you think, “Actually, I’m glad that surfaced, because it could have been a bold, brisk attempt at saying, ‘Here I am, flying up and away,’ when, in fact, there is a subtlety when you reduce.” 

Rajesh Punj is a writer and curator living in London.