Friday 13 October 2017

Going Underground: Art that explores the development of Crossrail

The location for North Greenwich Station

Abstract Art and Engineering

In the summer of 1996 I had a summer job on the Jubilee Extension Line doing general manual work. I don’t think I fully realise then what I was working on in relation to the scale and ambition of the project. At the time it was probably one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the UK. I just viewed it as another summer job to get by before heading of to University.

Groundwork at North Greenwich Station

On the Extension Line I was part of a gang of men laying the miles and miles of cables that powered the tube lines from Stratford to North Greenwich. Although most of the stations were near completion by the time I arrived on site, North Greenwich Station was still a hole in the ground, leading down into the vast openness to where the new platforms were located. There was no physical station above ground at this stage so temporary stairs constructed from scaffolding poles and boards made access to the platforms and tunnels.

As you started to descend, the magnificence of the space and its engineering was clearly on display partly down to the fact that the wall panels had not been installed at this point. I could see the rawness of the materials which was used in the construct of the shaft leading down onto the platforms, and from there into the tunnels. You could see the steel and concrete lining which stopped the tons of London clay from collapsing into the shaft and tunnels. I could see every nut and bolt that held everything into place, and every cable of every size that powered every machine and piece of equipment. Below my feet on the temporary stairs I could see the service locomotives moving in and out with materials and equipment; one of which was ours, used to carry the copper power cable to be rolled out along the walls of the tunnels. Working with the cable pulling gang meant I was able to walk the newly constructed tunnels that went under the Thames River.

Although there was a good 20 years between the completion of the Jubilee Extension and the start of Crossrail those memories are still clear in my head. So when it was announced that Crossrail was finally going ahead, this got me a bit excited. I thought this could be my opportunity to use my experience on the Jubilee Extension Line to explore new ideas for artwork around Crossrail. I used my networks and contacts ( and within a couple of weeks I was able to get some surplus materials, distant for the scrap yard. In addition I was given a short tour of one of the sites used to construct the Crossrail Tunnel in East London. This gave me an insight into aspects of the engineering methods and materials used in its construction.
Some of the surplus materials used in the construction of Crossrail
Once I had the materials back in my studio I didn’t really have a clear idea in how I was going to set about creating a sculpture/sculptures. But the one thing I did have in mind was that I wanted to create something that wasn’t my typical format (which was a wall mounted sculptures).  It had to be freestanding, and reflect the aesthetics of the engineering of the tunnels of Crossrail. Because the materials I got from Crossrail , 36 cm long galvanized screw bolts and wood for shuttering were finite I had to develop an idea that utilised what I had at hand. I assembled different shaped and sized wood sections to create the lower part of the sculpture. Once the substructure was made I began to carve into it in order to create an organic feel, and a sense of movement.

Me caving the lower part of the sculpture
The 36 cm bolts were interesting objects to play around with, to physically try and bring the bolts to together to create the form I wanted? As the plinth was now very organic in shape, I wanted to continue this feel with the construction of the bolts.

The beginnings of the substructure

Experimenting with the 36 cm bolts
One of the technical issues I was starting to understand from the outset was the issue of physics. Because each bolt was quite heavy I had to keep in my mind literally the balance between, height, angle and area, to ensure the final artwork was well constructed and stayed upright. Because I didn’t want to create a sculpture that was straight up and down, but something that came swooping out at an angle to create that organic feel, I had to implement an element of physics and engineering. Apart from the materials I was using, this is were the engineering of Crossrail and my art started to really come together. The engineering term, cantilever was never far from my mind when constructing the sculpture.

Although the final artwork could be described as abstract in form, every aspect of it was planned and considered. The materials didn’t necessarily allow you to make to many happy mistakes because of the technical requirements of making it physically stay up and secure. It was also important to create something that was clearly artistic rather than something that was purely engineered.

Although I approached this project as a bit of an experiment, by the end of the process I managed too achieve something more than that. I managed to create a freestanding sculpture that incorporated many technical skills, combining engineering and art into a single piece of artwork. Aesthetically the sculpture works were it manages to celebrate the materials and its connection to one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Europe, Crossrail. With this sculpture completed I am now looking forward to producing my next series of sculptures using materials from Crossrail.

View of the final sculpture
I would like to say thanks to Brendan Morahan and Tim Fitch from Invennt who were a great support to me on this project.

After The Fire