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Interviews

An interview with Richard Wilson

23 April 2014

Richard Wilson’s Slipstream – his largest work to date – was today unveiled at London’s Heathrow Airport. Martin Gayford interviewed the artist for the May 2014 issue of Apollo. Below is a preview.

‘If you pushed your arm into a bucket of clay,’ Richard Wilson suggests, ‘then poured plaster into the shape you’d made, you’d have a moving form with the detail of the knuckles at the end of it. When the movement stopped you get to a reality.’ He’s talking about Slipstream, the monumental work he has conceived for the new Covered Court at London Heathrow’s Terminal 2.

Suitably enough this deals with the motion of an aircraft through space, but – this is Wilson’s point about the knuckles – the only place where it remotely resembles a real plane is at the front edge. This is where the forms sweep aloft, in what Wilson describes as ‘an optimistic up-and-away moment’: just what the 20 million passengers who will walk past it each year are about to experience.

The sheer statistics of Slipstream are impressive. It is as large as an A330-300 Airbus: 70 metres in length, weighing 77 tonnes; its curvilinear 1,650 square metre aluminium skin is held together with half a million rivets. But as Wilson’s example of the arm in the bucket illustrates, Slipstream is essentially concerned with a subject both simple and elusive: making visible in three dimensions the passage through the air of a fast moving object. It is a huge, highly engineered aluminium model of a hole in space. Or to put it another way, it is a sculpture of movement.

However, as Wilson points out, it does not represent the kind of flying experience passengers at Terminal 2 will be hoping for (or expecting). If he’d based it on an ordinary plane in flight, the result would have been a simple – rather boring – shape. Instead, Slipstream represents the path of a stunt jet, the Zivko Edge 540, as flown by British aerobatics pilot Paul Bonhomme. The course it took through space was not mimicked by a forearm thrust into a bucket, but digitally. ‘We put it in the computer,’ Wilson recalls, ‘and I just threw it. So we traced the path of a tumbling aircraft.’

It is, however, the sort that expresses soaring ascent into the sky in exciting visual terms. ‘The final form, which is actually very beautiful, starts to talk about velocity and aerodynamics,’ Wilson says. ‘As you walk along, the piece undulates and moves in front of you.’

This is an extract taken from Apollo’s upcoming May issue, which goes on sale on 26 April 2014. Click here to buy Apollo

Richard Wilson’s Slipstream was today unveiled at the new Terminal 2, at London’s Heathrow Airport and will remain on permanent display. Her Majesty The Queen is set to officially open the new Terminal 2 on 23 June 2014.

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