Ann Jones looks at Richard Wilson’s Italian-Job-inspired artwork
I can’t remember when I first saw The Italian Job or what I thought of it with any degree of accuracy but I put the vague affection I have for it down to the Minis – I’ve only owned three cars and two of them were Minis (one white, one blue: by rights I should now be driving a red Mini rather than a black VW). Well, that and not remembering much about it; I have a sneaking suspicion that that might help. But even I remember a few key things and chief amongst those (apart from quite how beautiful Michael Caine was then) is the cliff-hanger ending and the red, white and blueness of both Minis and coach. This is a flag-waving film, with the coach – precariously balancing half on and half off the cliff at the end – as the flag. And of course it’s a 1960s film, and – caution: ridiculous generalisation approaching – the sixties were all about London. So in this year of London-centred flag-waving, there’s a certain logic to taking another, playful look at The Italian Job. In Bexhill-on-Sea. In the form of an art installation.
Richard Wilson – probably best known for 20:50, the oil-filled room bought by Charles Saatchi and reworked for each incarnation of the Saatchi Gallery – wouldn’t necessarily have been high on my list of artists likely to be found waving the flag by the seaside but the London 2012 Festival, the finale of the Cultural Olympiad , clearly offered him the opportunity to make work on an ambitious scale, which is the only scale he really knows. Asked to make a work for the roof of the De La Warr Pavilion – Bexhill’s iconic Modernist arts venue, one of the most beautiful buildings on the south coast (or anywhere else really) – Wilson decided to effectively use the building as a plinth on which to make an homage to that final scene from The Italian Job by balancing a replica of the coach half on and half off the roof for a work which takes its title from the last line of the film: Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea... The coach teeters precariously, sometimes dipping low as though it might fall before recovering its balance somewhat.
Though this is an installation that obviously posed a significant engineering challenge, involving several tons of steel girders, and though there’s something pleasingly bonkers about the idea, visually it’s simplicity itself. Nonetheless, I wanted to see it from all angles and spent far more time staring at it than was strictly necessary or in any way reasonable and, with 25,000 visitors in the first month, my guess is it’s set to be one of the most photographed artworks around this summer (although London Booster, David Černý’s double decker bus doing press-ups in London – is likely to give it a run for its money in that respect). Certainly when I saw it people seemed to be staying and watching for quite a while, enjoying not just the object but the idea and the work’s relationship to The Italian Job. And of course, it’s possible to interact with the work, albeit photographically, which has worked to capture the public’s imagination in the past – like, for example, Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project inthe Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The DLWP has set up a Flickr group for pictures; so far the playful ones with someone standing in the car park seemingly supporting the coach are surprisingly uncommon.
Key to the success of the piece is, I think, the way the coach moves. It’s sufficiently subtle, and occasional, that you need to watch carefully to be sure it’s happening, but paying attention is rewarded. In this respect, for me, Hang On A Minute Lads… wins out over Černý’s London Booster which audibly breathes and groans as it psychs itself up for another lift – its straining made visible by the video images at its windows which make it seem (not very convincingly, but then buses don’t really do press-ups) as though the bus were full of a churning liquid. With London Booster it’s also necessary to wait and watch but the gaps between the action seem rather too long at times; the bus is mostly either up or down, though the press-ups when they happen are entertaining. It’s good to have a major Černý work in London though, even if it is very temporary and even if it’s not an actual Routemaster, and summer tends to be the silly season for art just as much as for news so the timing is just right.
In the case of the Wilson, quite apart from the work, there are a couple of other things that interest me. Firstly of course is the explicit crossover between art and film. There’s no shortage of artists referencing film in their work, probably most commonly those working with photography – with Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson perhaps the most obvious examples – but film and literature also work their way into installations by, say, the likes of Mike Nelson or Susan Hiller. Nonetheless, Wilson’s work is unusual in taking a scene from such a widely known film and directly reworking it as sculpture. Arguably then, the things that make Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea… work so well are also the things that make it unusual. But the context of the work is also important here. Firstly, although there are two other exhibitions at the De La Warr Pavilion at the moment, it isn’t just a gallery. There are also gigs and other live events; and, perhaps inevitably, The Italian Job will get a couple of screenings this summer. And of course, the commission is part of the London 2012 Festival and as such part of the programme of art events that has formed part of the wider cultural backdrop to the Olympics. This is flag-waving feel-good art, which is where we came in.
The range of arts events happening under the umbrella of the London 2012 Festival is as extensive as its geographical diversity, with events in pretty much all areas of the arts happening across the UK. And any programme like this involves drawing in funding from sources such as the arts councils and commercial sponsorship. And it’s here that Hang On A Minute Lads… is interesting in a different way. Given the current economic climate and the sheer number of events seeking financial support and given that some of the really big money deals are obviously tied to the Olympics themselves rather than the surrounding cultural events, it’s perhaps no real surprise that some unexpected sources of money are emerging. I wouldn’t necessarily have expected to find Farrow and Ball sponsoring Tracey Emin’s exhibition at Turner Contemporary for instance, or the Qatar Museums Authority as sponsor of the Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Britain, although they are big spenders.
The principal sponsor of Richard Wilson’s installation at the De La Warr Pavilion though isn’t a corporation or a wealthy royal family. Instead it’s former Bexhill-on-Sea resident, and honorary patron of the Pavilion, Eddie Izzard. Clearly this is good news for Wilson, who gets to make an ambitious project without worrying about any negative perception the audience might have of a particular corporate sponsor. And for the venue there is the added benefit of staging a sell-out roof-top performance by Izzard against the backdrop of the sculpture and some suitably bonkers quotes for the publicity material (“2012 is the year the Olympics & Paralympic Games return to the United Kingdom and I think this is a perfect time to hang a large bus off the edge of a building in a seaside town. As a huge fan of the classic film The Italian Job, I am proud to be the Principal Sponsor of artist Richard Wilson’s ‘Hang On A Minute Lads’…. By the end of 2012 I would hope that the word goes out from our country that not only do we run excellent world events, but also we balance coaches on the edges of buildings like no one else ever could”).
Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing arrangement. With companies often uncertain whether their involvement will bring them negative publicity – and the restrictions imposed by the corporate deals with LOCOG haven’t exactly received universally good press – and in an economic climate that has doubtless seen the pool of possible support for the arts much diminished, are we looking at a future in which the it’s entertainers rather than industrialists who put up the cash to support art in public places? Whether this turns out to be a foretaste of the future of the funded sector or a one-off, it’s got to be much more fun to get the money from Eddie Izzard than, say, BP or a bank, and the match between sponsor and work here is pretty much perfect.
Richard Wilson: Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea… is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea until 1 October 2012.
David Černý’s London Booster is outside the Czech House at the Business Design Centre, Islington until 12 August 2012.