When you enter the Wapping Project’s former boiler room, you are confronted with a large screen suspended in the blacked out space. A time-lapse film shows the unfurling, de-crumpling and patching up of a crushed Cessna 150 plane from metallic ball to something resembling its former self, suspended on strops from the four massive columns that dominate the space. The process is clearly labour-intensive, with much scurrying about and use of stepladders, a fact underlined by the percussive soundtrack of the riveting, bashing, hoisting and stretching by artist Richard Wilson and his assistants. At the end of the film reel, the ‘restored’ plane gets hoisted out of view like a piece of badly assembled stage set. Then you become aware of that behind the screen is the broken form of the subject of the film, lying forlorn on the floor. It is impossible not to want to get close to it, touch its buckled silver skin and stroke its curled propellor blades and to wonder why such efforts were spent on a wrecked light plane only for it to be discarded again.
Richard Wilson was one of those children who likes taking toys apart to see how they work. That youthful inquisitiveness has continued in his adult projects, only now it is not the mere structure or mechanics of the objects and spaces around us that fascinates him, but also how we perceive them. A ‘normal’ room can be made to feel very strange indeed by tilting a section of floor, or pulling a window out of its frame and in to the space. Most famously, in 20:50, Wilson filled a gallery space with used sump oil so that the architectural space is perfectly mirrored in the reflective surface and the depth of oil suggested by a sunken walkway by which the spectator reaches the centre of the black pool. It is not, as you’d expect, a very portable work but has recently been re-installed in the new Saatchi Gallery in County Hall, which provides a Beaux Arts interior to reflect rather than the usual minimalist gallery interior. Some visitors are so affected by the smell of oil and vertiginous effect of the reflection that they freeze in the walkway and have to be retrieved by museum staff.
Besides transforming interior spaces, Wilson likes to get us to re-appraise the most ordinary and ubiquitous mass produced objects. In Face Lift, he takes a typical English caravan, peels the aluminium skin off the shabby ply and softwood framing and re-makes it, very beautifully, in a severed and twisted pose. The caravan both remains familiar (orange curtains still hang in the windows) and becomes transformed, perfect framing visible through window glass, polished aluminium wheel arches exposed, poised like an eager animal on its stabilising legs in its newly glamourised form. Low technology and questionable craftsmanship get elevated to high art.
In Butterfly there is no such glamourising of the object. Reading the accompanying text, I was slightly shocked to find out that this was not a crashed plane that had been resurrected in the name of art, but that it had been a virtually intact plane that Wilson reduced to a crumpled mass by ramming it with two JCBs in the car park of North East London University. This act of violence makes the careful ‘restoration’ sequence all the more unsettling. There is an almost dada-ish perversity about destroying a delicate and sophisticated machine, only to re-mould it in a rather cack-handed way to something resembling a parody of its former self, almost the exact reverse of the process in Face Lift. Although Wilson could not have known this while planning Butterfly, the crumpled and re-aligned plane carried an additional resonance in the build up and execution of the Iraq invasion, as the world’s television network cameras recorded acts of mechanized violence with an almost casual intimacy. However the artist seems to be telling us not to get too hung up on the object (if you’ll pardon the pun): the exhibition is really the time lapse film of the process and not the ‘discarded’ object in the corner. We are intended to focus on the process of the ‘butterfly’ emerging from its ‘chrysalis’ and not to grieve over the battered machine itself.
So what is this process all about? Wilson seems to be making a point about the materiality of the objects we create and the emotional freight that they carry for us. The plane is a ‘perfect’ form in that it is necessarily aerodynamic and structurally efficient. It has evolved over time guided by the laws of physics (resistance, lift, control surfaces, power to weight ratio, structural stiffness) to the stable form that is totally familiar to us as the archetypal light plane. The Cessna 150 has barely altered in its outward appearance since its introduction in the late 1950s because as an airframe it did its job well and light planes are not moulded by the vagaries of fashion in the way that cars are. A total of 23,800 Cessna 150s were built between 1959 and 1977 and they became one of the most widely used two-seater trainers with ‘tricycle’ undercarriage, before being succeeded by the more powerful 152. There is a rightness about the little Cessna that we appreciate almost unconsciously: the proportions of its swept tail fin, the slenderness of the undercarriage stems (designed to flex during rough landings), the struts that anchor the wings to the base of the fuselage with single bolts. It is a form that has become familiar to us over generations.
Wilson seems to want us to look beyond this picture postcard form to the material reality of a light plane. From the form generated by the laws of aerodynamics he directs our attention to a form created by the laws of metallurgy. An aluminium monocoque structure relies on the tensile strength of its skin to maintain its form. As soon as that skin is folded or crumpled or torn, the structure loses its strength and cannot be made perfect again, however much it is beaten, stretched or patched. The processes of factory production cannot be reproduced by hand, so when a gang of men bash and manipulate the plane, it becomes something other.
It is no coincidence that the first task undertaken by Wilson when he acquired the plane was to strip off all its paint down to the gleaming aluminium. Not only is this beautiful when crumpled (think of light reflecting off tin foil), it is getting us to acknowledge the physical reality of a plane. If the archetypal plane is associated in our minds with flight, freedom, escape and superiority, the imperfect metallic ex-plane makes us aware of the fragility and mutability of the machines we create and fetishise.
It seems to me that Wilson is offering a critique of one of the symbols of our industrialised world that we take utterly for granted. Even the apparent futility of the exercise seems to be denying the purposefulness of the object (it will never fly again) and of our produce/discard culture in which materiality and hand crafting have been overwhelmed by factory perfection. The deliberate vandalising and ‘imperfect’ restoration of a plane is a subversive act in an age which prizes factory-perfection and utility. One could even see the crude system of strops and pulleys by which the airframe is suspended and manipulated as a parody of the industrial assembly line where pristine components are suspended from above and lowered carefully in to the perfect finished object.
As one would expect of Wilson, he is acutely aware of the resonance of the installation with its space and the Wapping Project is an apt setting for the ‘unbending’ of the plane. The four massive cast iron columns of the hydraulic pumping station’s former boiler room provided a ready made jig on which to stretch the plane back in to shape with nylon strops and ratchets. Where Wilson has typically used an object to transform a space, here he has used a space to transform an object, literally. The robust Victorian technology that is happily still in evidence in the Wapping Project gives the place an aura of a heroic industrial age that makes the plane seem all the more delicate and forlorn and curiously domesticated. There is a sly reference to the heroic scale of the hydraulic pumping enterprise, which provided ‘piped power’ to local industries, by the use of miniature hydraulic rams to re-form crushed wing sections from within.
Is the artist being ironic when he gives this artwork the title ‘Butterfly’? The metaphor seems a little strained when the process displays its own artificiality (there’s nothing natural about this rebirth). Yet on the other hand the transformed Cessna has a strangely organic air, as though it has undergone some natural transformative process and one that divests the object of its mechanical machismo. As the Coalition Forces flaunted their aerial technology as instruments of vengeance and, implicitly, symbols of a superior culture, Richard Wilson provides a timely and provocative counter-current in the unquestioning machine age we now inhabit.