In a break from working out how to stabilise mountain sides, Imperial College London was recently called in to rescue Henry Moore’s Arch – a not unpleasant six metre tall stone sculpture that was taken down from a London park in 1996 because it was on the verge of falling down. Despite its ultra-modern image, Imperial still has wonderful big materials testing machines lurking in its basements, and a startling amount of expertise in things rock. It found that the sculpture’s unusual shape combined with the poor location of the joints between its seven pieces, and the use of travertine which is a brittle stone, conspired to make it unstable.
The cure proposed by Imperial – and partners at the Glasgow School of Art and the Tate – includes attaching the sculpture’s sections together with fibreglass bolts and dowels, and placing it on a reinforced concrete base. Hopefully if the money can be found the thing will be back up, and safe, soon. I quite like it that engineers are getting involved in the underpinnings of art – particularly in fun stuff like the Angel of the North. In fact, I like it enough to feel embarrassed when the engineering lets art down. Here I am thinking of the stunning B of the Bang in Manchester, which is gradually dropping to bits, the interesting but hydrodynamically-challenged Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, and the original wobbly incarnation of the London Millennium Bridge. And I particularly appreciate the art that goes into making engineered structures look a little easier on the eye. Both the Falkirk Wheel and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge could have looked a lot worse if someone with an eye for beauty had not been employed on the design teams. However, art has its limitations with respect to engineering and science. I once sat through an EU-funded ‘artistic interpretation’ of Paul Dirac’s quantum work which involved people hanging from ropes – very clever, very beautiful, and totally irrelevant and impenetrable. I went away knowing that positrons are things like washing up mops, but more glittery. That experience probably contributed to my rather jaundiced view of artists-in-residence at science and engineering facilities – although if someone knows of a positive example I will happily change my mind. I did enjoy parts of the rope thing, and I do I enjoy the occasional afternoon in a gallery, but injecting art into technical pursuits has limits if it is to be useful. And the real problems start when influential people are caught up in the king’s-new-clothes thinking that values art higher than the real stuff like science. I pose this question to those who think like this: If you could only keep one, would you chose Shakespeare or anti-biotics? ‘Alice’