Julian Wild talks Meccano, industrial history and sculpture for Museums at Night 2013

By Mark Sheerin | 24 April 2013

Ahead of his Museums at Night event at Shropshire industrial museum in the Ironbridge Gorge on May 18, Julian Wild talks Meccano, public sculpture and the industrial revolution with Culture24's Mark Sheerin...

a photograph of Julian Wild in his studio workshop with his arms folded
Julian Wild in his studio© Nic Serpell-Rand
Two weeks before he puts on his own show at Ironbridge Gorge, artist Julian Wild has a tough act to follow. Enginuity, one of ten museums at the Shropshire complex of industrial landmarks, must first play host to the Telford and Ironbridge Meccano society.

But if you like building giant model cranes and steam engines, the abstract sculpture planned for the 18th of May and Museums at Night may also appeal, as the Sussex-based artist plans a spectacular bit of hands-on engineering he cheerfully describes as being “a bit like Meccano”.

Some 500 metres of glow-in-the-dark plumbing tube and “countless” elbow joints will be made available to the public, who are invited to collaborate on the sculptural super structure in Enginuity’s vast exhibition space.

Should you get to build a section of the work you will have the option of sticking around after hours, as the inspiring UNESCO World Heritage Site is open late, and the sculpture, entitled Making the Connection at Night, will look stunning after nightfall.

Wild is enthusiastic about his huge designated space, which he says is “basically an old engineer’s workshop”. And he talks up the relationship between everyday engineering, plumbing materials, and the process of “making it into something else, into this huge sculpture”.

With its industrial revolution backdrop, the sculptor hopes the piece will stimulate a shift in the public perception of art: “It’s using low tech materials on a large scale to get people engaged with making art, with making sculpture with materials which they don’t necessarily think of as being sculptural materials,” he says.

This is very much a modus operandi for an artist who also works in ceramic, glass and aluminium: “subverting construction processes or materials and using them for another purpose.” But he also likes to think of the forthcoming project as “a large drawing in space”.

a photo of a mass of piping put together in a gallery
Wild's Making the Connection at the Tabernacle Arts Centre in Notting Hill in 2010© Julian Wild
“My work is about making something quite immediate or gestural almost like a doodle in 3D,” explains Wild, whose previous output confirms a light, spontaneous touch even whilst working with those rigid, functional materials.

The Ironbridge Industrial heritage site

The setting and the recent re-forestation of the three village settlements around the Ironbridge industrial complex also excites Wild, who compares the historic site to his home in Ashdown Forest, Sussex. “They’re both places which were very industrial at one point and that’s gone.

“If you go to Ironbridge Gorge, it’s so dramatic but it’s covered in trees so it’s quite hard to imagine it being almost a vision of Hell with all the trees cut down, used to burn and generate the blast furnaces,” says Wild, admitting to “a romantic point of view“ towards industrial landscapes.

But it is easy to see why he should be enthused by Ironbridge Gorge, the famous 17th century blast furnace at Coalbrookdale and the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron. “It’s interesting to see how [iron] was used for making something quite decorative and yet it’s an industrial material.”

During the 18th century, this patch of the West Midlands could boast the most advanced technologies in the world. With a focus on the world’s first iron bridge (1779) it also housed factories for china, tiles and pipes. Art is the last thing a present day visitor might expect to find.

Wild is, however, ready to welcome all visitors, whether their interests be contemporary art or industrial history. “I do like working with the public,” he says.

“What will be great on the day is that it gives me an opportunity to chat to people. You get direct feedback about the project by making a communal sculpture.”

He insists that his visitors will have full control of the finished work of art and that his only job is to find a way to illuminate the pipes. “It’s really interesting in that sense. And because the whole thing is open to people doing it, I can kind of let go so it’s quite an enjoyable experience.”

And as previous years have shown, fun is an integral part of Museums at Night. Wild appears to fully buy in to the principle of museums staying open after dark. “I’m quite drawn to the idea of museums doing special events and trying to be more inclusive," he adds.

“I think there’s been a massive change in this country in the approach to museums and also people’s sense of ownership of them.

"It’s great that people feel that they can go to museums and galleries and they’re theirs to use.” 

Thanks to his involvement in Museums at Night, the artist also says that, for the first time, he has considered the impact his work might have at different times of day.

“It’s not just about the daytime,” he concedes. “There’s a different kind of energy in the night time.”

The industrial revolution may be over, but inventive ideas are still flourishing at Ironbridge Gorge.

  • Julian Wild appears at Enginuity on May 18.
  • The Connect10 competition is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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