One of the most thrilling artistic responses to the idea of the Olympic year is Richard Wilson’s artwork Hang On a Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea… Playing on the notion of “going for gold” by recreating the final scene one of cinema’s most iconic bullion robberies, Wilson’s commission for the RELAY programme places our sense of risk and national identity in the balance – very literally.
The critic Richard Cork talks to the artist for Frame and Reference about the process behind creating this precarious, cliff-edge artwork.
Nothing could be more of a jaw-dropper than the monumental sculpture teetering on the top edge of the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill on Sea. This summer, Richard Wilson will instantly become the focus of intense, widespread controversy when he instals a full-size coach on the roof of this iconic building. For the vulnerable vehicle seems about to fall off its perilous perch and plummet down on everyone gawping up at it. Wilson will increase the sense of danger by setting the hapless coach in a rocking motion, and the title of his sculpture has an arresting drama of its own: Hang on a Minute lads, I’ve Got a Great Idea!…
Movie buffs will recognise this quote from the final scene of The Italian Job, the hilarious 1969 bank-robbery caper starring Michael Caine. “I first saw it in the cinema, way back when I was a student”, Wilson recalls with a grin, “probably at my favourite flea-pit, the Regal in Hammersmith. It caught the imagination of the entire nation, and got into the British psyche. It was Keystone Cops meets The Lavender Hill Mob, and all about loveable blokes stealing gold bullion in Mini Coopers. Benny Hill was in it, and Noel Coward played the financier who masterminded the whole thing from prison. The film contains classic car-chases in Turin, with the Mini Coopers shooting up onto roof-tops and down below the cathedral.”
But the final scene provides Wilson with the inspiration for his sculpture, and he has never forgotten how, “the gold is transferred to a coach which races across the Alps, swerves off the road and finishes up hanging off the edge of a mountain. The Mini Coopers are kicked out of the coach in an attempt to stabilise it, and people in the cinema audience used to erupt with pain! But the gold slips down to the wrong end of the coach, and all the guys are stuck at the other end. Michael Caine finishes up on the floor, and after he says ‘Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea’, the film suddenly terminates without any conclusion.”
Wilson recreating the original Harrington Legionnaire-bodied Bedford VAL coach used in the 1969 movie
Wilson immediately thought of this cliff-hanger when he was invited to make a work for the roof of the De La Warr Pavilion, an outstanding modernist building designed in the mid-1930s by two notable architects: Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff. “I looked at the site”, Wilson says, “and it’s all about edges — the land meets the sea, the sea meets the sky. And I thought: ‘My God, The Italian Job!’” The more he studied the Pavilion, the more convinced Wilson felt that “the building should become the plinth and the precipice for the coach. I wanted to put it on the very top level of the roof. You’ll be able to see it by walking along the esplanade and looking up, or by going onto the Pavilion’s lower roof where the coach will be twenty feet away from you.” It is a listed building, unlike the Liverpool facade where Wilson earlier made his spectacular work called Turning The Place Over, a disc sliced from the building and attached to a motor which turned this section of the facade inside out. But everyone at the De La Warr Pavilion felt delighted by the daring of Wilson’s proposal for the roof, and the comedian Eddie Izzard — who once worked in the cafe at the Pavilion — had no hesitation in promising financial support for the project.
Wilson is very aware of the challenges he faces in bringing the work to safe and successful completion. “It can be very windy down at Bexhill on Sea, so we’re going to have to anchor it firmly”, he emphasizes. “English Heritage suddenly said that we couldn’t put too much weight directly on the roof, so we’re putting a ladder chassis there, like a table-top with four legs. The rocking motion will be created by two hydraulic pistons powered by motors, and a computerised mechanism allows for 16 seconds movement down and 14 seconds back up.” Wilson delights in the fact that the original coach was made by Harrington Legionnaire in the 1960s at Hove, not far from Bexhill on the south coast of England. “Only about 50 of them were ever built”, he says, “and I went on a national hunt to find some vintage wheels. But my coach is being built near London, by MDM Props Ltd at Herne Hill.”
Like the original vehicle in The Italian Job, Wilson’s version is painted in the colours of the Union Jack. “I love the idea that the coach is flag-waving, because it’s Olympic Year”, explains Wilson, who also emphasizes the relevance of the gold in the original movie. “Going for Gold is what our team GB is supposed to be doing”, he says with enthusiasm, before rightly pointing out that his teetering coach also reflects the chronic fiscal alarm felt by everyone in the world today. “It’s a metaphor up there on the roof, making us think about things in balance or in limbo, why things are right or wrong, win or lose, stand or fall. I was taking photographs on the Pavilion roof the other day, and it was so gusty that I felt it was about to blow me off!”
Wilson stresses that his Bexhill work “wasn’t founded on being a comment on financial uncertainty. But in an abstract sense it is about stability or collapse. It’s tipping over its fulcrum, so you can read it as a barometer. And I think all this economic unease is going to get worse.” What, I wonder, will happen to the sculpture after it leaves the Pavilion? “Well, it’s being built as a permanent structure, so hopefully it’ll find a home somewhere.” When I suggest the roof of The Bank of England, Wilson smiles and replies “Oh, that would be great!”
Hang On a Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea… by Richard Wilson is at the De La Warr Pavilion from 7 July until 1 October 2012. More information