Wolfgang Buttress: Everything changes but remains the same

Award-winning artist, Wolfgang Buttress, presents extracts from his diary exploring his relationship with the Thames and the inspiration behind his major new artwork: Liminal.

The site-specific installation on London’s North bank is the result of a design competition organized by the London Festival of Architecture and commissioned by the City of London Corporation as part of its outdoor arts programme, Fantastic Feats: the Building of London, 31st May – 1st December 2019. Liminal serves as a key viewing point for the Illuminated River artwork on Millennium Bridge.

Image: Sam Scales

Everything changes but remains the same.

Liminal is a 4.5m high x 6.5m wide sculptural installation sited on the London North Bank next to Millennium Bridge and opposite the Tate Modern. The artwork produces a refracted and kaleidoscopic lens creating an architectural painting of the river and surrounding area. The artwork blurs the boundaries between 2D and 3D through a variety of mirror, satin and matt aluminium panels that focus and alter viewers’ perceptions and experiences of the river. The aim is to encourage greater public interaction with the River Thames, seen by many as London’s biggest physical boundary. You can download an app called Liminal which is connected to a sonar buoy; this expresses the real time movement of river life and currents in the Thames, sourced directly in front of the sculpture as light and sound.

I have been asked to write about the River Thames for this blog. I rarely write with a view for my thoughts to be published, I write often but the words tend to be for my own records. Language and how it constantly mutates seems to me to be as ineffable, ethereal, and elusive as water and the river I have been asked to write about. Words seem to be contradictorily permanent and illusive; the meaning sometimes seems to lie within the cracks, within the edits, with the words taken out or erased. Over time Art has become a language that I feel I’m able to express thoughts, feelings and ideas through; it’s a need, though it rarely provides comfort or answers.

My feelings and perception of the River Thames are inextricably tied up with my experiences of London. The extract below is from a memory of 36 hours spent in East London when I was 16 years old with chips on both shoulders. I came down from Cumbria to see bands and art. I spent an evening in the East End drinking, then a long night in the club Heaven. Coming out of Heaven at Charing Cross and making my way back to the hostel in the East End via the river was possibly more surreal than the night that had preceded it.

28th July 1981

I remember 1981. I was in London. I came down from the North Cumbrian coast for culture. I was 16. I wasn’t born in the North; I wanted it to claim me. It did. For 6 weeks London seduced me. I was with a friend, a Manc. We were alone. Excited. Paradoxically, so much I loved and witnessed wasn’t from London. Blue Orchids, Fire Engines, The Birthday Party, A Certain Ratio, Sam Shepard, Diane Arbus, Giacometti. Outsiders trying to make sense of the world.

I remember seeing the Thames. I knew Turner, Whistler, Monet. I thought it’d be expansive, ethereal, otherworldly. It felt dead, massive and unobtainable. Solid and dark. I was close to water. I knew marshes: Worpswede and the Solway. Moving. Changing. Light always shifting. Another age and country expressed. This felt different. Alien. Dead. Unknowing. Unknowable. I couldn’t catch it. More life in the river now than then. Everything changes but remains the same.

I live between the North and the South now, a foot in each. My heart in none.

Wolfgang Buttress October 2019

The installation of Liminal

Friday 13th September 2019 00.00

The memories of above and more returned. It was midnight. Liminal was finally about to be installed on The Thames. I’d won a commission to create a sculpture which I hoped would talk to and express the rivers mercurial power and mystery. I thought I had a sense of it, I didn’t. Millennia of liquid history had previously passed us by. Temese was its early name, it means dark. The water is deep.

I remembered Whistler, Turner and Monet again - all had been seduced and inspired by the rivers power and pull. Before I saw the Thames I knew these paintings.

My first impression of the river was as something light, ethereal and otherworldly. It is not. It feels oddly familiar but unknowable. The reflections, ripples and its cold, dark tide seem only to reveal glimpses of what lies beneath.

I hoped that my proposal for Liminal would create a space for the audience to be in the moment; to create connections to something which is both hidden and timeless.

Using various data gathering devices such as accelerometers, hydrophones and sonar buoys I was keen to explore what happens underneath its surface, to express this unseen and imagined world as light and sound. Technology and the elemental. I wanted to create a physical environment which would act as a conduit or lens, to make real time connections between the audience and the water. The artwork would be emotionally engaging; hopefully inspiring people to pause, reflect and experience the power, beauty and mystery of the River Thames. It sounds faintly ridiculous when written down now but that was my intention.

We had driven the sculpture down from Nottingham to King George V docks in East London. The only way to install the piece was from the river; it was always going to be hard. I didn’t realise how much. The process before the installation was laborious. The red tape nearly strangled it. It was expensive, involved, time consuming and frustrating. But yet, when we were on the river that night there was calm; we had to install at high tide when the river traffic was no more. We had a small window. It was the end of the summer. It was quiet, dark and warm.

Image: Wolfgang Buttress

Friday 13th September 2019 02.00

We met Dan, Scott and Irvin on the barge. They were from the river and knew it. Their families knew it, it was part of them. I felt like a 16 year old again, seduced by the Capital for 36 hours. Something exciting, something new. The North on the land, the South on the water. We talked a little, agreed the plan and within minutes the sculpture was up and in. Relief, surreal, laughter. They left on the Shakedog. We finished clearing up and waited for the dawn.

Friday 13th September 2019 06.00

It was a beautiful morning. The light was soft, the sun was low. My daughter was here, up all night like and with me, she has the gene. Commuters were surprised to see something new that was not there the night before. We hung around for a while to witness what was now out of our hands. Some smiles, some photos, some intrigue, some comments, some good, some bad. The bad ones made me smile.

Friday 13th September 2019 14.00

The river was sparkling through, in and on the sculpture like I had hoped. I had no control. For an hour I watched. It was the river not me. It was time to leave. The end of the summer. I’d been up for 36 hours, 38 years later. Same river. Everything changes but remains the same.

Image: Sam Scales