TIME, LIBERTY AND ATONEMENT
REMCO DE FOUW DETAILS THE CONCEPTION, FABRICATION AND INSTALLATION OF HIS COMMISSIONED WORK ‘A VOICE’ FOR THE IRISH PRISON SERVICES HEADQUARTERS IN LONGFORD.
Back in November 2006 the Office of Public Works issued a briefing document to seven artists on their panel for a commission for the new decentralised headquarters of the Irish Prison Services Headquarters outside Longford town. My response to the brief was simple enough and quickly took the shape of a fairly formal horn or trumpet-like structure. This appears to leap from a large granite boulder, through a glass sidewall, with the main portion then suspended overhead in the buildings huge (100 x 15m) glass atrium area. The concept was partially a direct response to the rectangular physical space, its architectural and metaphorical grid-like conformity.
I wanted the work to appear partially transparent, lightweight and playful while remaining relevant to the context and the brief, which mentioned only three words: time, liberty and atonement. The idea came about quite quickly, not only as a great sweeping gesture in contrast to the glazed grid but also as a symbol of transformation, representing an alchemical journey from inside a stone toward the sky, from blackness toward light. The implication of ʻreleaseʼ is articulated through the idea of sound, voice or of ʻfinding one’s voiceʼ but, somewhat contrarily, from the outside to the inside of the building.
Design & Construction
The artwork would measure 63m, divided into 10 sections. First, the form was sketched out in AutoCad from my pencil and string proposal drawings. I then made a 1:20 3m model and the engineers produced a trial sub-frame section to test for flex and strength and for me to experiment with how best to achieve the surface. They proposed a fuselage-type construction with no need for an inner core, made entirely of stainless steel hoops and flats. Over these tubular skeletons, I wrapped a stainless mesh, creating a semi-transparent surface to give shape and support to almost 3km of brass strips.
Constructing work on this scale meant that I had to do a lot of tests and trials to refine both the look and method of its construction. Any unforeseen problems could be very costly both in time and expense. The biggest headache was to try to predict the line of a 63m curved and tapering multi-ply helix. My studio could only take 2 x 6m sections side by side, so I had to work ʻblindʼ from one section to the next in terms of setting out the frequency and continuity of the swirl of brass, as it would be seen from underneath and at a distance.
With the help of a friend and a solid works expert, we made a computer model, which provided one of several insights into how the thing would actually turn out. The other factor that led to some serious head scratching was trying to create a smooth increase in brass strips and the gaps between them. These were to increase gradually along its length, starting at the small end with a diameter of 250mm increasing to 2000mm at the large end. Therefore, 25 x 20mm-wide strips with no gaps expanded to over 40 brass strips, 80mm wide with 50mm gaps between. This seems complicated, but the aim was simple: to create an elegant single entity, an extremely long and curved cone expanding gradually and steadily to finish with a large open mouth.
Luckily, I had the help of fellow artist Michelle Byrne who has a good eye, lots of patience and is no stranger to metalwork. We worked on and off over six months, cleaning and spraying the subframe sections after wrapping them in a layer, contra-swirl, of stainless steel mesh. This lead to some interesting skewing problems as the mesh adapted itself to the curved and tapered circumferences so it could then be stitched together with stainless thread sourced from jewelry suppliers.
The problems and subsequent solutions of 3D helical geometry and how it determines the behavior of the materials made the work very challenging but also satisfying. This is what I really enjoyed about this job: being totally immersed in invention and problem solving. Following this detailed development process I was formally awarded the commission in 2008.
Each of the 6m sections were skewered on a ʻspit’ of scaffolding pole and supported at each end on trestles. Once we had eliminated all the wrinkles from the ʻsock’ of stainless mesh, we then tensioned 12 hoops of bungee-cord elastic at regular intervals around the circumference of each section. The brass strips were pulled through an abrasive cloth and degreasing bath, then spread out under the bungee cords, which held them in place while we spaced them out equally. They were then stretched tight with modified vice grips and fixed in place. Lots of pop rivets, sewing and gluing held the surface in place. Each section was then hand sanded, lacquered with IncraLac and wrapped in pallet wrap ready for transport.
Moving the 10 x 6m sections around was a big part of the planning. I had an 8m purpose-built trailer made up, which had adjustable supports at each end. This gave me the freedom to move each section in and out of the barn / workshop and bring them all to Longford more cost effectively. The two largest sections and the granite stone had to be delivered by lorry.
Once the first sections were ready for delivery, I learnt that indoor storage on site was no longer available. As a short-term arrangement, I covered the sections in tarpaulins, rope and weights as best I could. I was anxious leaving months of painstaking work and delicate lacquered brass outdoors and rightly so, as it ended up staying there due to various reasons for 18 months.
After two winters of flapping tarps, the largest section was finally flipped up side down and into the nearby pond. September 2010 marked three years from the original selection panel meeting, and the budget could not be increased to facilitate major work on the damaged sections. However OPW did provide some funding for me to undertake a report and present recommendations. Following this I undertook the necessary repair work myself.
Installation commenced in March 2012 and was completed in December 2012. The building had been formally opened in 2008 and now, in the absence of a main contractor on site, I found myself responsible for project supervisory work during the installation stage, providing all the up-to-date inspection and safety-testing paperwork for every rope, harness, power tool and piece of lifting gear. While I did have a Working at Heights Pass and a Safe Pass but this did not constitute sufficient qualifications.
I had to dig my heels in at the pre-installation meeting and point out that I did not have the expertise or level of insurance cover necessary for this onerous roll. I made the point was that this was ‘big boy’ stuff and not appropriate for a self-employed artist. The situation was resolved when an independent safety consultancy was hired and the OPW, my team and I worked in co-operation to solve these installation and fabrication issues.
The complex installation, which involved me, two engineers and a crane operator working for eight ten-hour days straight. We drilled and fixed eyebolts into the ceiling beams, 15m overhead, from a mobile access platform. Each section was then hoisted into position, fixed to the suspension cables and bolted together, and so on and so on. I then attached brass cover collars over each joint. It was difficult and potentially dangerous but came off without any major hitches.
What a relief after nearly five years! In the weeks thereafter, a granite stone was installed into an exact position, angles and measurements taken and a 300 x 600mm hole core drilled for the final 8.5m section secured into place. This lined up exactly with the main ʻhornʼ suspended inside and came to rest 100mm from the glass curtain wall. Again, this was tricky as its full weight and length were cantilevered from the stone.
I decorated the 6-ton granite stone simply with various core drill, ring cut marks. It acts as a solid earthy origin point. I am very pleased with the overall effect: the sculpture appears as a single continuation from both below and outside through the glass – as a massive 60+-metre trumpet. A Voice was finally installed in the Irish prison services headquarters. The piece itself is a simple and dynamic form, in such contrast to the sometimes-agonising process from which it was born.
Many thanks to David Magee, Chisco Ruiz and the lads of Trench Control Ltd, Michelle Byrne and Ger Lucy of Mobile Crane Services, Bryan Leech, Fergus Doyle and Fenelon Engineering Ltd, Longford.
Remco De Fouw