Sculptor, Nayan Kulkarni talks about his recent public art work.

Named UK City of Culture for 2017, Hull launched ‘Look Up’ – an exciting public arts programme. The inaugural work, Blade by Nayan Kulkarni, which heralded this campaign, is a wind turbine rotor blade 75 metres long and 5 metres high made at the local Siemens factory in Alexandra Dock. The German manufacturer had set up this factory in 2014 to make blades for Britain’s North Sea wind farms. The arrival of this industry had a significant impact on the city of Hull by delivering a much needed economic boost.

3rd Dimension: Was Blade the result of a formal brief or did it emerge from a more intuitive response?

Nayan Kulkarni: There was no initial brief, it was not a pre-determined and prescribed situation, but something more organic. I was chatting with Hazel Colquhoun and Andrew Knight, the curators of ‘Look Up’, we were reflecting on what it meant to be ‘Made in Hull’ and discussing what that might constitute as a set of images. As we talked, the idea just came to me instinctively ‘Let’s see if Siemens will lend us a blade and install it in the centre of the city.’ The brief developed from this idea, not the other way round – it became a commission.

I am increasingly irritated by the over use and devaluation of the term iconic, without people really trying to understand what the word means for an artwork in the public realm. For example, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago is astonishing, because it has become so ingrained in public consciousness that it has become an iconic image of the city of Chicago. We realised we could achieve an equally potent image in Hull – but of course in a completely different way, with different kinds of meanings – if we were bold enough to create a definitive statement. How the public might interact with the work was also crucial for me and, of course, that was unpredictable.

Blade could be seen as a gentle form of interruption, it gets in your way like a barrier, yet you can freely walk around it and even underneath it. It is a visual stop not an actual one, similar to Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc , which was removed from Federal Plaza in New York. This was a useful precedent, which later I used in the proposal to illustrate the potential of bisecting a civic space and to demonstrate how the language of architecture can be affected by juxtaposition with the language of sculpture. Blade displaces an object from the industrial hub of the city to the cultural centre through conflation and addition. Rather than leaving the city to perform its function as part of a wind turbine over the horizon, instead it journeys to the heart of Hull in order to fulfil its new role as an artwork (fig.1).

Nayan Kulkarni, Blade transportation, Queen Victoria Square, Hull
1. Transportation of Blade, through the streets to Queen Victoria Square, Hull (photo: © Thom Arran)

Is one of your main concerns the slippage between activating public space and disrupting it?

Indeed, and at the moment I am writing about forms of consent, exploring ideas of democracy, and trying to understand how the public I am addressing consent to my artworks. The Hippocratic Oath is an interesting way to start thinking about art and the politics of responsibility in these contexts and what kind of harm, interruption and change might be needed in order to achieve the desired outcome – action, energy and transformation. What I find fascinating is the idea of experiencing work, which is both enriching and intrusive, in the public realm. I very much wanted Blade to tread a fine line between freedom and restriction.

Can you explain how Blade evolved from your initial idea, and how you prepared for the final proposal?

Andrew Knight’s contention was that we first needed to establish the logistics of the installation – could it be done? Following a preliminary structural engineering and transport study, the project team agreed that it was technically feasible. When we first proposed Blade to the City of Culture team, a few people thought that we would simply park it on a straight street as an industrial artefact from a museum. That was not how I imagined it. I instinctively wanted it to work with the more open space of Queen Victoria Square and this triggered much experimentation and rehearsal in the studio. The Square, as the pivot of the city – the central mix of old and new – had to be the site of the interruption. Placing Blade in a street would have created a completely different relationship and dynamic. As a result of using technical drawings and some rather basic modelling, I developed an understanding of the Square and the streets leading into it, which allowed me to visualise the best location for my concept. I have been involved in projects related to this city before, so the management team were familiar with my work and seemed to trust my judgement.

After the initial feasibility study, the specialists at ALE (Abnormal Load Engineering) and Arup made the rather more detailed and exacting planning and design study that turned the proposition into a schedule of works that could be costed and risk assessed.

In parallel to this, I collaborated with the Arup Structural Engineering Team led by Martin McGovern, in order to create the platforms and supports upon which the rotor blade would stand. It is a particular challenge to situate an object designed to move in the wind, in fixed position without either a foundation or the usual method of firm attachment.

As we set about proving we could do this, we intentionally used quite tentative language. Exploratory ideas can change to assertions, but they do need to be tested. As the project developed we could speak more freely but cautiously of the artwork folding culture and economic production.

How long was the planning process and can you discuss what factors dictated its particular location in the square?

Nayan Kulkarni, Blade installation, Queen Victoria Square, Hull
2. Nayan Kulkarni, Blade, 2017, Installation in Queen Victoria
Square, Hull
(photo: © Octovision Media )

Martin McGovern and I wished we had more time to work on the project. The form of the rotor blade is Siemens’s intellectual property and they could not give us the entire form only the sections we needed. This meant that there was a certain amount of approximation. We only had eight weeks to work with the fabricators before agreeing to cut metal.

In order to understand the axial and horizontal rotation of the blade, Siemens halted production in one area of the factory, and set up a system in order for the blade to be rotated for us. This allowed us to become more comfortable with the size of the object and envision how it occupied space. In the end there were two positions we were interested in. The only Health and Safety restrictions were that we could not trap children underneath it and we should not let a bus hit it! The tip had to be at least 5.5 metres above the road and I wanted the base to start as close as possible to the ground to achieve the angle from which the sculpture would point towards the Punch Hotel (fig.2).

Because we did not have the required twenty-five tons of cast concrete already in situ under the ground, which would normally be required to take the full dynamic and dead load of a 75 metre object designed to move as fast as it can in the wind – we had to design another type of restraint. Additionally I wanted Blade to be behind the statue of Queen Victoria (figs. 3&5), so that the supporting structure in a particular zone wouldn’t damage the basement of the public toilets below by transferring a load onto it. During the process the loading calculations revealed that not only did the supports need to prevent the structure tipping over, but that they also had to restrain the entire installation from sliding across the Square.

Nayan Kulkarni, Blade, Queen Victoria Square, Hull
3. Nayan Kulkarni, Blade, 2017, with the reflection of Queen
Victoria, Queen Victoria Square, Hull
(photo: © Thom Arran )

The statue of Queen Victoria became an anchor and touchstone for you…

Yes, the statue felt like my marker and formal pivot, I always wanted the object to go behind Victoria’s head so that it almost looks as though she doesn’t know Blade is there – and it’s somehow sneaking up on her! I enjoy prints of Queen Victoria inspecting the technological innovations at the Great Exhibition.

How does the scale of Blade relate to the architecture of the Square? In some photographs Blade appears to dwarf the Square and dominate the architecture, but these are often in wide-angle or aerial images.

Blade is so monumental that it is difficult to photograph. There are several types of standard representations of Blade. I am rather pleased at the ubiquitous selfie of people holding it up, because that is people playing with the notion of support. However, as it is not possible to capture the whole work, often wide-angle type images distort the Square, so you can’t sense any true relationship with the space from photographs. For the first couple of weeks, Blade seemed like a blank curving white screen that blocked off views, it made a very large square seem smaller, yet from other views it made the square feel bigger. When a bus goes underneath Blade, the work appears and feels larger than it actually is. I think it is very exciting that the relationship between the work and the surrounding architecture changes depending on your position and viewpoint. The images of the installation that characterise my understanding of how it works, however, are the details where the architecture, people and the white surface of the blade are seen together in an equal way.

How did Blade alter the physiognomy of the surrounding area of the city?

It was important to me that Blade actually exceeded the edge of the Square. I wanted it to go over the road, so when you look down Carr Lane you have a very different view, an enticing fragment of the tip quivering, then the object unfolds and reveals the new Square as you approach it. Your understanding of the work and point of access will depend where you live in the city and how you enter the Square. Visitors coming to the station will experience it first as a blank white wall, but if you arrive by bus that will take you under Blade.

The disparity of architectural styles in the Square serves to magnify and accentuate Blade’s austere, pared down beauty. Although familiar, in this context it exudes a sense of ‘otherness’…

When I initially proposed Blade, I referred to J.G Ballard’s short story, ‘The Drowned Giant’. In the story the carcass of a giant is washed up on a beach. Despite the object being instantly recognisable as a turbine blade, I realised that in the context of the Square it had the potential to have a more science fictional sense of the alien, the unreal or the out of place. I have been interested in this fictional speculative approach in literature and cinema since I was a child. I hope that some of the readings of Blade might also include this fold of ideas.

People might ask why and how is this object here? It still faces you with the unexpected, as turbines are often seen on the horizon – but rarely up close. Here you can focus on the sinuous and strange elegance of this familiar object, which because it has been displaced, seems somewhat defamiliarised. A tactile quality was also important to me, the surface asks to be touched, it has the same smooth surface as a racing yacht – Blade is made from fibreglass, balsa wood and reinforced epoxy resin.

Blade not only feels stranded, but there is a quality of absence…

Yes, I often think how I have severed that connection with the other two blades of the turbine, it’s like a broken trinity. I have broken that unity and Blade will never be reconnected to its ‘body’ or its companions. It exists alone. I have robbed it of its function and I doubt it will ever work again.

Described as a readymade, can you explain how the work is in fact handmade?

Workers with turbine mould at Siemens Factory Hull
4. Workers laying fibre glass in a turbine blade mould at the
Siemens Hull factory
(photo: Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy )

There has been some confusion here. Blade does not actually show any visible sign of handmade qualities in that you can see physical marks, yet they still have to be handmade in an unexpectedly traditional fashion. The factory has all the areas of sculpture making, which you learn as an undergraduate, including moulding, mould making, wet and dry materials, cutting and trimming – all very familiar in sculptural and indeed boat-making processes (fig.4). What was really tricky was not the handmade-ness, but how the modern aerodynamics produce a form that is expected and also oddly organic, twisty and tricksy.

Siemens, either knowingly or unknowingly, reproduced a Victorian model of the virtuous factory worker when Blade came into the Square. They suspended production for one shift in order to create a moment when the workers could applaud their work as it arrived. Subsequently they all posed for a photograph, workers behind and management in front.

So the creation of Blade echoes a Victorian ideal of the morality of labour…

The Victorian idea of pride in labour is an integral aspect of the story of this artwork. Even though Siemens are producing cutting edge technological forms for the future, the value system seems to me to refer to a rather more traditional ideas of community and labour. This is, of course, intrinsically linked to notions of civic pride, which are central to the politics of the resurgence of Hull as a cultural destination and a place of work.

Nayan Kulkarni, Blade, Queen Victoria Square, Hull
5. Nayan Kulkarni, Blade, 2017, with Queen Victoria in the background, Queen Victoria Square, Hull (photo: © Thom Arran )

What did you want to convey in the design of the fulcrum? Although Blade is grounded and stable, its delicate pincer grip creates an impression of precarity.

We wanted the grip to resemble a kind of human support; like hands below and on the side preventing the rotor blade from tipping. It appears to be held securely – but somehow only just. The minimum size the contact pads could be was 600 mm, otherwise they might break through the surface of the structure, it can be as little as 5mm thick, so the clamp had to be quite precise. There is also a strap that protects Blade’s belly from being crushed under its own weight – a contact pressure point. Arup assessed and checked the forces and there is an equivalent of 80 mm of steel plate in the support so the forces are powerful. There is also a 25 metre cantilever on the upward side and then a 55 metre long bridge between that and the base, so it is essentially a bridge without any foundation.

People were very trusting of the engineering. Before we took away the hoarding, I watched David Smith (Director of Abnormal Load Engineering) – he is certainly a good indication of site safety, and if he is not walking underneath something, neither should you! The cranes tell you how much weight they are holding, finally there is a zero moment which I called an ‘om’, that was the moment he walked underneath Blade and I knew it was safe.

You render a blade redundant, yet reinvent it as a form of bridge. Can you explain your thoughts on Blade as a symbol of technological advancement, alluding to movement, energy and power, yet constrained in the Square and also trapped as a finite energy source…

My politics (when I am feeling optimistic) point me towards a future where wind turbines become obsolete. They are a necessary stopgap between the transformations in global relationships to new sources of energy and energy usage. However like many technological teleologys, we (the global rich) end up not having to make significant cultural and geo-political decisions for twenty years, as these decisions do not yet satisfy our hunger for energy – they just satiate it. Indeed, they defer more complex choices to the future.

J.G. Ballard wrote beautifully on the crystallization and the ossification of landscapes, where architecture and industrial artefacts formed emblematic sepulchres. His are not Ozymandian ruins, rather they are places his protagonists are forced to occupy or escape. Wind turbines speak of movement and freedom, but they are still trapped. They are an emblem of the future, the defining form of the twenty-first century and symbolise a particular idea of the future. Indeed, they seem like a hopeful future and because of this, European energy politics becomes centred on them. Yet wind turbines cannot solve long term issues on their own, they are more palliative.

How to you envision the future of Blade?

Siemens intend to present it at their visitor centre. This means it is likely it will be represented as an artefact, an example of production, but not an artwork. Alternatively, they may say ‘who are you to say it is no longer an art work!’ I think what’s really interesting is that it will return to the context of anonymity. When it entered the Square it became my artwork, but when it returns to the factory and the gates close – it simply becomes another industrial artefact.

Main image: Aerial view of the installation of Blade in Queen Victoria Square, Hull (photo: Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy)