The Why?s Man

"My art is place specific and people specific." George Wyllie


Back to Words from George...

A PAPER BOAT, PAPER BOAT...

We're going to build a big Paper Boat,
A Paper Boat, Paper Boat
Folded up carefully so it can float
- but not what a ship used to be...

That's the first chorus of the 'Paper Boat' song - not yet in the Top Ten, but like a shipyard looking for an order - still hoping. The beat of the Waverley's paddles thrusting into Rothesay Bay is the right accompaniment for this Scottish waltz - but here the nostalgia stops.

For the 'Paper Boat' is brand new - a high-tech wonder ship giving new meaning to 'Clyde-built'. The wonder is in which end is which, but whatever way, bow or stern or stern or bow, it is still forward looking. Commissioned by the Origami Line - showing no sign of folding up, their President, Mr Torah Sheetootajotta, is said to have said - "this ship is natural Roll-on Roll-off".

The curious are concerned because the Paper Boat Co Ltd is secretive about construction. That's true, for in the past we let every Tom, Dick and Harikari copy us, so this time the new design is being kept under wraps so to speak, but a few facts can be disclosed. For example, to build this 'Paper Boat' you'll need a big sheet of white paper. Trim it with sharp scissors down to 120ft x 80ft. Avoid tissue, toilet and blotting paper. Pick a dry day. Phone the Met Office. Ask if wind strength is under Force 3. Then and only then lay out your sheet and begin to fold. Choose flat ground - Ibrox or Parkhead would do. Cappielaw is doubtful. You will end up with an 80ft paper hull with a 25ft superstructure. Wear trainers and snow goggles. Don't smoke.

Clydeside welders, platers and red-leaders are now scissor-trained and ready for this cut and thrust technology. It is more to their taste than the silicon sunrise. The best micro-chips are the ones left in the poke after eating the big ones.

Lick your fingers now and we'll sing the second chorus of the 'Paper Boat' Song...

We're going to work on a Paper Boat
A Paper Boat, Paper Boat,
having to put on a different coat
- not the old dungarees

It takes more than drag chains to resist being nostalgic about the Clyde. As a counter to bunnets tossed in the air on launch days, it's as we'll to remember the cruel and bad times. Like handling cold steel on a day white with frost, cinders in the boots, welding flash gritting the eyes, the sweat and the drenchings, and all this happening in noise gone stuttering mad. The abuse of the human frame reminds me in my comparatively kind and chosen pursuit as a sculptor, that nostalgia is a treacherous emotion. I could abandon art tomorrow - but I won't. So what thrawn quality is there on Clydeside that still feels a warmth for that back-breaking past - and is it possible to extract that human essence and to use it? I say it's up to You. Pardon me, I will now mention the human spirit.

There is a well known phrase in the art world - "Everyone an Artist". This neat declaration was made by a German sculptor called Joseph Beuys, sadly now deceased. He did not mean that everyone should be a weekend painter, simply that we should all have the attitude of an artist - like welder, plater and red-leader artists. Imagine that! So before the inevitable outburst of - "aye, piss artists" - which is a crude smokescreen for the embarrassment of truth, let me say that the men who built ships were greater artists in this respect than they and most of us ever give them credit for. If they were not, how could they have overcome the demanding daily challenge of building a masterpiece like a ship? For me, this strange generosity of spirit was raw 'social sculpture' - an art attitude belonging to a space beyond the artificiality of a gallery. This sculpture of living and being, demanded the crude application of all the human energies - the physical, usually double stretched - and the mental, too often under stretched. But the spiritual was somehow there in abundance, overflowing and overwhelming and promising comfort like the spit of tea cans boiling on a punched oil drum fire. So, now that we're building a 'Paper Boat', where is this raw spirit which roughed men into brothers, despite and damn the conditions?

All together now, Chorus 3...

We know the cost of a Paper Boat
A Paper Boat, Paper Boat
Take it away for a Five Pound Note
- it's not much use to me.

In a different sort of purgatory, the men who sailed the ships we built possessed the same unlikely essence. British sailors are now as few on the sea as British shipbuilders on the ground. In the daft rush for good times, and pathetic insistence upon achieving some doubtful whatever it is we're rushing at, nostalgia has purpose by offering a clue as to why... Why?... It is at this point that I announce that the 'Paper Boat' has a Question-Mark on board. Contemporary Victorian gadgetry allows its superstructure to be hand-cranked to open up like the roof of a missile bunker in a Bond movie. Inside, in a patriotic livery of Red, White and Blue is a powerful Question-Mark. This is the ship's engine.

You can see these innovations and other Scul?ture during Mayfest at the 'Paper Boat' exhibition in the Pearce Institute in the big heart of Govan. Far from Govan Cross and the poetry of names like Harmony Row and Neptune Street, nannies and non-engineers in the south romantically attribute the symmetrical ship to Pooh Bear. But here's what the Denny Test Tank in Dumbarton said, "The 'Paper Boat' was found and proven to be a unique hydro-dynamic profile" - now that's romantic and poetic.

Lady Naomi Mitchison, because of her ever-lasting spirituality, has been invited to launch the 'Paper Boat' at 2:30pm on Saturday, 6th May. Be there about an hour early and we'll sing the 'Paper Boat' Song together. The launch site is under my old pal the Finnieston Crane, recently introduced to show-biz by doing a double act with my 'Straw Locomotive'. The big Crane has upstaged the Burrell by becoming Glasgow's Eiffel Tower, and quite right too, for it is a truer symbol of Glasgow's energy and maybe even its art. The big Crane and the 'Paper Boat' seem to be happy playing Francie and Josie.

Rumour has it that another sculpture might come back to the Clyde. This home-sick masterpiece is the 'Queen Mary' which could and probably should return to us. It could be another case of the Elgin Marbles. Mind you, it's only a rumour, but if it does return, beware - for we could find ourselves building ships all over again for nostalgic reasons.

Altogether then me' hearties, the 'Paper Boat' Song, Chorus 4...

We're not all that proud of a Paper Boat
a Paper Boat, Paper Boat
- you'd think that there never had been afloat
A ship like the good old QE.

The paper money to build the 'Paper Boat' came to me as a result of a national award from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation on condition I raised some more. This was as tough as shipbuilding, so when someone stumps up for whatever reason I say they should be thanked, so thank you Beck's Beer for being the main sponsor and for giving me the money which is much the same as giving it to Glasgow - which after all is You. But credit is due to quite a few other stalwarts possessing a strange reluctant eagerness to help with this exercise in absurdity.

Dammit, I've let it out...- I must now justify my "Action", as Mr Beuys might have said... The benefit from exercising in absurdity is that it becomes easy to recognise it when it poses as sense. It is absurd to try to explain this. There's a lot of it about, and the voyage of the 'Paper Boat' is to explore absurdities happening to Ourselves. That is, You and Me. Here are some questions from the 'Paper Boat'... Why does an island nation which has over hundreds of years become great because of the sea - by its shipbuilders, by its sailors, its maritime trade - now seem to be relentlessly abandoning that role, and, in the confusion of this abdication, what of the displaced human skills and energy hat built that meaningful past? Up with the Queryscope.

Listen to the sound of the sea from around Broomielaw. More than many organisations I've dealt with since I've been 'Paper Boating', the Clyde Port Authority and Clyde Shipping have been 'steady as she goes'. It is as though the sea has permeated their attitudes. Calm and considered decisions, not always conceded, but honest and for what is believed to be best. Joseph Conrad who had a masterly knowledge of the sea - though he didn't work for either, wrote this...

"I would say that a racing-yacht skipper who thought of nothing else but winning the race would never attain any eminence of reputation. The genuine masters of their craft have thought of nothing but of doing their best by the vessel in their charge."

Could it be that weathered wisdom stemming from our island's long association with sea and ships, is being substituted by expediencies from lesser voyages? If the answer to this is the possibility of an erosion of fidelity, then rapid course correction is called for Captain Conrad again... "History repeats itself, but the special call of an art which has passed away is never reproduced. It is as utterly gone out of this world as the song of a destroyed wild bird."

Wasn't it Mansfield who wrote... "I must go down to the Chunnel again?". In recent 1987, the 'Norstar' was the last big Clyde ship built, and was for the Hull/Rotterdam Service. Try getting to Hull from the north on Wordsworth Freeway as it wanders slowly as a cloud o'er hill and dale with truckers daffodillying all the way. The industrial energy of the north is strangled by some absent policy which not only does not understand engineers, but islands, the sea, and roads that lead to the sea and the trade they could carry. I am happy at the emotion of south-eastern traffic jams wallowing in their own pollution and decent Mr Heath comforting his railway children strangely alarmed at the luxury of a trade link. A bit of tarmac please across the Pennines, and we'll then understand we are being encouraged to put our discarded skills to use in fairly direct trading with mainland Europe. Even better, with a sister ship for the 'Norstar', we could M8 and Ro-Ro from Leith and forget the Pennine tarmac.

Sing-along again, Chorus 5...

We're all at sea in a Paper Boat
A Paper Boat, Paper Boat.
The Rule of Britannia is very remote
from what it used to be.

I resent even reluctant involvement in having to adjust from a confident trading nation to a franchised and computer terminal bazaar programmed from elsewhere. We are numbed into inaction and denied ease of entrance into the European enthusiasm. Worse, our young will soon believe we deserve no better. Others have become what we once were, so what is de-energising us? Ourselves? What does the big Crane have to say? If it could answer we'd understand the demise of the Greeks and the Romans, for it was not in their, or the Clyde's interest to see empires fall. Mind you, the Greeks are still running a ship or two, and I hear that wee Finland is building ships - maybe for the Romans.

Sadly missed, my 'Straw Locomotive' when set on fire two years ago in Springburn, exposed a Question-Mark as the flames died Question-Marks do not always get answers, and the nearest the 'Straw Locomotive' got to one was that when you've been top for a long time, confident complacency and lack of imagination sets in, so when your empire falls, exercised imagination is all you have left for getting back to from where you started. Harping back, why couldn't we build high-speed train when the rest of the world is buzzing with them? Absurdly, I believe. Meaningful art can help. If properly understood it is the essential lubricant, yet there exists the conceit that it can be ignored. Glasgow School of Art's bright idea for an Art and Engineering degree is close to being aborted - why? Is there some belief in a perverse art industry which seduces us all and diminishes Art's natural power to subvert and stimulate - the bad ideas and the good ideas - art lost to the service of us all. It is probably the only way for exercising us to think for Ourselves, and help re-discover that old raw essence of spirit to let us once again believe in Ourselves, it seems that the 'Paper Boat' is tuned to receive nostalgia, but only if the signal is meaningful.

It's maiden voyage in August will be to Liverpool where lost energy is manifest and where frustrated spirit reveals itself in the theatre of disaster. In September it's bound for the Port of London, where it will observe early stages of de-energising - though cardboard boxes are not yet under the Tower Bridge. This is the procrastination through which the 'Paper Boat' will enter to drop anchor near the seat of Government. It will make a patriotic gesture by sounding off a concert of horns, hooters, sirens and whistles. Afterwards, it will show off its engine. Rule Britannia!

Meanwhile back in my own backyard, which like all others, is situated on our dear old Planet except that mine has a good view of the Holy Loch - obscured only by a Question-Mark. Top tonnages are discreetly arriving and sailing. I find no solace in the fact that the Clyde is now Britain's nuclear harbour - beyond knowing that I'll turn into talcum if anything goes wrong. It will be powdery but quick. Maybe real ships would only get in the way of the new regular sailings? Maybe we're better off without them? Maybe.

So now that we're building a Paper Boat
a Paper Boat, Paper Boat
Don't - be - surprised
- at - the - way - we - vote.

 

The Paper Boat


George Wyllie Education Initiative

Managed by Media Matters Education Consultancy