The Why?s Man

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

Back to Prose


(ArtWork 78 - February/March 1996)

If Issac Newton is indebted to the apple tree, then I am to the rabbit. This relationship was revealed when I was asked to erect a sculpture at Invernochty near Doune in Strathdon, to help the public notice the unnoticed. The unnoticed site that had to be noticed was an 800 hundred year old Norman motte and bailey - a fortified mound.

It was truly an uphill project because Scottish Heritage insisted that no holes be dug downhill into their heritable ground to support the structure. Faced with this crisis I observed that the rabbits had unconcernedly overcome this restriction, for their holes were being burrowed sideways. In a flash my problem was solved, and instead of digging vertically downwards, I dug horizontally sideways. It was indeed a maieutic moment, for I had discovered 'Horizontal Gravity'!

The phrase 'noticing the unnoticed' precisely reflects Newton's keen observation of how a falling apple demonstrated the first idea of 'gravity', which now has to be termed 'Vertical Gravity'. This is to differentiate it from the 'Horizontal Gravity' as demonstrated by the rabbits. Note that both gravities had been there all the time and accepted as normal by apples and rabbits, but not so by the less perceptive humans.

Theories exist as to the relative influences of the vertical and the horizontal. Mr Harry Lauder in expressing that "it's nice to get up in the morning, but it's nicer to lie in bed" left no-one in doubt as to his preference for being horizontal...

It was at Callanish that I noticed that early humans had a tendency to quarry horizontal stones out of a cliff, so as they could stand them up later. They dragged them for a mile or so across rugged country before regimenting them vertically to become ancient monuments for some mystery as yet undetermined. If I had been a stone I would have objected to this and would rather have been used for some more obvious purpose, like being part of a Hebridean black house, and getting back to some horizontal sleep in the strata of its dark smoky wall - but all that stand-up solstice stuff, no thanks.

Vertical aspirations are demonstrated by big towers such as the 'Eiffel', 'Post Office', 'Toronto', 'World Trade Center' - and so on, not forgetting 'spires', 'minarets', 'totem poles' and the likes. Horizontals seem to represent a more plodding sort of endeavour like looking for 'light at the end of tunnels', or 'crossing bridges when we come to them'. But if this route is not as starry as the vertical, there seems greater prospects of arriving at a worthwhile earthbound destination, as opposed to the confident ascent of some doubtful verticality. The American artist HC Westermann once made a 'Suicide Tower' - a reminder to high-flyers that upward vertical confidence can lead to a downward vertical fall.

I have an ongoing love affair with the big Finnieston Crane in Glasgow. It is called a hammer-head crane because it is like a structural steel hammer shaft rising from the ground, with its head becoming flat like the letter 'T', and so the vertical changes to the horizontal. It is built like the Eiffel Tower and likewise the Forth Railway Bridge, which is really a tower lying on its side. Its arches cry out to contain airborne restaurants and observation platforms like its Parisian pal, anything to ensure that it is always there and loved.

These architectural 'found objects' do not over-emphasise vertical aspects. Neither does a tower which rises vertically, then changes its mind, bends, and happily returns to earth again.

This self-cancellation tower confuses gravity and is called an 'Arch'.

Towers were once built for dropping hot lead from their highest point with the drips landing in a bucketful of water to cool, the droplets to become lead-shot for shotgun cartridges. Shot-guns are used for shooting down high-flying birds which, when they are full of lead, fall to the ground and thus demonstrate the effects of Newton's 'Vertical Gravity'. When the experiment is repeated by pointing the same guns at rabbits, the perceptive bunnies elude the sporting fusillade by running straight into, not down into, their burrows. Their prolific survival is due to 'Horizontal Gravity' and if proof is required, try to count the rabbits on the Mound of Invernochty...

Sideways is best!

Essay reproduced from My Words by George Wyllie, with permission.

The Spire
The Straw Locomotive (on Finnieston Crane)

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