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Falkirk's stallion display

27 Feb 2009

They have been dubbed the biggest rocking horses in the world. Standing 30 metres high, their incorporation into the engineering of a massive canal lock will ensure they are a dynamic new landmark. Prospect got the latest on this project Ð from the horses mouth.

They have been dubbed the biggest rocking horses in the world. Standing 30 metres high, their incorporation into the engineering of a massive canal lock will ensure they are a dynamic new landmark. Prospect got the latest on this project Ð from the horses mouth.

The Helix Project is a decade long programme of investment to transform the landscape between Falkirk and Grangemouth into a new eco park. A partnership led by Falkirk Council, British Waterways Scotland and Central Scotland Forest Trust are navigating the project through choppy economic waters and have already secured £25million from The Big Lottery Fund.

Deriving its name from the distinctive spiral inherent to the genetic code of life the 300-hectare estate will provide woodland paths, cycleways and water features, including the installation of a new canal link which will connect the lowland canals with Grangemouth.
Centrepiece of this parkland will be those mythical beasts of legend, the Kelpies, which will soon be rearing their heads from myth to reality with construction of twin colossal equine sculptures courtesy of George Ballanger, an engineer with British Waterways, who had the brainwave of invoking the mythical sea horse. 

The water spirits of lore take equestrian form to reputedly warn those in danger of drowning.Ê Ominously for future water borne travellers however the beings are also said to take malevolent turns, causing and even rejoicing in the watery demise of nautically challenged sea farers.

Your common aquarium variety sea horse these are not.

Fashioned from steel at the Maryhill works of sculptor Andy Scott the pair are fortunately unlikely to possess any supernatural properties, their appeal restricted to romantic attachment and awesome scale.

The maquettes are currently being prepared for extensive wind tunnel testing representing an exciting stage in the progression of the figurines from drawing board to reality as Scott reveals: ÒOur job is about to change quite dramatically as my role switches from sculptor to aesthetic advisor. IÕll be working closely with Bennetts, now part of the Atkins set up, theyÕll be doing all the structural and mechanical engineeringÓ.

If the scale models impress now they promise to astound upon completion, garnering widespread press attention in advance of works starting on site. Cool headed as ever Scott is determined to put this media enthusiasm in context: ÒPeople keep going on about them being the biggest sculpture in the world, I know the media like to label things, but there are bigger bits of sculpture about. A bloke from America wrote to me and said: ÒDear Mr Scott, I think your sculpture is lovely but they are not the biggest and he sent photos of a project he was involved in, an absolutely ginormous project in China.Ó

WorldÕs largest or not they are certainly big and this scale is reflected in the wider Helix Project, to which the Kelpies will take centre stage as Scott details: ÒWhen you say to someone youÕre going to build some giant horses they look at you as if youÕre mad but you have to put them in some kind of context.

ÒEverybody keeps going on about 30m. The reason we came up with that height was for function but also to make an impact, the landscape is completely flat. YouÕd be surprised how quickly big sculptures are consumed by the space you put them in. In most of my pieces people always ask me, Ôcould you not have made it bigger?Õ I donÕt know if theyÕll ask me that of this piece!Ó

Unlike most sculpture these two will not languish as mere inanimate objects but be actively employed as a boat lift.ÊThe horses will be put to work operating the first Òdisplacement lockÓ on the Forth & Clyde canal, each 400 tonne piece will tilt slowly through a five metre span to push water into the lock and raise boats into the canal, simultaneously providing the world with its largest rocking horse.

This provides a striking contemporary take on historical precedent as in their day horses were the mainstay of BritainÕs canal network as Scott imparts: ÒThe interesting thing is the resonance these horses have with the history of the canals and the social history of the area. The horses would have pulled the barges along the canal, they would have worked on industry and agriculture beside the canal. The work horse was the motor of the industrial revolution, for me thatÕs the legacy.Ó

The whole ethos of the project is to make the Helix a destination in its own right, not merely a photo opportunity for motorists whizzing past at 70mph. To this end lighting specialists Lightfolio have been brought on board to develop internal and external lighting, in addition the interior will be opened to the public allowing visitors to clamber around inside and soak up the view, fulfilling an ambition for people to stay, enjoy the area and add something to the local economy.

Scott believes the Kelpies have rode into the public consciousness on the back of their tangibility, not only can they be touched and explored but they strike a chord with the histories and traditions of the area and are evocative of a scale and ambition which people appreciate.

Scott professes a disdain for modern CAD produced drawings, preferring instead to use traditional drawing techniques to conceptualise his creations. ÒIÕm not one for much modern art, I prefer artworks of the Victorian, Nouveau and Deco periods. I prefer that evidence of handskill, dexterity and craft. In this day and age I think there is actually real novelty value in someone who draws pictures with a pen and a piece of paper and makes things with his hands.Ó

Despite such technological foibles all this hand craft will be brought to life with high technology as each initial maquette will be laser scanned to produce precise 3D digital pictures.ÊFabricators can then up-scale replicas of each plate by a factor of 10 to produce heads rising up to 30m.

Scott places a great emphasis on fashioning a local identity for his creations by seeking out different aspects of the area to reflect and specifically working with the community in some design capacity. Scott concedes: ÒItÕs a fine line because you donÕt want to compromise the quality of the artwork to keep everybody happy, before you know it everyone is an expert and you end up creating more problems than youÕre trying to solve.

ÒI think public artwork is a function. A lot of the projects IÕve done have been in places like Easterhouse and Springburn, places where you might not expect to see public art but can relate to it and enjoy it and take it on board, take ownership of it. It can really create a sense of identity for areas. IÕm not going to kid on that itÕs the be all and end all because it isnÕt but I think if its done well, properly thought out and executed, then it can make a difference.

ÒI also like to try where possible to have different elements of narrative within the sculpture so there is an immediate element, the heavy horse for example, people might just drive past and think Ônice horseÕ but I have my own reasons for why the horse is there, not everyone gets those reasons but that approach is in it. People can make up their own stories about it, thatÕs fine, but the most important thing for me is that itÕs recognisable and people get it in some capacity.Ó

Glasgow has had a long association with metal working from the shipyards and forges and Scott is keen to continue that tradition. Scott says: ÒI just enjoy using it, IÕm not going to convince somebody to try and use timber because I canÕt use timber. IÕd be flattering myself if I tried to pass myself off as a shipbuilder but it has been influential the way IÕve decided to use certain materials and IÕm very proud of that, IÕm very proud of the history of Glasgow and trying to continue that legacy so itÕs something IÕm aware of.

ÒI genuinely believe that even your hardest ned will reflect positively on something that evidently was bloody hard work to do and has some craft and skill in it whereas something that arguably is a fantastic piece of conceptual art theyÕll have it in pieces in no time. YouÕd have to go something to vandalise it, if youÕre going to produce a piece in an area that might be prone to such things you need to think about that. Morally it would be wrong to spend money, public money, on something that may not stand the rigors of where it needs to go.Ó

Scott retains several tricks up his sleeve and is about to unveil ÒThe big manÓ, a giant to lift a new bridge out of the canal near Speirs Locks, Glasgow. Still at the early stages of design it will go for a planning application in March. Scott enthuses: ÒI keep saying that stretch of the canal is one of the major assets of the city and is basically overlooked IÕm glad that BW and the council are doing something with it, itÕs fantastic.Ó

The Kelpies go out to tender this spring for fabrication before the end of next year with an installation date set for 2010.

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