Alison Wilding: Surgery for Ambit (2000)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 17 October 2010
This review first appeared in Sculpture magazine, 19(5), June 2000, page 7.

Alison Wilding: Surgery for Ambit

Making Sculpture’s cover is a treat for many artists, yet rarely is their recently unveiled artwork plucked out of the water before the magazine’s even off the stands. Such was the case for Alison Wilding and five-month-old Ambit (1996–99), which appeared on the January/February 2000 cover. In mid-February, Ambit was removed from its floating site on the River Wear in Sunderland, England, for suspected structural problems, which, at least initially, appeared very serious. The sculpture has been repaired and was relaunched on March 29. The culprit behind Ambit’s demise was corrosion on the pins connecting the various sections of the work.

Divers conducting monthly maintenance checks discovered the rust. The cause of the corrosion? According to Arts Development Team spokesperson Sarah Laws, “Basically the conditions— the combination of fresh and salt water, the metals in the water’s silt, and the underwater lighting for the artwork. At different times of the year, there are different levels of silt in the water. It was acting like a car battery and accelerating the corrosion. Luckily, there was nothing wrong with the actual structure— only with the bolts.”

As a result, Ambit was taken to Process Systems in Sunderland, which manufactured the [316S11 grade] stainless steel sculpture. Several changes to the design were implemented; these should ensure a long life for the work. Sarah Laws states: “It was looking at the bolts in a different way—using longer ones and welding— so the bolts can’t move away. We knew there would be six months of testing to see how the sculpture responded to the water.”

Anthony Hunt Associates designed the structure and originally conducted a three-year engineering analysis. For Alison Wilding, who worked closely with the technicians from design concept to completion, “I think it’s a pity that we [originally] hadn’t thought it through. Obviously, there was a failure on someone’s part—possibly mine— that it hadn’t been researched, but I think we always knew that it was quite likely that there would be a few problems. That was the deal— for the marine engineers to tweak it for the first year it was in the water. It’s really a technically complicated work. I’m hoping it is completely solved, but I haven’t actually spoken to anyone in detail about it.”

The improvements to Ambit do not seem to have added any additional cost to its budget. According to Sarah Laws, “The cost of the changes was within the agreed overall budget of £250,000. There hasn’t been any additional expenditure.” The work was funded through National Lottery money and European Regional Development Funding.

“We hope we’ve solved all of the problems,” says Sarah Laws. “We’re very pleased that we’ve identified the problem as not being as large as we had originally thought.”