A lattice-like steel structure in the shape of a bottle set an angle in a bed of bark chips. The bottle has a steel 'cork'. On close examination the 22mm thick lattice proves to be formed of a hand-written message (the artist's) which has inside it another hand-written script (that of Coosje van Bruggen, the artist's wife) arranged in a spiral. The bottle, the inner text and the cork are all painted in polyurethane enamel - white, blue and black respectively. The outer text is taken from the log of Captain Cook's first voyage to the South Pacific in 1768. It reads, 'We had every advantage we could desire in observing the whole passage of the planet Venus over the Sun's disk'. The inner text is from a 1987 poem, 'Memos of a Gadfly', by van Bruggen about her childhood in Amsterdam: 'I like to remember seagulls in full flight gliding over the ring of canals.' Appropriately, the sculpture is sited beside a small ornamental lake in a new, centrally-located park.
The commission arose from Northern Arts' determination in the mid-1980s 'to set a new benchmark of quality' for public sculpture in the region with a major work by an internationally renowned artist.(1) Having first contacted Oldenburg in 1986 at the time of a U.K. touring exhibition of plans and drawings for his various large-scale projects, they approached Middlesbrough Council who rapidly went ahead and commissioned the artist on the strength of his previous work and reputation. Of the £135,000 that the sculpture eventually cost £5,000 came from Middlesbrough ratepayers and the rest from Northern Arts and business sponsors.(2) This though did not prevent the Council, which was at the time being rate-capped, from being accused of wasting public money.(3)
The decision to adopt a Captain Cook theme derived from the artist's first visit to Middlesbrough in July 1986.(4) Oldenburg's initial idea was to have Cook turning out his pockets like Lemuel Gulliver in Swift's famous satire (one of his favourite books). He subsequently toyed with idea of a vessel but rejected this because it would require some kind of 'simplification and some connection to the idea of scale'.
It was at this point that that the idea of a bottle emerged. 'We (the artist and his wife, van Bruggen) were reminded of Edgar Allan Poe's "Ms in a Bottle". A bottle is a kind of ship, and ships are often built in a bottle. This provided the Swiftian reversal which authorized a very large bottle, or one as large as a civic sculpture needs to be... instead of containing sheets of paper on which there was writing, the bottle would be "made of writing"... We decided to use both our "hands", which are quite different. I would do the drawing / writing surface of the Bottle in an angular style with ink blots, using some lines from Captain Cook's journals, in one colour. Inside would be a spiralling structure made of Coosje's rounded script in another colour, using a more personal text. We felt there should be a cork in the Bottle; this would be the only solid part of the sculpture.'(5)
As for the angle at which the Bottle is set, Oldenburg and van Bruggen thought it appropriate for the Bottle to resemble the Tower of Pisa 'stuck in sand by a receding wave.'(6)
The artist later explained that he saw the relationship of inner and outer texts in the sculpture, a key feature of the work, as 'The fusion of each sentence within the other..in which opposites are dissolved, and both images and words become, to quote Swift, "bodies of much weight and gravity"'.(7) In the completed work, it should be noted, this is achieved as much by the way colour is used as by any other means: that is by the way the blue of the inner text and the blue of the sky merge together and the way that the blue and the white of the sculpture itself similarly merge to create an almost glass-like effect.
Fabrication problems were considerable. To arrive at the final structure a twelve foot-high model in mild steel plate had to be produced by AMARC's training school for previously unemployed youngsters and adults, at Cargo Fleet, Middlesbrough, and subsequently another model of the same proportions in aluminium by Don Lippincott, an Americal fabricator.
The full-scale Bottle was eventually fabricated at Hawthorn Leslie Fabrication Ltd. in Hebburn, Tyne and Wear, with the curved part at the top constructed out of segments and welded together and the main body made from rolled steel sections. To produce the Bottle's handwriting, a giant stencil had to be made from an enlargement of a drawing by the artist which could then be cut out by a computerised profile-burning machine and plasma arc cutter and finished off by the artist. During this lengthy and difficult process all kinds of problems were encountered; for instance, at one point it was found that the inner text had been rolled in the wrong direction by mistake (something which, interestingly, Oldenburg felt was unimportant and did not have to be corrected).
In December 1992 Oldenburg visited Midlesbrough and decided on the precise way that the Bottle should be sited. Then on 10th September 1993 the giant sculpture was transported from Hebburn for its inauguration in Central Gardens by Lord Palumbo, Chairman of the Arts Council on 14th September.
At every point in its history the Bottle has attracted considerable publicity. Tyne Tees Television documented every stage of the fabrication process. British Gas gave it their Award for Art in Public Places and the Northern Electric gave it their Champions Award. It also won second prize in the Art Outside the Gallery category at the National Art Collections Fund Awards.(8)
In 1988 the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Sunderand, and Leeds City Art Gallery staged an exhibition of preparatory drawings entitled ' A Bottle of Notes and Some Voyages' which later toured Europe. The catalogue for the latter included a detailed discursive account by the art historian and critic, Richard Cork of how the sculpture had been developed which was later re-published as part of a celebratory book in 1997.(9) This, however, later came in for heavy criticism from the writer on public art, Malcolm Miles for the way it paid attention to the artist's intentions and the work's art historical antecedents rather than its meaning for viewers in Middlesbrough. (10)
A tribute to Captain Cook (1728-79). Cook joined the merchant navy in 1746 and the Royal Navy in 1755. In 1768 he commanded his first expedition to the South Pacific to witness the transit of Venus in the course of which he charted the coasts of New Zealand and made a detailed survey of the eastern coast of Australia. Four years later he made a second voyage to the South Pacific on which he did not achieve his central goal, that of discovering the southern continent, but did discover a number of islands. In 1776 he set off on a third voyage, this time in the hope of finding the North West Passage from the Pacific end. He succeeeded in making a survey of much of the north American and Siberian coasts. However, in its third year the expedition was cut short when he was tragically killed in a scuffle with islanders on the beach at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii.
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