Most of my Open House visits on Sunday had a common theme, which I'll bore you with tomorrow. But today I'll tell you about the odd one out, the one I've walked past scores of times without ever guessing what was inside. The temporary millennial project that survived, against the odds. Destination North Greenwich.
When the Millennium Dome was built, one of the less rubbish ideas the organisers had was to litter the perimeter of the site with sculpture. Nothing normal, but zeitgeisty pieces created in response to the environment. With the environment being a reclaimed gasworks on a sweeping meander in the Thames, this led to more bonkers ideas than usual. There was a sound sculpture emitting the blare of ships' horns, and an Anish Kapoor parabolic mirror, and some argon-filled tubes creating aerial blue text. There was even a "vending machine displaying LED 'prayers' inspired by the names of chocolate bars", called It Pays To Pray. No, I don't remember that last one either. And then there was SliceofReality, which my Millennium Experience Guide describes thus...
An ingenious response to the Dome's riverside location and to the 'slicing' of the Meridian Line through the site; this sculpture sits in the Thames itself. This vertical cross-section of a ship from bridge to hull is a celebration of merchant shipping on the Thames. Richard Wilson is well known for cutting and slicing architectural forms; he was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1988.
So that's a medium-sized ship with its bow and stern sawn off, and only 15% remaining in the middle [photo]. Slice of Reality sat in the river throughout the year 2000 for visitors to stare at, maybe while they were wolfing down a coffee and a slice of pizza in the Greenwich Pavilion. And then when 2001 struck, the organisers asked the various sculptors to take their work back. No thanks, said Richard, my ship's in the river so I think you'll find it lies outside your jurisdiction. And he was right. So he sought the necessary paperwork, and earned his mooring certificate, and hey presto the bit-of-ship became legally his.
Every Open House weekend Richard throws open his doors to the public. What's fun is that his door is quite challenging to reach. The North Greenwich riverside isn't easily accessible, even for somewhere notionally on the Jubilee line. The Dome has no rear exit any more, so you have to find your own way to the Thames Path and then walk round a bit [photo]. Normally the gangplank's up, but yesterday it was down with a welcoming set of steps dangling from the end. Once across and aboard there's no obvious door at the front [photo], so you have to pass under the rusty deck above, along a narrow gangway to the other side of the ship and hunt for thin hatch on the far side.
Blimey, there's far more in here than you'd ever have guessed. A rudimentary kitchen ("do not drink this tap water"), a no-frills toilet, and a drum-kit stacked up in the corner surrounded by files. It's almost as if somebody actually lives here. Surely not? The clues are a little more blatant downstairs (or rather, downladders). First a dark storeroom containing goodness knows what, then a metal mesh bridge over the tidal Thames leading to... a snooker room! There's a green baize table in the centre of the cabin, and a rack of cues below a row of portholes, what else could this be? The perfect blokey hideaway, it seems, aboard a remote rusting hulk round the back of the O2.
A couple of decks higher, on the bridge, the ship's true purpose is revealed. This isn't Richard's home, it's his studio. A wooden worktop faces out downriver, perfect for use as drawing board or workbench. The passing river traffic acts as inspiration, or perhaps as a reassuring background blur while some creative project pans out. There are few physical distractions out here in the Thames, and no neighbours who might ever pop round, leaving the artist alone with his thoughts. That's the plan, anyway, although the gas stove and drumkit and snooker room might suggest otherwise.
There's one more deck above, accessed by vertical metal-runged ladder and therefore not to be rushed. It's a little rusty up here beneath the mast, although the view is excellent because you're well above the O2's paranoid security fence [photo]. Across the water lurks Canary Wharf [photo]. Closer upstream there's Ordnance Jetty sticking out into the river, and the remains of the line which used to mark the path of the meridian through the Millennium Experience site [photo]. The Greenwich Pavilion still stands, although it's not clear for how much longer because a hotel is due to be plonked here in due course [photo]. As for the wetlands that were planned to colonise the riverside after 2000, they're now 'back of house' and are never going to reach their full potential. Indeed one patch has been returfed and reappropriated as a heliport, allowing big stars to chopper in for their arena gigs.
I passed Richard after renegotiating the gangplank and returning to the riverside. He'd popped out for a coffee and sandwiches from North Greenwich bus station (it's a good 20 minute round trip) and was hurrying back to keep an eye on his guests. He looked every inch theinventiveartist, a sort of Caractacus Potts for the new millennium, and exactly the sort of bloke who'd slice up a big boat and then inhabit it. I wish him good luck in maintaining his workspace rust-free into the new decade in continued productive solitude.