The human side of Paul Spooner

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Simon Tait’s Mews – No.3

If you ask Paul Spooner to fit a project brief don’t expect anything, because whatever you expect isn’t going to happen. What you can be sure of is that whatever does happen is going to be a delight.

Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw were looking for something ‘pretty didactic’ when they asked for a narrative of eight models to tell the story of Humans and the Environment. ‘I’m rather bludgeoning them into my ideas, hope they like what they’re getting’. Well, you know Spooners: there’s nothing not to like, even when we’re talking about pollution and natural selection in a country that has the most polluting power station in Europe and an education minister who’s a militant creationist. Doesn’t matter to Paul. ‘I just like to keep myself amused’ he says, and a few million others on the way. ‘What I’m doing is going from as big as you think to smaller than you can see, with human scale somewhere in the middle, that should cover it’ he says. So he starts with the universe, of course, and a superior life form with eyes on the tops of their heads and a telescope mounted on a jelly mould. A jelly mould? ‘It’s their basic design style’, so their rocket looks as if it might be rather sweet to the tooth as well as they fly to Earth and its environment, its pollution, its gravity. And you’d be excused if you thought he’s just taken an actual jelly mould and adopted it, but he doesn’t work like that: he hand-made the jelly mould.

And with all Paul’s humour and ingenuity, this story is real science told through art. The earth eases itself into contents; a tree of life produces all the least prepossessing of creatures, including human; a rather startled looking gent opens his own chest to examine his innards; a kind of animated collage reminiscent of Kandinsky and Calder tells about bacteria; and we come to the tiniest of objects we are only aware of by the larger things they displace, a bit like a billiard table you might think -0 well, you might not, Paul Spooner does and that’s what works. What’s just as amazing as the Spooner take on the most complicated of tales is that he finishes it at the end of this month after barely six months conceiving it, designing and making it. It will be a centrepiece for the Copernicus Science Centre which opens in June next year, and over the winter it will all be tested for the mechanics and electronics to make sure it’s going to go without a hitch. What’s sad for us is that this particular life story will probably never be seen in this country. It’s to be a permanent installation in Warsaw, and like any work of art it’s unrepeatable. And even with a work of art, nothing always goes according to plan. ‘Blind alleys? There’ve been a few, and at the end of a project you have the problem of clearing all the failures out and wondering what to keep’. Keep it all, Paul, you never know…


If you’re passing the National Theatre in the South Bank on a Friday or Saturday this month at around 10pm, look up. No, further. Right up to the top of the fly tower. Yes, there. Last Saturday that particular starry venue – that is, closer to the stars the most others – saw the world premiere of the first CMT (well, Sarah) commissioned drama. Created by Matthew Robins, Cabin Doors to Manual is part of a kind of puppet show double bill.

If you haven’t been yet don’t miss the Rowland Emett exhibition that opened at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury last week. It’s sheer delight, not just to those of us of a certain age who knew the Emett whimsicalities that adorned Punch in the 40s, 50s and 60s, and from which he created the famous Far Tottering & Oystercreek Railway for the Festival of Britain, but to anyone who likes examples of creative mechanics that are fun. It’s a great evocation, not just through his cheerily impossible drawings but the engines he built from them, like the extraordinary contraptions made of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang film.

And talking about inventive mechanics, it can’t be nearly a year since the Corpus Christi clock was unveiled, but it is. That unbelievable mixture of Gothick horror and inspired artistry with no hands or digits cost its creator John Taylor £1m to make, with steam of engineers, artists and designers on his team, based on the last great clockwork of invention, John Harrison’s grasshopper escapement of the 1760s, hence the grotesque grasshopper that rides the five feet diameter timepiece. The good news as it approaches its first birthday is that you can have your own, custom built according to your specifications. The cost? The £1m is cost Taylor in the first place, no more or less.

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