Alex Chinneck: Why I want to build a set of giant chimneys along a Yorkshire canal

Artist Alex Chinneck with his temporary sculpture installation which popped up earlier this year beside the M1 Tinsley viaduct in Sheffield. PIC: Scott Merrylees
Artist Alex Chinneck with his temporary sculpture installation which popped up earlier this year beside the M1 Tinsley viaduct in Sheffield. PIC: Scott Merrylees
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Having been shortlisted for a £15m funding pot, plans for a series of giant chimneys along a Yorkshire canal just got one step closer. Jessica Barrett reports.

Over the course of his relatively short career, the sculptor Alex Chinneck has become known for his audacious projects. They are often so ambitious that, he says, he has lost both money and hair along the way.

Artist Alex Chinneck on the canal at Tinsley in Sheffield, where he hopes to construct a new artwork.  Picture Scott Merrylees.

Artist Alex Chinneck on the canal at Tinsley in Sheffield, where he hopes to construct a new artwork. Picture Scott Merrylees.

Having graduated from Chelsea College of Art in 2008, Chinneck’s work has never been shown in a gallery. Instead his pieces live in the public realm - largely temporary urban illusions until they are either destroyed or put into storage. They include the ‘floating building’ (officially called Take My Lightning but Don’t Steal My Thunder) in the Covent Garden Piazza which, in 2014, took eight months and more than 100 people to install.

The previous year, Chinneck made a full size house entirely out of wax. It sat opposite Borough Market in London and was partially melted on a daily basis until it no longer existed. His first permanent installation was unveiled this year: a 10-tonne ripped page made from 4,000 bricks on the side of Assembly London’s office building in Hammersmith.

Chinneck says he wants to make the everyday seem “extraordinary”. He is adamant that his artwork must “elevate, not dominate” the public realm it occupies. His latest project is perhaps the most illustrative of his motto yet.

This summer Chinneck, 33, was commissioned to create what he believes will be the largest public artwork in the country, in Tinsley, Sheffield. Onwards and Upwards is a series of four structures which will replace two cooling towers that once sat adjacent to the M1 viaduct in the city, known as the Tinsley Towers.

The towers were demolished nine years ago, to the anger of many local residents. Chinneck says the aim of the commission was to, in some way, continue their “structural legacy” by installing a public artwork in their place.

“This viaduct transports 40m cars a year. The original cooling towers were huge and they were real landmarks,” he explains. “For a lot of people they represented a symbol of homecoming.”

Chinneck and his team devised a series of 13 structures, now whittled down to four, to sit alongside the canal that runs underneath the viaduct that links Sheffield and Rotherham. “We just fell in love with it,” he says. “It’s a hybrid of natural beauty and old industry: it’s brutal but beautiful.”

Chinneck wanted to provide something more complex for visitors, than a quick “vehicular experience” for cars passing along the viaduct. “I feel as if roadside art is just done.”

Each of the four designs are a stunningly beautiful twist on the old red brick industrial chimneys which once characterised the area. One of them is, literally, a twist - a chimney that has been tied in a knot. They are all at least 30 metres tall and their combined height will be around 152 metres; each one will contain at least 15,000 bricks.

The first is a redundant pumphouse to which Chinneck will add a chimney that has a pattern of cracks across it. “It’s cut into 250 pieces and the crack is 80mm wide so it looks like 250 floating pieces which are illuminated from the inside,” Chinneck says. “This one becomes a visual beacon at night. It’s right next to the viaduct.”

The second is a collaboration with Sheffield University’s engineering department, which features a chimney with a giant slit in it (“A huge structural challenge”, says Chinneck). The third is made up of two towers higher than a 10-storey building which will lean over the canal to meet in the middle.

“That one occupies the same area as the Angel of the North,” explains Chinneck. “It’s going to be installed with two huge cranes.”

A six-minute walk further along the canal will lead to the hardest project Chinneck has ever completed: the chimney tied in a knot.

“A knot is constantly changing form, and I love fluidity,” he says. “I try and stay away from just making beautiful things - it’s easy to be tasteful. It’s eccentricity, I suppose, but I like to inject humour into my work.”

Engaging with the community of Tinsley has been a priority for Chinneck throughout the planning process for the project, which is funded by private investors. The project “will all be made in Sheffield” by local contractors. “We are collaborating with lots of creative practitioners too - the photographs for our plans were taken by a local photographer, the illustrations were done by a local illustrator, we’re slowly accumulating a team of locals.”

In September Chinneck went to the local primary school to install one of his pieces, after a previous visit revealed that not a single one of them knew what a sculpture was.

“When we explained to the children what we were doing with the canal sculptures, and we showed them pictures of my work and they all loved the peeling road with the upside down car [a collaboration Chinneck did with Vauxhall in 2015].

“So as a surprise we went back and installed it at the school for them. They loved it. They wanted to know how I did it, and it became an introduction to engineering and a playful utilisation of physics and maths.”

With several other projects in progress alongside this one, including another project in India, Chinneck says he sometimes wishes he worked on smaller pieces. “I want to make the most ambitious artworks in the world,” he begins.

“But at the same time, the moment you finish an artwork it silences anxiety and I don’t have that feeling enough when my projects are so big. So I moved to a farm in Kent [where he lives with his wife and two children] so I could work on smaller projects in my studio there. These big artworks cost a fortune - there are far more ideas than there are commissioners - so some smaller projects would be good.”

Onwards and Upwards has recently been shortlisted for the £15m Northern Cultural Regeneration Fund (NCRF). It’s going up against 10 other projects, including the restoration of Bradford’s now redundant Odeon cinema, but just making it onto the shortlist is sign of confidence in the plans.

Helen Featherstone, director of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, which is a partner in the project, said: “The universal symbol of industry, the chimney, is very fitting and relevant to Sheffield and the surrounding area. It once littered the skyline of the city and Alex Chinneck’s vision is carefully considered, it celebrates the industry of the past and showcases excellence in art and the ingenuity of engineering that exists today.”

As for Chinneck, the one thing he is proud of is that no one can really ever own his work: they are all one-off commissions in unique locations. “When I finish an artwork I sort of abandon it, in the sense that I don’t go and stand next to it and revel in it. But I don’t abandon it in terms of responsibilities of it. I just get excited about the next project and I get anxious that I’m not making work.” He pauses. “It’s an addiction. An obsession.”