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How Do You Create the M53 Motorway Bridge at Tate Britain?

09 October 2019 17:14

If you haven't already experienced Mark Leckey's exhibition at Tate Britain then you must before it closes on 5 January 2020. It is an astounding installation that bombards your senses with sound, and vision, as you are transported to a motorway underpass in the Wirral. Leckey's "O' Magic Power of Bleakness" is enthralling, drawing you into the past and conjuring thoughts of childhood. During the experience you could be forgiven for believing that you are in a concrete underpass under the M53 because the surroundings are so authentic. But making Leckey's installation come to life in a space that had been previously divided into 12 galleries was no mean feat, particularly as there was only 3 weeks to complete the build.

MC Designers are experts when it comes to making art come to life. And they are professional, quick, and adaptable. However, before such a build can be executed there is an extensive planning process to ensure that:

  1. The artwork is created exactly how the artist envisages it.
  2. The curator of the exhibition is happy with the work and meets all the requirements of the gallery, and
  3. All health and safety regulations are met to ensure not only a safe working environment, but an environment that the public can access safely and without risk to health.

How are these challenging requirements met?

The first thing is a meeting with the artist and curator to discuss what is required. MC Designers will see the artwork and determine with the artist and curator where and how it is to be displayed.

With the Leckey exhibition this was a highly challenging work because of its size and the need for authenticity.

Each part of the build was considered and help sought from architectural engineers to provide details of what was needed stucturally for the build to be executed.

3D drawings were created so that both Mark Leckey and Tate Britain could see how the build would work, the space that it created, and the experience that visitors would have as they moved around it.

The pre-build process took almost a year to ensure that both the artist and gallery were happy with the proposed build. This is an essential part of making an exhibition because of the short time scale for the actual erection of the artwork.

The Leckey exhibition required MC Designers to liaise with Audio Visual experts because the installation includes lighting, video, and sound to achieve such a dramatic experience.

Where did MC Designers start?

Before work could start the previous exhibition had to be dismantled carefully and labelled so that it could be sent on to the next gallery where it was to be displayed. Part of the wonder of Mark Leckey's exhibition is its size. The bridge is life-like in size and needed twelve galleries to be dismantled, with over 100m of linear walls removed, before construction could start.

The first thing undertaken was the creation of a suspended steel ceiling. This was the sub grid from which a concealed monolithic metal frame suspended ceiling system was hung. This is the ideal frame for use with plasterboards, which made up the bridges construction.

As the ceiling was created MC Designers ensured that accessibility to speakers and projectors was incorporated.

Photographs of the original underpass and bridge were sourced by the team at MC Designers to give them an idea of what the bridge was actually like. This helped to create an underpass that mirrored precisely the bridge.

The plasterboard had to be hung to resemble concrete shuttering with the space between sections being filled with a material that resembled the actual space. One space was not filled, as per Mark Leckey's design to enable light to shine during the exhibition through the bridge. To facilitate this MC Designers fitted a LED light strip at precisely 70 degrees along the entire length of the bridge to provide the desired effect.

Among the most testing part of the build was the creation of the slope at the far end of the exhibition. This area also had to be painted to create the concrete effect, but painting at an angle of 45 degrees along an entire wall wasn't an option that MC Designers would consider because of health and safety ramifications.

MC Designers created a steel and wood frame to hang pre-painted sections of plasterboard on. They then built a 45 degrees platform so that all joints could be sealed and painted so that the join was not obvious. Imagine a fireman's ladder and that gives you an idea of what the platform was like!

Above the slope a perspex screen was fitted to enable video content to be visible from the floor. This was beamed from the space created behind the support structure for the ramp.

The columns positioning was determined by the AV requirements and designed to mirror what had been seen in the photographs.

MC Designers were able to co-ordinate their construction works with a specialist artist who was then able to set to work to create the desired look of aged concrete. 

MC Designers also had to hang posters specifically to Mark Leckey's design. These had to appear as if they had been put up for some time, and so required to be hung straight, but crinkled with a little hint of being dishevelled. Being perfectionists this was one of MC Designer's hardest tasks as instinctively posters are hung straight and perfectly!

Everyone involved with the build were really pleased with the end result because the bridge appeared so life-like and it would have been difficult to imagine that it wasn't made out of concrete.

What else did we do?

The final task for MC Designers was to create the exhibition entrance that Mark Leckey wanted. This meant moving the shop, working with Mark Leckey and the curator to choose the correct paint colour, repainting the walls, and adding the text transfers in place. Once the job was completed MC Designers were asked to build a plinth to cover the plug sockets, and paint it to match the existing the wall colour. Working through the weekend MC Designers completed the task before the exhibition opened.

Full details of the work that was undertaken can be seen in our Case Study.

 What did the artist Mark Leckey think?

Probably the biggest compliment was when Mark Leckey entered the gallery and was moved to tears when he saw his outstanding artwork brought to life. He said "it is just how I remember it". This was high praise indeed as this installation has already been exhibited in the UK and New York and MC were proud to have done this amazing artwork justice.

 What's next for us?

At MC Designers there is no time to "stop and stare" (although there was a moment to enjoy Mark Leckey's masterpiece!) and they are busy setting up Steve McQueen's ambitious exhibition that will open at Tate Britain on November 12th.