Artist Interview: Stephen Murray's sculptural spectacle

by Cass Art

Stephen Murray is an artist who sees beyond the art. He thinks bold. He thinks big. He thinks bikes.  

His monumental sculpture, The Comedown, was commissioned as part of the Commonwealth Games, held in Glasgow this year. The huge, interactive installation was showing at The Briggait, and experienced bike riders were given specified slots to come and ride the wooden waves at speed.

We caught up with the Glasgow-based artist, to find out what makes him tick, and what he's going to do with such a grand artwork now it's time for it to...well...come down.

Hi Stephen! Can you explain your thinking behind The Comedown?

Well the project developed out of a conversation in the pub between myself, John Silvera (a test rider in a wee film that went ballistic) and Brian who runs Rig (a bike shop in Glasgow). I had been looking at some old-school Vctorian micro dromes and walls of death, and I mentioned that I was thinking about making a small sculptural velodrome. Brian said it was a sh*t idea as Red Bull had already done it...and he had ridden the Human Powered Rollercoaster figure of 8 velodrome in Canada in the 90's. But we looked it up on a phone in the pub and the seed was set in my brain to build an 8.

Then Creative Scotland announced there would be 20 commissions across all art forms to be made in 2014, as part of the culture programme alongside the Commonwealth Games. Maybe a couple of weeks later, after a heavy night of dancing, T-shirt sleeve ripping and cycling about, I just wrote the idea on Sunday and Monday, and applied.

What materials is it made out of, exactly?

Just what you see - wood and screws. It's how you put them together that counts.

It’s quite a feat of scale – have you always made large-scale sculptures?

This is by far the biggest thing I've done with my name on it. I've been part of GANGHUT for over ten years now and made quite a few architectural scale sculptures. And I'm often involved with the making/planning/installing of things, from digging out foundations, bursting water pipes, hanging ceilings and finishing someone else's whisky...

I think a friend put it quite well: I'm quite stubborn when I've got a task in front of me.

A monumental sculpture is just a gigantic collection of lots of little actions. I really enjoy getting into the zone with making and freeing my association with ideas, jokes and problem solving while working. It's like riding a bike, when you hit the zone out and the mind wanders...

I realised ages ago that I'm useless sitting in a studio trying to think about 'art'. It bores me senseless. But while making things or collaborating with others, ideas, banter and connections happen. It's something I'm very grateful for, having been part of GANGHUT, where non stop banter fuels most ideas.

As GANGHUT said in a project at the Joshua Baskin gallery, 'Size Isn't Every Thing'.  But scale is something I love working on and people like things they can get in and about. Rather than making precious objects that distance themselves from the audience, I like making things that can be jumped on, kicked, ridden and eventually turned into something much more useful like kindling and sheds.

The installation has been cited as a “rideable cycle rollercoaster”, because of the live event in which cyclists rode across its surface. Was that as fun as it sounds?

It was amazing, all the riders were amazing - Brian, Movie, Sam, John, Jenny and Bobby. We also had Owen and John both on drum kits responding to the riders (getting faster and harder) which really pumped the crowd. Mickey Mallet was on the mike doing his wonderful thing. Luke, Rob, Pete and Jonny were documenting it all which we are in the process of sorting. But I just wanted to make sure all the riders were ok as we had about 400 folk around them on the balcony at The Briggait.

Glasgow artist's sculpture 

Do you find your ideas change between the planning and building stage? Or do you always have a very clear idea of what your finished sculptures are going to be?

I guess this is the 'art' side of it. Formally the form hasn't changed too much, it was just developed by myself and Liam O'Shea as we explored different sites and I started to work out the construction method. Then the venue we were going to use during the games fell through and we managed to secure The Briggait (thanks Michelle and Helen!) and the timing changed to post games.

The event was on the 18th October, one calendar month after the referendum. That changed the title for me...I was going to have a slightly critical title around the Commonwealth, but nstead I thought about all the effort that was going on in Scotland around the games and the referendum and that whatever happened there was going to be a comedown. What was going to happen to all the energy and effort that was being exerted?  Hence the title, The Comedown - now the dream is over, the work begins. And in a very small way this project is an evocation of genuine, honest creative endeavour by a fantastic disparate group of people that has just kept on expanding. But we are where we are and I hope all that positive creative energy and engaged activism continues on now. 

What will you do with it now the exhibition is over? Rebuild it somewhere else?

Well physically the material is going into Jason's new studio in Tayside. I'm getting a new mezzanine in the workshop and there's going to be a pile of useful stuff for Glasgow School of Art students to come take. All the unusable stuff we'll chop and bag up for kindling for people to help themselves to.

But there's a plan brewing. It was too good for it not to rehappen in some format. So I'm just starting to explore ways to make a demountable, raceable version with an expanded project.

What are your plans after The Comedown (forgive me) comes down?

Get pished in Sleazys and dance, ride my bike, fit out a farm shop daan saaf, eat pork, get Valhalla (workshop) back into shape with a second mezzanine, pay some bills.

I'll be making things and moving objects about and hanging things, making some plans to make big things and ride bikes.

Feeling inspired?

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