Whatever happened to the Giant Fox? Saving art from landfill

Fox in snow

Its perhaps a dirty secret in the arts world that it is an creative industry that often ‘creates’ waste once the show is over. A few years ago I faced a race against time to save a giant fox from landfill.

I’m often asked what happened to the monumental straw creature from the Festival of Britain’s 60th anniversary programme. Such was its popularity at the time, I received emails from commuters who mourned its loss once it disappeared from its rooftop den overlooking Waterloo Bridge in the autumn of 2011.

Fox overlooking Waterloo bridge

Faced with the possibility Urban Fox would be destroyed just as the Skylon had been in 1951 (rumoured to have been furiously dumped in the Thames by the incoming Conservative government of the time in revenge for what they had seen as Labour’s wasteful arts spending), I became determined to rescue the sculpture from the same fate.

The majestic but doomed Skylon of the 1951 Festival of Britain

I imagined I might end up having to smuggle the fox out of London somehow on a back of a lorry like in One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, a bizarre film about the rescue of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton from the Natural History Museum that always seemed to be repeated on TV when I was young.

The tyrannosaurus rex escaping on a truck to the countryside in the 1975 film: One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing. Myself and Pirate Technics Director Alex Rinsler in front of the fox’s lorry

Some said I should set it alight, seeing as the team that had built fox normally specilised in fire sculptures. But having juggled the complex politics of the fox being a pest in the city and a hero in the countryside amidst anti-fox hunting protests, I didn’t want Southbank Centre to appear to be leaning in favour of one side of the argument, by creating a giant burning effigy!

So, initially it was an issue of sustainability and managing public relations for me, but it grew to be a more personally emotive challenge.

The Fox had been a last minute commission which I had 6 weeks to deliver. Unusually it was entirely funded by commercial sponsorship, with the support of restaurants and shops lining the river. I got the final sign off on the tiny budget in March with the Festival opening in April.

The complex internal design of the fox by Mike de Butts of Pirate Technics

It was terrifying for me to attempt such an experimental and ambitious piece in such an exposed setting that hadn’t been used previously. I had lobbied internally for weeks to build the sculpture and I had nowhere to hide if it was a failure.

The original sketch of the fox, there was a lot of debate over the position of the tail and long conversations with Health and Safety experts about how to stop a giant straw sculpture catching fire on top of a auditorium containing 2,000 people!

You can check out an excellent timelapse of the complex construction and nail biting crane installation here.

The construction of the fox in a farm warehouse in the Nottinghamshire countryside in early Spring 2011

I’ve often faced sustainability dilemmas with large-scale temporary sculptures. An example is Project Morrinho, a model replica of a favela built by young men from Rio. The 4,000 bricks atop of tons of sand made it precariously heavy for the Festival Hall’s terrace and its complex form required a lightweight foundation that did not add to the load. The project team came up with a innovative solution: storm crates.

Project morrinho was made up of 4,000 bricks that were later recycled by giving away to the public

Stormcrates formed the sustainable and lightweight foundation for the Project Morrinho to overcome weight restrictions on the Festival terrace

These are crates designed for emergency flooding situations. By using the crates to bulk up the favela installation we then were able to return them to the company once the summer was over. We also managed to recycle all 4,000 bricks in a mass public giveaway. There are mini brick favelas in people’s back gardens (including mine) all over the country!

The creation of the fox was also an unconventional artistic process. I originally asked Snugbury’s Farm to make the sculpture. It was their story I had wanted to celebrate, a contemporary fairytale of rural life in Britain. It was part of a homage to the ‘Land’ area of the original Festival of Britain that artistic director Jude Kelly sought to achieve in her vision for the outdoor environment for the anniversary celebrations.

Snugbury’s were unexpected makers of giant straw sculptures in the context of their working dairy farm. They make one each year to entertain the local community and visitors in their thousands flock to see the annual sculptures which have included a giant straw meerkat, a polar bear, Big Ben and more recently, my personal favourite: a Dalek. Visitors were charged for ice cream, the proceeds of which were donated to charity.

Snugbury’s giant straw dalek or ‘dalick’ as the farm called it to encourage further sales of the charity fundraising ice cream of the same name

Straw Big Ben

Although they gave me their full support and blessing to replicate their work, they didn’t have the time to juggle a working farm and build another sculpture in London.

So instead I approached company called Pirate Technics, who had an extraordinary portfolio of sculptures built for firework displays at music festivals. The company visited Snugbury’s with me and hatched out a plan around the farmhouse kitchen table. With the creative engineering genius of Mike de Butts and the team leadership of Alex Rinsler (who suggested a Fox be the form the straw sculpture took) we pulled it off.

Sadly, plans for the Fox’s long-term future weren’t part of those discussions around the farmhouse table. I remember when I first visited Snugbury’s farm I found decaying relics of their previous sculptures dotted about their cow sheds next to old tractor tires. It was fascinating to see a giant Big Ben disintegrating on its side with a rusting clock face, as if it had been transplanted from London to rural Cheshire by a tornado in a disaster movie. Yet it was sad at the same time. I wasn’t used to seeing art die, even if the Snugburys didn’t see it as art – just as many art critics may likely agree – it’s just a bit of family fun in the name of charity.

Keeping the fox permanently on the southbank wasn’t an option as each year the the busy arts centre hosts a huge array of different festivals and themed events. But I got a one month extension to keep it there to give me more time to seek a new home. I emailed everyone I could think of. Jude Kelly and the board of trustees at Southbank Centre all supported its plight. “We simply must find a home for our dear Fox!” they all said.

So the pressure was on and I wasn’t always taken seriously by those I approached.

I had many bemused responses to my appeal including a very polite but humorous email from my former Historic Royal Palaces colleague, the television historian Lucy Worsley to inform me that no, she regrettfully did not have room for a 7 meter high straw fox in the gardens of Hampton Court.

I came close to relocating the sculpture to a new fox rehabilitation sanctuary in a forest, which seemed to offer the perfect ending, but it proved too good to be true and fell through after the trustees of the charity became nervous of its scale and dubious of what purpose it would serve.

Then just as all hope was lost, and Urban Fox was doomed to be put down in the most horrible way by being chopped to pieces, we were thrown a lifeline by the owners of Secret Arts, who agreed to re-home her.  The fox lives on in 2014, having left its concrete surrounds on the South Bank to live the rural idyll on a grassy mound in the Cambridgeshire countryside.

Its wonderful to share this happy ending, but I know that I will continue to face challenges of waste creation in the process of making and sharing art. There’s often little money, people and time and a lack of storage space. Making something memorable, special and unusual sometimes means it is destined to be a ‘one-off’. A lot people think art is a load of rubbish anyway, but whatever your view, with a bit of patience, innovation and planning there’s no need for art to end up as landfill.

Here’s a few photos of the fox’s journey to its new home:

On its original den overlooking National Theatre in 2011

Hoisted off the roof of Queen Elizabeth Hall

All strapped onto the back of the lorry ready to go

Crossing the river Thames

Settling into her new home at the Secret Garden Party site in Cambridgeshire. Urban Fox’s designer, and Director of Pirate Technics, Mike de Butts stands atop.

Fox in winter of 2012/13, sporting a bow tie and monocle.

Visiting my old giant friend along with my six month old son at the Secret Garden Party in 2012 where I found that ‘susan’ the fox as she once was named, had been given a monocle and bow tie and was referred to as a ‘he’ by the new owners!

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