LEARNING THE ART OF SLOW TRAVEL ON THE MILLENNIUM BRIDGE, LONDON
A popular pedestrian bridge spanning the River Thames in restless central London is not a place you would expect to be able to discover the essence of Slow Travel, but a local artist has found a way to not just highlight the mess created by us visitors but also to encourage us to slow right down as we walk over the busiest river in the UK.
The Millennium Bridge is London's newest bridge; a narrow, pedestrian-only crossing from St. Pauls' to the Tate Modern and The Globe; all prime contenders for a place on any visitors London bucket list. Opened in June 2000 it is a lightweight steel suspension bridge, shallow in design so that there are few barriers to ruin the view of those using it to cross the Thames.
When it opened in 2000 it swiftly became known as the 'Wobbly Bridge' by locals, as it was discovered that it would wobble with too many people on it, causing everyone to adjust the way they walked to keep their balance.
This caused them all to walk in time with each other, making the problem even worse. The bridge was temporarily closed for discreet dampers to be added underneath, which solved the problem.
The bridge is now a part of the Thames riverscape and has thousands of visitors each day. It has featured in music videos, been blown up in a Harry Potter film and appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy.
The views either side of the Millennium Bridge
Most visitors walk along it to admire the views on either side which are impressive - one side is the greens and yellows of Southwark Bridge with the iconic Tower Bridge behind it, the other side is an expanse of the Thames with the rigid angles of the Tate Modern, a misshapen skyscraper or two and which is a very good view to admire the setting sun.
The bridge is filled with people taking selfies or trying to photograph the way that the bridge frames St Paul's as a dramatic pathway leading to it, without getting too many other people in the way. What few people do, however, is look down. After all, what could there be to see in the bland metallic grid you are walking on?
If you pay attention and look closely enough, you will see little splashes of colour amongst the narrow metallic bars. Initially you may well dismiss them as discarded coloured gum, as I did at first, but on closer inspection, you will see that they are miniature works of art.
London artist, otherwise known as 'Ben Wilson the Chewing-Gum Man', spends some of his time lying on the bridge with his paints, creating unique and vivid designs on the chewing gum which has been so carelessly and selfishly discarded by visitors.
Designs vary from London scenes to abstract images in bright colours which stand out from their surroundings. He manages to just about escape getting into trouble with the police and the local council, as the gum he is painting is not actually a part of the structure itself. The council may well find it disagreeable, but it is their job to keep the city clean, something they are clearly failing to do adequately - he would have no canvas if there was no gum to paint on.
Focusing such lavish attention on the detritus of our society, painting his scenes and designs in such bright colours, is a subtle yet obvious way of highlighting the damage we are causing in these places of mass tourism. There is no lecturing involved though - it is a lighthearted and irreverent way of making a point.
Following the trail of this miniscule art leads directly to the Tate Modern, that powerhouse of commercial and divisive modern art. It seems to me to be a subtle taunt at the art that resides within its brutalist walls, which is often created from expensive, blank products with over complicated interpretations, meanings that are hidden to most viewers, and given a value that is often only perceived within the rarified art world. This chewing gum art is created from the everyday, the mundane, the discarded. The bright colours uplift and give joy to the viewer, interpretation is straightforward or not necessary. This is art for the Everyman.
It also forces us to see art within the everyday, to focus less on the grand bucket-list vistas of the Thames, but to look down to see what is right in front of us and under our feet. Once you see one, you cross the bridge slowly looking for more; your march across the bridge is dramatically slowed down to a snail‘s pace, you stop to take photos of them and only them - (it is logistically impossible to put yourself in the same photo) so your attention is forced to not be about you but about your immediate surroundings.
The art of the Millennium Bridge gives the visitor that rare opportunity to slow down and take it all in, even in central London.
The Millennium Bridge is free to use, has wheelchair access and is open all hours.
Ben Wilson has also created artworks for the London Parkland Walking Trails - a walk from Muswell Hill to Finsbury Park which follows an old railway line. You can find out more about it, with maps, directions and pictures of his art on the Parkland Trail website >>
You can also see more of his art on his Instagram page >>