Chew on this: The campaign to save miniature masterpieces on the Millennium Bridge
By Kathryn Gillespie
I’ve walked over the Millennium Bridge plenty of times. Connecting two of London’s iconic landmarks–St. Paul’s Cathedral to the north and the Tate Modern to the south–there’s a myriad of sights to take in as you cross the Thames over the so-called wobbly bridge. Yet it took until last week for me to finally notice the hundreds of tiny artworks that colour the floor of the bridge. They’re hidden in plain sight, only visible to those paying close attention to their surroundings, to those who see a spot of colour and question it, stooping down to get a better look. Painted atop discarded chewing gum this art is the work of Ben Wilson, born 1963, who has adopted the moniker ‘Chewing Gum Man’. Since 2004, Wilson has been creating his ‘gum pics’ in trails that dot their way across London and stretch even further afield.
Gum hasn’t always been Wilson’s medium of choice. In the woodlands near Barnet, where he grew up, he first created art environments –which he defines as ‘large-scale structures that you can climb on or walk inside’–out of wood felled in storms. He also tested other forms of discarded rubbish, from cigarette butts to crisp packets. What characterises his practice is his need to create art out of the environment around him. Wilson’s hidden art reacts to the unashamedly imposing, in-your-face visual imagery of modern-day advertising, which litters our everyday surroundings and influences our thinking. His repurposing of chewing gum responds directly to the consumerist, throw-away nature of our society. By embracing and personalising a mass-produced object, one that has literally been spat out, Wilson restores life to the gum as a piece of art. His work is no longer a product to be sold to a consumer; it becomes an integral part of its environment. I couldn’t help but smile as he told me, ‘I take each piece of gum and turn it from “ugh” to “ohh”.’
One of Wilson’s art environments in Sydney, Australia. 1989.
Image courtesy of Ben Wilson (Source: https://benwilsonchewinggumman.com)
Provoking a shift in the way those who view his art react to their surroundings is the goal. In drawing our attention to the discarded gum and transforming it into art Wilson invites us, as the passers-by, to feel more connected to our environment and to better respect it. By respecting our environment, we think more deeply about the impact we have on it. Beyond their environmental purpose, the ‘gum pics’ are a form of social commentary, a map of human histories. Requested by those who meet him on the streets, each painting marks a moment in someone’s life. New jobs, favourite spots, lost loved ones are all immortalised on the street.
Wilson relates his work to Victorian social reformist Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Through the 1840s, Mayhew interviewed and documented thousands of people working on the streets of London. Similarly, Wilson’s work is a celebration of people of different ages, classes, nationalities, genders: ‘I love London, its multicultural society. Yeah, I love it.’ He recalled a memorial he painted on the Millennium Bridge for a couple who had lost their son. Their artwork has become a little spot of joy they can visit as a way of remembering their child, it is representative of the image of him they still carry in their heads. Wilson explained, ‘The most important pictures are the pictures you carry in your mind.’
A selection of ‘gum pics’ on the Millennium Bridge
Images courtesy of Katie Gillespie
It is devastating, not only to Wilson but to the approximate six hundred people for whom he’s created works on the Millennium Bridge, that the bridge’s owners, City Bridge Foundation, want to remove his art works from it during planned maintenance over the next three weeks. As Wilson points out, ‘They’re not my pictures. They’re everyone’s pictures.’ This sentiment is a shared one, as one commenter on the petition started to save the works writes, ‘Ben’s work on the bridge means the world to me. After my grandfather died, he painted a chewing-gum for me, I can find it with my eyes closed.’ In the eyes of many the deep cleaning of the bridge will symbolise an act of desecration.
At the very least it is a form of vandalism, and it is very difficult to understand why City Bridge Foundation are being particularly uncooperative with Wilson, to the point that one representative from the Foundation even suggested his work encourages people to litter gum. City Bridge Foundation has now made a begrudging offer to save seventy-five of the works on the bridge, but it begs the question: how can you begin to go about choosing who gets to keep their painting and who does not? The irony of the City Bridge Foundation’s statement announcing the bridge’s closure, which describes how the ‘Millennium Bridge has enjoyed a colourful history’ is not lost, yet still the Foundation is unwilling to protect the paintings atop it.
The lack of respect that the City Bridge Foundation have shown towards Wilson’s work comes in stark contrast to the way his gum paintings are protected and celebrated in cities like Zurich or Berlin, where he has painted trails. Whereas his work abroad is commissioned, he described how his works in London are done ‘off my own back’. He sees this as a key difference to how his work is interpreted. One of the reasons our institutions fail to respect his art is because, simply put, nobody has paid for Wilson to produce it.
Images courtesy of Ben Wilson (Instagram: @benwilsonchewinggumman)
Wilson’s choice to paint on the streets also factors into the vulnerability of his art. Its placement within a public space means it isn’t afforded the same protection as it would be in a gallery setting. Another comment on his petition asks, ‘If it were hanging in the Tate would they casually destroy it?’ The vulnerability of street art to erasure is something not even an artist as famous as Banksy can escape, with an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to his works that have been damaged or destroyed. Yet hypocritically, when the walls Banksy paints his work on are physically removed, as in the case of the Slave Labour mural in 2012, they fetch millions at auction. Are we such sticklers for rules that we consider all art that appears on our streets as graffiti? And are our institutions so strait-laced that they refuse to distinguish between a thoughtless act–vandalism–and thoughtful one–art?
Although work officially began on the bridge on Saturday, the deep clean won’t come until the end of the planned maintenance, meaning there is still time to sign the petition to save Wilson’s work. As we wrapped up our conversation Wilson laughed, 'Wherever there’s a wall, I usually climb over.’ So, when the bridge reopens, expect to see him back there again in his paint splattered orange overalls, chatting to people as they cross over the Thames and carefully retouching whichever paintings that he and the community supporting him can save.