The Earth Dwellers,  an Installation of giant Leafcutter ants for Longleat safari park

A project from a few years ago an installation for Longleat Safari Park.

This was my first large public commission so was an exciting project for me, particularly being aware that 500,000 people a year will be viewing a piece of my sculpture. As an artist that is a real privilege. 

In 2007 I was involved in an art exhibition at Longleat House ran by the Lying Cheetahs, an arts collective. I was flattered by the invitation and pleased to go along. At the exhibition I met Tommy Parker, one of the estate management team, who said to me 'Id like some of your stuff for my gardens', which I took as polite conversation.

I met Tommy again a few months later, and he invited me to Longleat to discuss what he might want for the grounds. I was expecting something quite small until he showed me the space he wanted me to fill. I then realised that was a bigger project than I was expecting.

 

field

The initial brief was to be Life Underground. While walking around the site we discussed what lives underground, Tommy mentioned ants in passing, and that was it, we knew it had to be ants. In a few minutes we had the whole concept defined, a group of Leaf Cutter ants on their way back to the nest, with a larger Fighter Ant protecting them. This idea particularly appealed to me as I have always been interested in ants, and am a fan of classic (crummy?) sci-fi movies especially 'Them' the film about giant ants on the rampage in California. If you have not seen it I can reccomend it.

 To start off I made a small maquette around 90cm long to get a feel for the piece and to investigate construction techniques.

ant sculpture

This was then sent to my Tommy. who showed it around to get an idea of  people's reactions,and I was given the go ahead to start work on the full sized versions.

Metal was ordered in and I started work.

sculpting

 I then realised just how big these things were going to be.

sculptor

Here is a shot of me welding on the bridge piece between the thorax and the tail.


 


Next job was to make the heads. I used a simple structure for these and used half balls for the eyes.

ant head

 

But if we stand the head on it's end I can see the potential for a whole new piece of sculpture, some kind of 10m tall idol in the Hammer Horror film tradition. This one of the joys of sculpture, as a piece of work develops it opens up all sorts of new ideas for future projects.

steel sculpture

 

After this I got cracking with the first of the leaf cutter ants. Here I was after a feeling of size again but without the 'massive look of the Bullet Ant, to achieve this I made the legs shorter and had it in a less agressive posture

giant ant

 

 The next stage was to make the antennae. This finished things off just as I wanted, giving a real 'anty' look and a sense of personality. 

By this point I had seen enough of giant ants that they had become completely mundane to both me and my family, the did not even seem particularly big any more, I was still enjoying their company but they no longer had any feeling of spectacle. At this time I started thinking to myself are they big/special enough? But I have noticed that people who see them for the first time get really excited about them, which is what we are after, I think it is called 'Wow factor'.

leafcutter ant

The next job was to assemble all four of the ants made so far for a photo shoot, and a visit from the BBC for an episode of the popular programme Animal Doctor, filmed at Longleat;  to be shown later in the year.

This would also be a chance to see the effect they would have on people who had not been around them for weeks. The picture below gives a good idea of the size, as it exits a domestic garage. (photo's below by my son Cedric).

giant leafcutter


 


We then moved outside and began filming myself and Tommy Parker, who commissioned the whole installation, the next shot shows him demonstrating to me how I need to modify the legs of the bullet ant to make her even taller and give her a greater presence (my next job).

giant ant

 Below is a shot of the film crew while Tommy and are discussing general anty business. It was quite an unnerving process, having to have the same conversation several times over with all these people watching your every move.

film crew

 Here are two shots of the  Bullet Ant before being modified. How tall will she be in the end?metal sculpture

 steel sculpture

 And finally two more photos of the other ants, I particularly like the spy shot through the bushes below.

garden sculpture

outdoor sculpture

 

Following the photo shoot I jacked the Bullet Ant up and modified the legs to bring her higher up. I think this does the job. To the top of the antennae she is about  4.5m tall

ant

 Next job was to make ant No5, last but two of the leaf cutters, I was asked to make the leaf larger and rounder, and to have her head turning to one side, as though she is looking at the train that is built around the space for this installation. We can see that the leaf is larger, though it is hard to see the head being turned, I will get another photo to show this. My son Cedric is the model here to give an idea of scale.

steel sculpture

The area outside my current workshop is a shared space, and I enjoy the reactions to my work from people passing by. Here are two examples.

1, I was shifting the Fighter Ant across a street for a photo shoot with two of my friends, bearing in mind she is 4.5m long and the same wide. The three old shopping biddies walked past, glanced at us and carried on along the street as though nothing was going on. Three blokes wrestling with a giant ant in the middle of the town. Respect is due!! what does it take to get these people to react to anything ?

2, Just assembling Ant no 6; the paper boy goes past on his skateboard, stops and asks 'what on earth is that?' I explain it is an ant sculpture, 'Yeah I can see that, does it work?'  'is it remote controlled or can you ride it?' Now that is a great idea, a steam powered ant you can drive to the paper shop....

The next job was to dismantle and ship all the ants down to Longleat and install them in the field by the train ride. The first picture is an early morning shot of the ants crossing the field out of the mist, this image gives a definite feel that 'something' is going on.

giant ants

Next is a shot of the fighter ant menacing the train ride, dramatic stuff.

giant ant

Next is a group shot of three of the ants marching towards their nest, alongside the train track, purposeful and definitely on their way somewhere.

outdoor sculpture

Next a portrait of one of the leafcutters in the field, at last I get to see my work in it's final settinggarden sculpture

Before the final installation of the works, we took the Fighter Ant for a ride round the Safari Park. This was quite an exciting business, what would the Lions make of the ant?

giant ant

As it turned there was quite a bit of interest, note the Lioness on the left of the picture growling, she then spent 10 minutes prowling around the truck, at one point we thought she was going to jump up onto the ant.

giant ant

For me this was the highlight of the day, getting to see how the Lions would react to something this unfamiliar, and probably something that will never happen again. What a shame the  tigers were not available.

Prior to installing the piece Tommy and I discussed how to finish the ants, ie would they be painted or what finish would be applied. In the end Tommy decided that he wanted them to be allowed to rust naturally, and once that has happened he will get them lacquered, which gives a rich deep brown finish that changes according to the light, a colour and texture that is similar to the ants natural appearance.

Around this time Tommy pointed out that the piece did not have a formal title, and it that it was up to me to decide on one. I eventually came up with 'The Earth Dwellers' inspired by the title of Eric Hoyt's excellent book about ants.

This piece of work is a one off installation, but has set me off wanting to continue working on this scale, I can make similar pieces, if you are interested in commissioning work in this style please feel free to contact me.

Finally I would like to give big thanks to Lord Bath, Tommy Parker and all of the staff at Longleat for making this piece of work possible.

 

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