Backstory: Big Bang

I made Cold Dark Matter in 1991 for the Chisenhale Gallery in East London. It’s a dark space with no natural light, so I wanted to make something that had its own light source. I was making a series of works about things having almost a cartoon death—falling off a cliff, getting blown up, steamrolled, burned. I said to the curator, Jonathan Watkins, that I wanted to blow something up in the space. There were a lot of explosions happening in cities at this time, because of the IRA [Irish Republican Army], so that’s what gave me the idea. He had just laid a new polished concrete floor, so he talked me out of that.

I would have loved to blow up a house, but that wasn’t practical. I decided that a garden shed is the kind of place where all the stuff from the house gets dumped anyway. It’s full of psychological baggage. Jonathan asked me who I wanted to have blow it up, and I suggested the British Army. Jonathan phoned them up, and they said we should come to the Army School of Ammunition in Banbury. By the time we got there, they’d already decided to do it. I had some shed-builders construct a composite shed for me. The objects came from boot sales where people were selling things from their own sheds. A few friends gave me things from their sheds, like pushchairs and motorbikes. It was a bit of a crowd-sourced piece in a way.

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We did the explosion in a big open field. The Army treated it like another exercise. A few friends came along, plus some journalists. Major Doug Hewitt, who oversaw the project, was there. Sadly, he has died, but I still keep in touch with his daughters. There was also a group of Kenyan soldiers who were there training; they were very puzzled. The major said, “Oh, this is what we do in Britain—we have this ritual where we blow up sheds.” It was so funny; everyone was having a joke. It was quite joyous.

The show at Chisenhale was two weeks after the explosion. The materials got taken straight to the gallery and laid out on the floor. It smelled of explosives and looked very menacing, as if a disaster had happened. Once we put the work in the air, it stopped being like a morgue and became more like a dynamic display. I also didn’t realize how much the shadows would play into the work. That was really lovely to see.

—As told to Leigh Anne Miller


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