It looms high above the Grand Pier and makes the big wheel on the seafront look tiny. As it has taken shape on the beach at Weston-super-Mare, See Monster – a decommissioned North Sea gas platform converted into one of the UK’s biggest public art installations – has provoked a heady mix of head-scratching, interest and ire.
Finally, after delays caused by the vagaries of this summer’s extreme weather (too hot at times, too windy at others), visitors are being invited this weekend to clamber onboard.
Patrick O’Mahony, the project’s creative director, accepted the piece would not be to everyone’s taste. “We knew that it’s going to split opinion. I’d rather people love or hate it rather than being indifferent. There’s nothing worse than doing something that people have no reaction to.”
The installation is the ninth produced as part of the Unboxed: Creativity in the UK series – aka the Festival of Brexit – which has attracted widespread criticism and ridicule, not least because of the cost of the project: a whopping £120m to the taxpayers of the four UK nations.
O’Mahony said he was sad that Unboxed had been mocked. “We’re close to the other nine commissions. Art and entertainment have had a very tough time and to get this level of investment in the sector has been amazing. Years of work have gone into these projects. People should be judged on the work.”
People have been judging See Monster since the 450-tonne platform was hauled to the Somerset town in July, transported from the North Sea on a barge larger than a football pitch. The scale makes it hard to ignore – at 35 meters, it is 15 meters taller than the Angel of the North.
Artists, engineers and gardeners have created a 10 meter-high waterfall, representing the monster’s roar, and 6,000 pieces of aluminum that shimmer in the wind like the scales of a mythical beast. The platform’s 16-meter crane boom is the creature’s neck and head.
Other features include a cloud machine, a garden of trees and grasses, sculptures, and contraptions that produce renewable energy to power at least some of the installation. BBC Radio’s shipping forecast is piped on to the helipad at the top, which boasts wonderful views across to the hills of Somerset, Devon and south Wales.
The idea is to provoke conversations about subjects such as how industrial structures could be re-purposed, how the world must move from fossil fuels, sustainability and the British weather.
Ironies bound. Not least the fact that renewable energy is a key theme of this government-backed installation – but the UK business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has made it clear he wants to squeeze “every last cubic inch of gas” from the North Sea, using platforms just like this one.
Ella Gilbert, a climate scientist at the British Antarctic Survey and an adviser to See Monster, would not directly criticize the UK government but said: “The science is very clear. We need to move away from fossil fuels. We need to very dramatically upscale our ambition when it comes to climate change. This is a creative way of illustrating how we do that.”
Another irony is that while sustainability is another theme, See Monster’s sojourn in Weston will be very brief. There are concerns that its hulking presence could have a negative impact on the wading birds that overwinter here, so come the start of November it will be closed.
New homes for the plants and the artwork will be found but the platform itself will be cut up and the pieces trucked away to be recycled. The makers insist that while their monster will vanish, the lessons they have learned will be used by people across the world to turn disused platforms into art installations, hotels or diving platforms.
Until it disappears, it is hoped See Monster will provide the same lift for Weston that Banksy’s Dismaland – a twisted version of Disneyland – did in 2015.
“That brought in a different type of tourist to Weston,” said Walter Byron, who is acting as a See Monster host. “I’d like it to stay and put a restaurant on the top.”
A second host, Sarah Windall, who also works as a supply teacher, said: “There’s been a lot of skepticism. Some people complain that the money for it is coming out of their taxes but I think it’s a clever way of looking to the future through art.”
Among those watching as the final touches were being made to the monster was Elaine Day, a Weston resident celebrating her 76th birthday with a trip to see how work was progressing.
“It’s something different,” she said. “I think it’s good for the town. People have been coming here on their holidays and saying: ‘What’s that thing up there?’ It’s putting Weston on the map.”