'...exceptional quality' Scotsman, Edinburgh
'An artistic triumph ... gives the fleeting impression of other people's lives passing before your eyes' Glasgow Herald
AwardsBest Film, Nova Scotia Best Portrait, Montreal
CreditsDirector: Mark Littlewood Narrator/Participant: Tom McKendrick Original music: John Russell: Tom McKendrick
Catalog number # 639
52 minutes Color
Age Range: 12 to Adult
Closed Captions and Interactive Transcript
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These things are really ugly but that's part of the attraction for me. They're powerful and they're brutal and they're vulnerable at the same time. I can think of no other machine that provokes such a wide range of human emotions than a submarine.
The submarine to me is the symbol of destruction. It is the complete opposite spectrum of the things I'm engaged in - being closely involved with creation I must try in many ways to approach and have a look at destruction.
About two years ago I had a basic idea that there was something here that I wanted to delve into. I mean the ships on Clydeside had died, the submarine on Clydeside has grown and continues to grow. And there was something that had to be said about the relationship. I felt between the ship and the submarine.
I try and make my exhibitions as broad based as possible because I feel that art in many ways has become an exclusive club. It always intrigues me that when you start to talk people or you show them something, how quickly they become involved in it - and they don't need a lot, they need a sound, they need an insight, perhaps they need a title, perhaps they recognize something that is meaningful to them.
In the context of the exhibition the paintings are supposed to be there as the ghosts of dead ships, they're supposed to be there remnants of past happenings, they are wounded, they are dead or some act has happened to them. The submarines have died killing the ships the ships are dead they are, in a sense they are all victims. Living in a place like Clydebank you must be aware of death. The fact that a blitz had taken place here and so many people had died you couldn't not be aware of anything other than death. But it's not an obsession with death, it's in the realization that this span is finite. 7 years before I was born my home town of Clydebank was almost completely destroyed.
You know there was places we played as children where it was sensed that some dreadful things had happened there and the kids never actually played in these places and they kept away from them. It was strange. So I grew up with this strange impression that the whole world had been literally destroyed in the blitz and that this was normal so that type of destruction was just my normal environment.
l think I was not so much a loner but a very singular sort of person in that I was never really interested to any great degree in being involved in mass games you know, I was never a football fanatic or anything like that. I always had this urge to just be quiet and go away and look at things and draw things. The first time I came across a submarine was in childhood. It was a pleasure shared by a generation, the Kelloggs freebee baking soda submarine. See the thing was, if you wanted a good collection you'd to eat Corn Flakes. So you almost put yourself in to this bizarre circumstance where y'know "What would you like for your dinner." y'know "Cornflakes, mammy" "What would you like for your breakfast" "Cornflakes, mammy" "What would you like for your tea" "Cornflakes". I mean I'd vast collections of these things - counting them every day, 50, 60.
I'll never really forget that day, that chilly Friday in December in 1963. Ejected from school and on the following Monday laid in with my wee tea can and my piece. I sort of shuffled my wimpish frame through the gatehouse of the mighty John Brown Shipyard to be apprenticed. An apprenticeship is a strange sort of thing - it's sort of taken into care and taken the mickey cut of simultaneously.
Here was this ribbon of land one mile long and by about a quarter of a mile wide and we're 10.000 men packed into that and it was really quite a unique experience for a young innocent guy like me walking into a place like this. These men had been in a war and they'd fought all over this planet and they'd an incredible wealth of experience.
I think this shows, especially if you go abroad and they ask you where you come from and you say Glasgow. "Where's Glasgow?" "Clydebank" "Where's Clydebank?" and you say "Where the big ships were built. Queen er." "Oh that place, ah we know it fine. We all had a great pride in their work and I think it was a good thing for the firm that they were all proud of the parts they were doing building the ship, from the drafter right down to the laborers we're all doing our wee bit. It's really tough you know the old saying "It's tough at the top" by Christ, I know it, I've been down there lots of times. I worked with a wee carpenter who'd been torpedoed 8 times in the Atlantic. And the 8th time he was torpedoed the police went up to his door to tell his wife. The sergeant tapped the door and said "Mary, it's your man, he's been torpedoed again, but don't worry hen, we think he's ok". She turned round and said "I'm no worried sergeant, shit floats". The thing that intrigued me in the shipyards was this incredible accuracy. I mean here your dealing with y'know 60 and 70 ton chunks of steel and they've been heated red hot and they've been molded and they're bent but they are, the powers are enormous but it's such a delicate operation in that these units have got to fit together to one eighth of an inch. It always amused me greatly the working class attitude towards Art. I remember a journeyman I worked with for several years. He said to me "Tom. What do you want to be when you grow up?" I says "I want to be an Artist" he says "Well watch it son, that game is fair louping with Nancy boys".
There was several things even in my own family. I remember my auntie Cissy saying to my mother "My God that boy of yours is an awful dreamer, but don't worry about it Rachel, these arty types are always a bit weird". I think when you work in a shipyard you become attuned to shapes, you become attuned to the shapes that are the jigsaw pieces that construct a ship. Look at this, this is what remains of the shipyard I worked in 22 years ago. It's decayed, it's broken, it's smashed. To me it still has an interest, an alive interest. Look at these things across here. These things are called rams. It was things like this that first gave a boat its first push during a launch. Some of these would be responsible for pushing the great Cunarders, the Queen's, maybe even ships like the Hood. They're massive things, they've got lovely color, lovely surfaces, and all these wee coats and all these wee lovely textures are really really important as far as I'm concerned, when I think about painting anything or creating anything that's got to do with shipyards.
This gates probably been painted about, oh, 20 or 30 times. There's a nice wee bit here where somebody has probably in a bad temper or something like that and has actually burnt and scarred a hole in the gate and its melted the tar coating and it's all started to run into the rust and peel of the paint and it really has its own sort of fascinating beauty. I like that, that's 'interesting. There's other bits on this door, equally fascinating I mean, there's a lot of human endeavor in this there's hours and hours of people painting, men would have swung open this door, shut it, battered things into it, messed about with it, painted it, scrawled graffiti on it, these sort of things have a history all on their own, and to me have a "certain special kind of life you just wouldn't find in any other kind of industry.
In a shipyard you paint walls with any convenient color of pain you've got, you can see under here a sort of reddy pink that's really is quite nice and then there's battleship grey, and obviously during the war years that would have been the predominant color in the shipyard. Again it's rusted, you've got some of the yellow paint running through here and obviously the roof's leaking and there's a lot of water about and it's running and streaking and all these little multicolor streaks of paint have got their own kind of small sort of intimate streaks of beauty. To me that, that I find quite intriguing. Look at the plum red of these colors in here. Obviously the rust washing of the pipe and going onto the yellow paint the water on the surface corroding and eroding it. I find that fascinating.
The forces used to build ships are really at time quite violent and quite dangerous and something in its life has smashed into the side of this and it's literally just sliced into it like a bit of paper. That's about a quarter of an inch thick steel and it's just straight through. But it's nice, it's got a beauty all of its own. It's almost a kind of sculpted cut. If you look at this great boiler shape here. I mean the surface of this again has got all sorts of coats of paint in it and it's been scraped and bashed against and it's got a kind of black oily surface. But you've got this warmth of this rich rust color beginning to break through this. Lovely mark made by a weld here. Across here there's another lovely surface this pitted orange surface of this huge boiler and it really is, it's an extraordinary color. You'll never really see a color like that anywhere else other than in a place like a shipyard. There's another example of the same thing across here, except some of the paint remains on it and some of these wee areas I mean, they're almost like abstract paintings in their own right. There's a huge battleship grey boiler but the weather has got to it, it's started to erode, it's started to corrode, the rust's started to come through it's started to run over the grey paint and you get all these beautiful mixes of color of oranges and greys as they run together. Across here there's a nice band of rivets, lovely, lovely looking thing.
Into this piece of water behind me the pride of Clyde was launched, mighty Cunarders, huge battleships, thousands and thousand tons of steel were launched down this slipway. And on these very stocks the Lusitania was built.
In the first and most shocking submarine atrocity was the torpedoing of the Lusitania with the loss of over 1.000 civilian lives.
The Lusitania is really part of Clydebank folklore. The two things that probably remembered the most was the fact that it was such an incredible atrocity being the first civilian ship that was torpedoed and also the fact that it was a particularly beautiful ship. At 2.25 Captain Schweiger the commander of U - 20 noted in his log-book: "It seemed as if the vessel would only be afloat for a short time, we submerged to 24 meters then out to sea. They could not have fired another torpedo into this throng of humanity attempting to save themselves." In these moments of shocked realization this once comical tin can had come of age. An awesome new weapon was born. The ancient dream of warring men to strike a death blow unseen had become a reality. Aesthetics has always been a part of weapon making, right from the very beginning when man became a toolmaker. He took his axes and he smoothed and honed them beyond functional need and it's always been like that through history, the sword beautifully ornate decorative, even all right up to modern times, the Spitfire with its graceful lines but when you come to the submarine, there's a different sort of aesthetic, consideration, aesthetics are cast out of window because what you see behind me is man's attempt at the pursuit of invisibility. Invisibility does not need aesthetics. As man became the conqueror of the seas it was inevitable that his attentions would return to explore the mysteries of its depths, and it was this tantalizing desire that gave birth to the submarine. The Bone submarine was basically a rowing boat and it was covered in sort of grease skins and it had side tanks in it that were made of leather, and these would fill with water and the wee ship would actually sink and inside it would be the oarsman and they would row the ship underwater and I loved the kind of quaint phrase of the time that actually describes the submarine: "that it may go under the water unto the bottom and so that it can come up again at your pleasure". The De Son submarine is where the idea of the submarine turns to a weapon of war. This was this great huge 72ft long submarine that was worked with a clockwork engine and it was supposed to be a formidable weapon that De Son claimed "Doth undertake in one day to destroy a hundred ships with the speed of a bird, be immune to fire, storm and bullet unless it pleased God". But unfortunately the clockwork engine wasn't strong enough and the actual thing never moved.
The David submarine was so called because it was thought to be a giant killer. These small submarines were known as the "Confederate infernal machines". Basically it was a small boat, a steam engine inside it and on the front of this it had a huge pole called a spar torpedo. Now this was a real Kami-Kazi weapon because the people who operated the submarine were never any further than 20 feet away from the explosion and the loss of life operating these things was really quite dramatic. The interesting thing about the British Resurgam was that it was built by a man of the "Cloth", the Reverend George Garrett, and he was challenged about building a destructive weapon but he claimed that every contribution made by science to improve instruments of war made war shorter and in the endless terrible to human life and human progress. Unfortunately the Resurgam sank on its maiden voyage killing everybody in it. The most significant thing about the First World War U-boat was this was when the weapon came of age. This was really when the submarine turned from an idea into an awesome new weapon and the most amazing killing potential. It was submarines like this that sent 6,000 merchant men to a watery grave and also sank the Lusitania.
If there was such a thing as a beautiful submarine then for me it would be the British U-Class. There is just something about the lines and the shape of this submarine that I really find quite intriguing even although it's a killing machine. Unfortunately 14 of these wee ships were lost in the Mediterranean. Everything that's ever been designed by men has been designed for the needs of men except the submarine. If you think of the motor car for instance it is designed round legs arms feet, how it works and how it functions. The submarine completely disobeys these rules and regulations. This was designed primarily as a weapon, men were injected into the submarine as an afterthought.
First thing you do to build a submarine is you take a block of clay. The thing that intrigues me about the block of clay is its totally formless. Here you've got a soft malleable material and you really have got to make it think your way that its dead, its inanimate, it's just a piece of matter. And I love the idea of taking something like that and molding it and controlling it. I find it really intriguing to actually lift this out the water and say "look at this" y'know because that's part and parcel of my job, just really bringing people's attention to these things and eh in many ways they are quite beautiful. You build the shell and after you've built the shell you put bulkheads in the inside of it and then you join the two halves together and it's, and it's very very similar to the shipbuilding process. The shell structured and supported on the inside by bulkheads. The shape that you see externally is not the real shape of the submarine, the shape of the submarine is a torpedo shape. Everything else, the decking, the conning tower and everything else that's built on to it is really superfluous. I mean, this is the best example of the idea of a submarine being a machine and men being sort of put into it as an afterthought there's nothing to do with anything of human consideration in here. This is literally a machine and walking through this is literally like walking through the guts of some grey huge mechanical beast it really is quite frightening to actually be in this kind of claustrophobic atmosphere.
When you turn them upside down and you're working on them you become aware of the fact that this is designed to cut through water. It has this ship shape, it has this sort of nice round long slim practical shape for the job that it does. When I sculpt a submarine I exaggerate the features that are submarine features. It's like making a portrait or almost a cartoon of something. There's things that you see on these submarines that ' you would not normally see in life. You wouldn't see the seams, you wouldn't see this particular bit of the conning tower you wouldn't see the cable cutters. So I take these things and I make them a little larger than life. In the oceans that surrounds us are literally thousands and thousands of carcasses of dead submarines. Fouled with crews, British, German, Dutch, they're all there.
Behind me you can clearly see the killing end of the submarine and it bears a remarkable resemblance to a shark. The torpedo tubes, they've got hatches on them just now, but when these are open you can see the 2 gaping holes from which the torpedoes would have been fired. And it was boats very similar to this that sank 25 and a half million tons of shipping in the Second World War. And it's this method of sinking, this creeping stalking and killing that frightens a lot of people about the submarine because it's really an assassin's form of attack. You can imagine being encased in a space like this in the middle of a depth charge attack, it must have been absolutely terrifying, the claustrophobia, the cramped conditions, the heat, the sweat and this is one of the great ironies of submarine warfare, y'know it's a form of attack that has all the hallmarks of cowardice but you've really got to be very brave to take part in it.
I love the idea of actually "taking a piece of clay and molding it into something, and y'know heating it to thousands of degrees and it, the thing actually vitrifies and turns to stone, and it's almost like a fossil, and y'know there's all that kind of play in there about fossils tell time y'know have their own place in time, in space, and the idea that they're sitting in there almost red hot really was one of the fundamental ideas that brought about the exhibition in the way that it evolved. When I worked in the shipyards I worked with lots of men who'd been in convoys in the Atlantic and had been torpedoed. And they said that the two things that you feared most was that when you hit the water it was sometimes so cold that you could literally feel your skeleton in seconds and the other was black diesel oil which to them was known as the blood of dead ships which would go into your nose, into your eyes, and into your lungs and cause you the most incredible pain.
I was walking along the shore and I found a letter being washed up and I picked it up and I looked at it just out of idle curiosity, and it was a love letter from a sailor to his girlfriend. And I just happened to be talking to somebody about this and they said that it was a common occurrence during the war years all around the British Isles because there had been so many ships sunk, the artifacts and personal possessions and mementos were constantly washed up on the shores that surrounded this island. I tend to surround myself with all the sources that I would use in a paintings - sometimes these are perhaps sounds, sometimes they're shapes, sometimes they are pieces of texture so when I'm thinking in terms of painting a painting, I don't necessarily think of an image. I try and perceive what I think the feel or the mood of the paintings got to be. In fact it might be a noise it may be a small piece of metal, it may be a flake of colored paint - and it's a mixture of all these ingredients that create the image.
Painting to me is a working process, and anything that I can use to make a creative mark I'll use. Most people tend to think that my paintings are abstract paintings, but eh, they are only abstract because people are unaware of the sources that I use to paint them, eh, to me my paintings are real. That is the way I see things, I don't know how to see any other way, but by looking at these very kind of intimate surfaces and very intimate textures and intimate colors. I feel that em, you the painting itself becomes an object it's not representational of something like this is a bit of a boat, or this is a human beings had, the painting itself actually becomes the object. It is the Art. It reproduces nothing, it is an entity in its own right. They are almost religious paintings in the sense that they are icons. The way I like to think of them is - is like the sea erodes and dissolves and breaks down and takes things back to its basic elements, and eh, I like to think of the idea of these great huge ships becoming weak, becoming weak, becoming eroded y'know turning to dust, collapsing being eaten by bacteria, being used and dissolving almost. The paintings are really the building up of all these basic elements, there's pieces of rust on them, there's pieces of painted metal, there's all kinds of encrusted crustaceans, and growths and there's sand embossed and all sorts of textural things that you would expect to find in a painting of that nature. It's very much a kind of developmental thing, I tend to be a water color painter. The reason I like painting in watercolors is because they have this degree of transparency in them. So if I'm painting in maybe 10-20 layers of paint I can create a greater feeling of depth. I suppose my style has is involved, there are certain distinguishing marks like the use of heavy paint, they heavy use of texture but eh, for each individual aspect of the work I've got to develop a new way of saying things.
I just look at things, when I mean look at things, I mean it's not only physical things, its emotional things, its perceptive things and I tend to take these things and turn them into a solid visual form. And it took me a long time to evolve a painterly language like the techniques that I used in the Grave of the Undersea Boats. The oceans reveal nothing of the fates of men in ships. No crosses or flowers to mark the last resting places of many heroes who lie in their riddled and shattered steel coffins.
The Grave of the Undersea Boats is where the submarines go when they die. I invented this object which I called the Armaggeddon Clock, it plays the part of God. The Great All Seeing Eye that looks out into the purgatory of the submarine Hell and it also ticks away time because the submarines are blind but the gentle swinging of the pendulum and the ticking of the clock allow them to know that time is passing in this undersea world. My job as an artist is not to draw conclusions for other people. Obviously in an exhibition like this, what it does is illustrates the questions, it's up to other people to find their own answers. "When the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hell delivered you the dead which were in them and they were judged every man according to their works".
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