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A Curious Calling: Ben Wilson, Chewing-Gum Man

Xanthi Barker finds herself in a sticky situation

Written by . Published on October 10th 2011.


A Curious Calling: Ben Wilson, Chewing-Gum Man

PERHAPS our lives would have been greatly improved had some town council originally decided to produce polka-dot pavements. Maybe we’d all walk around bare-foot and grin big hellos to strangers. (Or walk into traffic staring at the ground... Who knows?) Anyway, the pavements were born in that delightful shade of muck and soon enough people took it upon themselves to complete the decoration – by spitting chewing gum all over them. Which is probably not the most attractive form of polka-dotting.

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Some councils have invested in high pressure power hoses to blast the streets clean, others have placed boards up for people to stick their gum onto. But apart from the precarious nature of getting your hand that close to a mass of chewed gum, such boards are not exactly less of an eyesore. In 2004, North London artist, Ben Wilson, had a better idea. Instead of trying to defeat the gum, he has been transforming it – into miniature masterpieces, commissioned by anyone who asks. You can catch him lying on the pavements of Muswell Hill or Goodge Street (or even the faculty of architecture in Belgrade), wrapped up in paint-splattered coat and trousers, turning the most banal form of vandalism into what could be the sweetest form of environmental art.

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Why did you start on chewing gum?
I couldn’t believe at first that’s what it was. I observed it over a period of time, thinking – is that chewing gum? Have people done that? I couldn’t believe that people had created that. All these people had effected their environment in this way. People feel powerless in their environment but the fact that anyone’s done this – I found that quite exciting. They’d had an impact. Whether or not it’s a positive or negative impact, people have made something happen in a direct way. Think how different our environment could be if people started thinking in a different way. Just with one small action it’s amazing what different things could happen. In a sense, I’m taking one thoughtless action and transforming it into something quite different.

Like if instead of throwing coke cans onto the floor, people first twist them into beautiful flower shapes?
Or utilised it in some way – used it to make a house or some strange vehicle. I don’t know! The more that one can promote creative thinking in relation to one’s environment the better. I did a lot of work in Hadley Wood and traveled around America and Australia building sculptures out of wood. When you create something in an environment you realise you aren’t imposing an idea on something, the actual work comes out of the environment, and it hasn’t necessarily to do with you. When you’re working in that way you get strong connections to the environment in which you are working. I would feel a strong emotional connection with those places that I worked and all sorts of things would happen.

What kind of things?
I made a man on a horse in this clearing and I found a horseshoe underneath the horse after I’d completed it. It was deep down in the ground. The horseshoe was about 250 years old so I took it to a museum. I would always be dealing with the kids in the area. Kids would always be smashing up sculptures. Most of the work I did with wood all ended up getting burnt down or smashed up and I spent more time rebuilding the work than I spent making it in the first place. It was years of continuous conflict. You’d go into these hidden beautiful places. Most people would be really positive about it but you’d always get a few going, “Burn it! Let’s burn it down.” It can be a nice thing to smash something up – in another way, people get enjoyment out of the work so...

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Is that why you moved on to painting gum?
I started working more and more with rubbish because I was always picking it up. I started making pictures out of cigarette butts. Then I was working with tin cans and crisp packets. Painting on chewing gum and working with the material which was in the environment seemed a natural thing to do.

There’s so much rubbish it’s kind of an endless resource...
Well, in a way there shouldn’t really be that word. There’s too much packaging. But I realised that technically if I painted on chewing gum it was not criminal damage. Plus it’s something very small someone can walk by and not necessarily see. I liked that idea. I was always afraid with larger scale work about the impact it would have on the environment. If there are a lot of pictures in one area it’s because the pictures are to do with the people and the environment in which they’ve been created. They’re all requests. If a person comes up and asks I try and do it straight away but if I can’t, I write it down in my request book. But there’s so many. I’ve got a backlog.

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How many have you done in total?
Tens of thousands. They take from three days to half an hour to do. And all the greys in between.

So it’s a bit like a Bayeux Tapestry of the High Street...
In the end, it’s demonstrating that art does fulfill a need in the community. It’s about creative thinking, not just regurgitating information. With education it becomes all very prescribed. People are already there; just by being who they are they can make amazing things happen.

Ideally, what we need is people thinking of creative ways of problem solving in our environment. Not just accepting the way things are now. Advertising makes people think that they have to have all these things. The thing that I value is time, the ability to explore in my own capacity, to absorb what’s around me rather than living a passive life. We live in a time where it’s almost like the virtual world versus the real world and people become disconnected from their environment. To have a sense of belonging to an environment you have to spend time in it. I suppose what I’m about is direct action. I found a way. I didn’t have to get into a gallery. I just work directly in my own time.

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Do you have a particular street you’d like to paint chewing gum on?
I would like to do one whole road. I’ve done a lot on the Millennium Bridge, maybe thirty. I’d like to go from one end to the other. The gums are in these little geometric shapes because it’s got a metal tread, so the pictures are always surprising.

Follow @XanthiBarker on Twitter!

To read about more curious callings, please click here

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