Exhibition Announcement – Airship Dreams: Escaping Gravity
The Higgins Bedford
Sat 10 July – Sun 28 November 2021
A new large scale artwork by Mike Stubbs exploring the spectacle and utopianism of UK airship heritage.
Recreating a drifty and dreamy sensation like sailing through space, Airship Dreams: Escaping Gravity explores a fascination with airships and the human desire for progress, adventure and the unknown.
Escaping Gravity is commissioned by Bedford Creative Arts in partnership with The Higgins Bedford and the Airship Heritage Trust. It forms part of Airship Dreams, a place-making project exploring Bedford’s identity as the historical centre of the UK’s airship industry, past and present. Mike Stubbs worked over a three-year period getting to know the community and the history that has inspired the project.
In the 1920s the airship was considered the future of aviation and Bedford’s role as the UK’s global airship hub seemed certain. The giant Cardington Sheds, just outside Bedford, were home to the R101, which at the time was the largest airship being developed. However, the ambitious Air Minister Lord Thomson determined the airship should sail before it was fully ready and on the night of 4 October 1930 (90 years ago), the R101 crashed on its way to Karachi. 48 men died, including Lord Thomson. It was the end of the UK’s airship programme and Bedford’s airship dreams.
Artist Mike Stubbs was brought up in Bedford and leads in a collaboration with artists Roger Illingworth, Roland Denning, Dave Lynch, Rob Strachan and Sam Weihl. The work presents as an audio-visual immersive artwork and newly composed symphony that rises and falls as a metaphor for the life of the R101 airship. The images within the work are suggestive of the R101 and Cardington sheds with the themes birth, death and rebirth echoing the lifecycle of the airship.
The film is created in Unreal Engine, the gaming software that Fortnite is built on. Audiences enter a sculptural space, with the video projection filling one wall of the gallery. Choral voices combine with audio reminiscent of airship engines and wind, creating a mythical and meditative journey, as though sailing through an imaginary space on the R101.
In making this work, Stubbs interrogates the tension that existed between the optimism of pioneering endeavour and the consequences of hubris, ambition and folly behind the Imperial Airship Scheme of the 1920s, as a reflection on our contemporary political and cultural landscape.
In the Higgins Connections Gallery, visitors can explore the community-curated archive of airship artefacts and memorabilia, with many items donated by airship enthusiasts from the local community and around the world.