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By Lorna Hogger on

Wonderlab’s spiky inflatable sculpture: Mass by Steve Messam

Masterplan Interpretation Manager Lorna Hogger delves into the creative process behind Steve Messam's sculpture Mass.

Those who have passed through the doors of the National Railway Museum’s new Wonderlab: The Bramall Gallery since it opened in July 2023, can’t have failed to notice Steve Messam’s Mass. This huge inflatable sculpture was commissioned by the museum to interact with and respond to the old crane and wheel drop pit, distinctive features that point to the gallery’s former purpose as a locomotive workshop.

Messam’s artworks are often larger than life, and respond to their surroundings to make us think about the space they occupy and the environment around us, with their voluminous, joyful forms. His previous works have spanned bridges, enrobed buildings and bridged lakes. For us, Messam proposed that his sculpture for Wonderlab be bold and vibrant, wrapping around the top of the crane, with spiky limbs that extend over the gallery exhibits to surprise and delight visitors. It points to all directions of the gallery, saying ‘look here, and here’, like a big bang in the middle of the gallery.

An inflatable orange sculpture from the side angle.
Steve Messam’s Mass. A large spiky inflatable reaching out across Wonderlab.

The sculpture wraps itself around a bridge that crosses over the old wheel drop pit, so visitors can walk through it, looking up inside to experience its hollow form. The volume of air inside the sculpture is 100 cubic meters, and this air along with the fabric are all that hold up the work. Inside, Mass is beautiful too. We can see how it clings tightly to the crane beam above, and each of its many seams that pull the pieces together, we can also get a glimpse inside those huge spikes stretching outwards. Mass invites visitors to question: what is it, why is it here, how was it made, and how does it stay up.

Wonderlab is a gallery about engineering and engineering habits of mind, and you can’t create a piece of art on this scale without some visualising, design and problem-solving skills. This film shows us Messam’s thinking behind the sculpture as well as some of the making process at the Cameron Balloons factory in Bristol.

Here at the National Railway Museum, the Wonderlab team firmly believe that we can find engineering everywhere in our daily lives. In our railways and transport systems, in our homes and our hobbies, but equally in the art that we make and experience. Next time you see some art, take a few moments to slow down and really experience what you’re seeing. What questions does it bring to mind and how can it make you think differently?

Messam’s artworks are all about looking and experiencing, which feels completely appropriate for a children’s gallery. Our hope is that it provides a big wow when visitors enter, and sets the tone for a playful and exploratory time in Wonderlab.

An inflatable orange sculpture which is able to be walked through.
Visitors are able to walk underneath the sculpture to experience its hollow form.

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