A fusion of environmentalism, creativity, fantasy and play – all sitting atop of a decommissioned North Sea rig – SEE MONSTER is one of the UK’s largest ever public artworks. We sent writer Natalie Paris to investigate.
From the moment you walk along the seafront and hear the roar of SEE MONSTER’s 10m-high waterfall, you wonder – just what is this?
Trees and foliage poke out from the hulking, rusted structure and bend in the wind that blows across the beach. As the cascade crashes down beside you, your eyes are drawn up to SEE MONSTER's scales, which shimmer and sparkle in the sun.
Rather than a monster, this giant art installation looks more like a fantastical island. It’s somehow subsumed in a cloud, but perched on stilts. Climb the stairs to enter SEE MONSTER and you soon learn that this tiny world is powered by renewable energy.
SEE MONSTER, part of UNBOXED., a celebration of UK creativity. Courtesy of Ben Birchall, PA Media
The installation is part of a Government-funded project: UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK. UNBOXED exhibits are being held across the country this year.
SEE MONSTER is one of ten major pieces of public art and is set on four levels. It has a waterfall, slide, gardens, an amphitheatre, wind turbines and a solar tree, all covered in 6,000 kinetic scales that ripple in the wind.
Weston-Super-Mare was the winner of a fiercely-fought bid to welcome SEE MONSTER. One of the aims of UNBOXED, according to Martin Green, chief creative officer, was to move ideas for creative projects out of the metropolis and into other parts of the UK.
Weston is a seaside resort, set behind a wide stretch of caramel sand. Like many of the UK’s Victorian resorts, however, it is constantly seeking ways to breathe life back into its seafront. And this 35m-high piece of conceptual art – a celebration of the weather, on legs – hopes to do just that.
Patrick O’Mahoney, Creative Director and Founder of NEWSUBSTANCE, the creative studio behind the Monster, wanted to create public art that examined the science of the weather and how it can support a sustainable future.
“The Great British weather is part of our culture,” he said. “And where can you find a more iconic example of British weather than at a British seaside town?”
So SEE MONSTER would live in Weston. The team then ambitiously obtained a decommissioned oil rig to build on, having seen pictures of rig graveyards in the sea. The build took longer than expected but in the meantime, locals were eagerly charting SEE MONSTER's progress.
First the legs went up, then eventually the 450-tonne platform arrived from across the sea, on a barge the size of a football pitch. “It was super brave and super hard,” said Patrick.
He explained that the paperwork for such a move didn’t really exist and that Weston has one of the largest tidal reaches in the world. To transport and repurpose a rig had not been done before and, according to Patrick, the project attracted interest from around the world.
Around 200,000 people have already watched SEE MONSTER grow from the seafront. One of them is Helz Jones, of The Mudlarks, a community group who swim in Weston’s newly-dredged marine lake.
“SEE MONSTER has been a real talking point,” she said. “It’s great news for Weston and will bring in money and people, further boosting what a wonderful place this is.”
SEE MONSTER is built behind the old Tropicana lido and locals remember swimming here as children. They would climb inside a giant pineapple to woosh down slides. But the pool closed in 2000, and there is no sign of outsized fruit today. Towering over the entrance instead is one of the UK’s largest public art installations.
The gorgeous views from the old helipad on top of SEE MONSTER stretch over Weston’s seafront to the Somerset hills beyond and past the islands in the bay, across to South Wales. The installations on deck, meanwhile, invite us to think about how we could harness the weather’s power.
The waterfall is on a constant cycle, with water sucked from the pool around SEE MONSTER's feet, using energy captured on board. The garden is also watered using the platform’s solar and wind technology.
“The weather is an experience that visitors can see,” said Dr Ella Gilbert, the project’s climate change advisor. With the roar of the water, “they can hear how much energy is being produced.”
A mist ring will make clouds puff from the middle of the structure and the oil rig’s original life boat hangs to one side. The New Substance team wanted to keep the rig rusty to remind visitors about the life it had previously and to make clear it had been reused. A studio at the base of the SEE MONSTER has been set up for broadcasts and lots of schools will visit.
Weston-super-Mare local, Robin Woodward, is looking forward to being a host on SEE MONSTER and hopes that visiting children might be inspired to pursue work in renewable energy. The fun of being inside the cloud machine, for example, can highlight the importance of clouds and their effect on global warming.
“Future research in this area is key to refining climate change models,” Robin said. “The rig’s solar tree and wind turbines are works of art – not the giant propellers and flat panels we usually think of. I hope that people may, in the future, have their own versions in their gardens to supplement use of the grid.”
Up to 300 people can climb onto SEE MONSTER at any one time and it is free to visit. A lift offers access for people with disabilities and parents with buggies.
“A structure like this is not meant to have people walking around it,” said Dr Amit Patel, who advised on making SEE MONSTER inclusive. “It's very industrial. I wanted to pay homage to what it actually is but also make it safe for people to walk around.”
Dr Patel, who is blind, said that exploring SEE MONSTER is an experience for all the senses. “I’ve been looking forward to hearing the waterfall,” he said.
“As you walk around, the tones change and as you get higher up, you feel the breeze, though it is still quite sheltered at the top. This project is unique but it’s also inclusive. I’m now saying to other institutions, ‘if we can do it, then why can't you?’”
Creating a garden above the sea was also no easy task. Peter Beardsley, landscape designer and greensman, described it as “a roof garden in an exposed location”.
“I wanted it to feel like a wild garden,” he said, “like mother nature had taken the rig.” Fragrant, salt-tolerant elaeagnus is found alongside eucalyptus on the lower levels. Peter envisaged a cliff edge when designing the top and included pines and plants that have a windswept feel.
“There is lots of evergreen as it will last longer,” he said, “and, of course, everything was chosen to be wind tolerant.”
A waterfall cascades from the rig. Courtesy of Ben Birchall, PA Media
SEE MONSTER will open throughout half term, 24th–28th October 2022. It'll be taken down on 5th November,
So as not to disturb the birds that winter on the coast, the rig will be recycled but the plants and trees will be moved to a garden on the beach lawn nearby. Fringe art events have been taking place in Weston all summer, while work to repair the Grade-II listed seafront shelters is ongoing.
When you walk along the beach at Weston-super-Mare and first spot SEE MONSTER, it looks unlike anything else. It is at once a remarkable engineering achievement, a creative experiment and a striking educational tool.
A sometimes controversial talking point that is colourfully-lit at night, it is also a beacon of hope for the future. “I think people will want it to stay at the end,” said North Somerset Councillor Mark Canniford. “It will very quickly become a landmark that people will miss.”
This content is brought to you in partnership with UNBOXED.