The end of a dream: Dreamspace turns into a nightmare

When Maurice Agis created his inflatable installation, little did he suspect that making art more accessible might have fatal consequences
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The Independent Online

The 74-year-old artist Maurice Agis has been making public art projects for the past 40 years and creating dream-like confections of PVC and light for a decade.

In towns and cities across Europe, the large inflatable constructions he calls Dreamspaces have been received with enthusiasm by 250,000 visitors.

They are intended to be fun, colourful and accessible, contemporary art of a variety that anybody can enjoy. Dreamspace V was designed as a celebration of the past decade's work - "the latest and most ambitious stage of a continuously evolving public artwork".

But with two women dead and a dozen recovering from serious injuries after Sunday's tragic accident in the Riverside Park, County Durham, the dream has turned tragically sour.

The giant walk-through sculpture which tore free from its moorings, flying into the air with 30 people inside, was yesterday being examined by specialist engineers and detectives appointed to the joint investigation by Durham police and the Health and Safety Executive.

"The deflated structure, ropes and anchor pins have been taken into possession by the police," an HSE spokesman said.

As a consequence, the next leg in the interactive sculpture's three-stop tour - to Victoria Park in Hackney, east London - has been cancelled.

The artist, who witnessed the accident and tried desperately to intervene, was said to be utterly distraught. Paloma Brotons, his girlfriend, said he was "suffering terribly" and could not understand what had gone wrong.

"I saw him flying with it and I thought he was going to be killed," she told the London Evening Standard. "There was a team of us that helped to tie the structure to the ground, we even used more ropes because it was hot.

"We can't understand what's happened. Maurice is in mourning. He is in a terrible way. He is too upset to talk, I doubt he will be able to talk about this for a very long time."

Artistic experimentation with light, colour and a special musical score by American-born British-based composer Stephen Montague had proved an unexpected danger.

Yet there had been nothing in previous Dreamspaces to suggest the risk. Instead, visitors usually rhapsodised over the vast PVC cathedral, an air-filled maze of pods or rooms whose different colours played off the bib or cape each visitor wore.

Some of those who have experienced Dreamspace use the psychedelic language more akin to the Sixties to convey the sensation. "It's very womb-like and trippy. It's dreamy, a really nice vibe," one said. Previous visitors have likened the experience of walking through the labyrinth of coloured caverns to standing inside a rainbow fish.

And for those who described it as a bouncy castle, Agis was equally welcoming, relishing the interaction between ordinary members of the public and his sculpture, even though he attributes the intellectual underpinning of his work to the Constructivist and De Stijl Schools of abstraction, rather than the playground.

The Arts Council of England's decision to support the project was easy and it awarded it £60,000. A spokesman said that the application for a touring grant to help take Dreamspace V to Liverpool, Chester-le-Street and then London, had scored very highly.

He said: "Maurice Agis has a 40-year track record of doing public art work of quality. We liked what he was doing artistically. It's very accessible, very immediate, very emotional."

"He's internationally acclaimed and very successful in terms of visitor numbers. The works he's exhibited have done very well in terms of getting people to see it. It was a genuinely attractive proposition."

Agis, who was born in London in 1931, trained at St Martin's School of Art with further studies in Holland and taught for several years before turning to his art full-time.

In the Sixties, he was exhibited amid his cutting edge contemporaries at the Institute of Contemporary Art and included in shows organised by the Arts Council. Over the years, he mixed shows at the Barbican, London, or the Lincoln Centre, New York, with international commissions from Berlin, Brisbane and Los Angeles.

For 12 years he worked with fellow artist Peter Jones on award-winning installations described as "abstract walk-through spaces" which prefigured his work on Dreamspaces. He created his first solo walk-in sculpture, Colourspace, in 1980.

The first Dreamspace appeared in 1996 as a commission for Copenhagen as European city of culture and more have followed. The television illusionist Derren Brown has featured one of the constructions on his television show and one was created in 2004 as an arts education project at Haggerston Girls School in Hackney, east London.

At 2,500 square metres, about half a football pitch, in 157 ovoid cells constructed from translucent PVC sheets, Dreamspace V was the most ambitious yet. As with its predecessors, the work required visitors to remove their shoes and don a bib or cape in which to roam freely through the colourful cells.

What particularly appealed to the Arts Council about this tour was the way it would take contemporary art to people who may not otherwise see it. "Chester-le-Street has no visual arts infrastructure at all - it has no buildings, no galleries. It is a deprived area," the spokesman said.

As part of the process of awarding grants, officers always take into account issues such as public liability insurance and safety issues, he added.

Dreamspace V, had already been displayed at Liverpool Cathedral last month, where the only problem had been one of vandalism. Hours before it was due to go on show youths broke through hoardings and slashed the inflatable with knives. Emergency repairs were carried out before it opened to the public.

Whether that incident had any bearing on Sunday's accident remains to be seen, but police said that they would be exploring every avenue to get to the bottom of the tragedy.

They had no indication that the sculpture had been tampered with, but they also said they had not ruled out foul play. Chief Inspector Trevor Watson said that he was keeping an open mind.

There have been rumours that mooring ropes may have been loosened shortly before the structure left the ground. Some witnesses reported hearing loud cracks as if ropes were snapping.

But such was the confusion that it has not even been confirmed whether the women who died, named last night as Claire Furmedge, 38, and Elizabeth Collings, 68, both from County Durham, fell from the inflatable or were crushed. Both had been inside with children prior to the accident.

"We will have search teams back at the scene today going through everything to see if there is anything that will assist us in determining the cause," Chief Inspector Watson said.

The police hope some of the hundreds of people in the park who captured the incident on mobile phones and cameras may hold vital clues, and last night appealed for people with potentially useful footage to come forward.

Chester-le-Street District Council also set up a trauma helpline to assist those who witnessed what happened and might need professional counselling.

The spokesman for the Arts Council said that they would be doing everything they could to cooperate with the inquiry.

But what the tragedy means for future projects of a similar nature remains to be decided.

The spokesman said: "It is important for everyone to learn whatever lessons can be learnt from this terrible incident. We are absolutely determined that any findings and recommendations that are made will be implemented to ensure that nothing like this happens again."

Chloe Wilson, a seven-year-old girl who witnessed the inflatable soar into the air, returned to the scene yesterday to lay flowers. She said: "There were loads of people running about and we tried to run towards it after it came down on the ground. Lots of people were trying to rip it open with their hands and little knives and I was asking if I could help," she said.

"It was very scary and people were screaming. I saw a lady clinging on and then falling out and she was lying on the ground with people around her. I think she died. I really wanted to come here today and put some flowers down."

Meanwhile, Lee Wright, father of the badly injured three-year-old, Rosie, thanked the passing anaesthetist who helped save her life by advising paramedics and travelling to hospital with her by helicopter.

Mr Wright, 34, from Langley Park near Durham said: "I cannot remember his name but he said he was just walking through the park. He was telling the paramedics what to do and he put a tube down her throat, it was absolutely horrible."

Rosie and her four-year-old brother Jack had just entered the Dreamspace with Mr Wright's ex-wife Penny when the inflatable took off. After the accident, Mr Wright dashed to the scene to discover what he described as a "disaster zone" with "bodies everywhere".

Rosie, whose injuries may have been caused when she collided with a metal fan, has a broken leg, a broken right thigh, a slight fracture to the pelvis, multiple fractured ribs, a punctured lung and small spinal fractures. "She's as good as she can be at this stage," Mr Wright said.

He added: "Jack has not got a scratch on him, but he was in loads of shock."