Message in a Bottle

BY TOM JOHNSON

Photo by Tom Johnson
Photo by Tom Johnson

Spiralling to a height in Middlesbrough’s Central Gardens is a giant sculpture of a bottle. At first glance, the object is tipped to an angle with white painted metal whirling around the outside, taking on the form of a glass vessel. On the inside, concealed within, blue painted metal swirl upward like water. Sitting on top is a black painted metal cork.

Looking more closely, it is apparent that the flowing abstract shapes of white and blue are in fact letters. An ‘e’ for example, can be made out from the white shapes. As you walk around the piece you can see that the letters circulate, but it is hard to pick out actual words and decipher what they might be saying.

If we removed the cork that conceals the words, unravelling them, what would be the message in the bottle? And what is the story of how the bottle, as if washed ashore, came to rest at that spot?

The sculpture is called ‘Bottle of Notes’ and was created in 1993 by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, artists who are well known for their large-scale public works. It was commissioned by Middlesbrough Borough Council in 1986 as a response to the economic hardship of that period, in which many of the steel works in the town were forced to close. People who use to work in the shipyards along the Tyne River were employed to manufacture the steel for the sculpture, creating the intricate blue and white shapes. Through using the skills of these workers and a material, steel, which is part of Middlesbrough’s industrial past, the bottle can be said to hold a memory of these times.

Bottle of Notes is also a capsule for more distant memories. The white words circling the outside give a voice to people from the past and far away places. Unravelling the text reveals a secret message:

‘We had every advantage we could desire in observing the whole of the passage of the Planet Venus over the Sun’s disk.’

This mysterious line is a journal entry that Captain Cook wrote that is based on an astronomer’s sightings aboard his ship. It describes the wonder of watching the night sky, and acts as an ode to voyage and discovery. Delivering this message from the past and across distant seas, ‘Bottle of Notes carries it back to Middlesbrough, a town which was part of Captain Cook’s early life.

The second note of ‘Bottle of Notes’ is concealed within the blue script behind Cook’s journal entry in white. It reads:

‘I like to remember seagulls in full flight gliding over the ring of canals.’

Similarly enigmatic, this line is from a poem by one of the artists involved in the creation of the sculpture, Coosje van Bruggen. A more private memory than that of Captain Cook’s, it refers to van Bruggen’s time in Amsterdam. Amidst the crying of seagulls which can be heard when viewing the sculpture, the bottle carries the artist’s memory from the canals of Amsterdam across the North Sea to the port of Middlesbrough.

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