Ambit: The sad story of Sunderland's floating sculpture in the River Wear

Ambit was the toast of the arts world when it was unveiled in Sunderland in September 1999.

Tuesday, 5th March 2019, 11:02 am
Updated Tuesday, 5th March 2019, 12:57 pm

The 22-tonne, 130ft ring of steel was fitted with a lighting system designed to create a halo in the water.


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It was created by Turner Prize-nominated artist Alison Wilding, and built at a cost of £250,000 as a testimony to Sunderland’s shipbuilding heritage.

It would also herald the end of the C2C cycle route as an impressive feature welcoming visitors to the city.

The project was funded by the Arts Council and money from Europe, paid out with the intention of boosting tourism.

A model of Ambit was unveiled on February 18, 1997, 18 months or so before the actual artwork was installed.


Ambit was launched on September 29 1999 on the site of Austin’s Pontoon, which had provided inspiration for the project (the shipyard’s pontoon which was used to raise and lower ships into the river at Pann's Bank).

But the artwork ran into problems within weeks of its unveiling.

By October its lights had begun to fail, and on February 16 2000 it was taken from the Wear for tests and repairs after corrosion was spotted, returning to the water in March.

Technical, environmental and criminal problems all dogged the artwork from the outset.

The sculpture's lights were dimmed by a build-up of silt within a short time of its installation, then extinguished altogether when a timer switch failed.

Corrosion caused one of its connecting bolts to break and the sculpture became a target for vandals, who threw breeze blocks at it and cut its armoured power cables.

Despite attracting criticism from some Wearsiders, Ambit was well received in arts circles and was shortlisted for the prestigious Northern Electric and Gas Arts Awards

In September 2000 it was dismantled and taken from the river after it was announced that it was going “on tour”, with the canals of Venice, London, or and other locations down as potential destinations.

The tour is scrapped and in February 2002, but Ambit was allocated to be taken to Manchester as part of events around the Commonwealth Games.

But when the games came July 2002, it failed to make the line-up, and later turned up in Manchester for a two-month stay as part of an arts exhibition.

Later that year it was dismantled and stored. It is believed to still be in a lock-up in the East End.

'It was both under and over-designed, we didn’t understand the power of the river'

In an interview with the Echo in 2006, Ambit’s creator Alison Wilding said she wanted her controversial art work to be scrapped rather than left abandoned in pieces.

“It’s a pity it is in some lock up. Because it’s stainless steel, it would be much more use being sold as scrap,” she said.

“I’d personally have no objection were it to be broken up and sold for scrap, because I hate the idea of it being in some kind of elephants’ graveyard mouldering away.

“I am not going to say it should be taken out of storage and have £250,000 spent on it. That’s not going to happen, let’s be realistic.”

The artist, who was twice nominated for the Turner Prize and is a fellow of the Royal Academy, also spoke about the problems which befell her creation.

“It was both under and over-designed, we didn’t understand the power of the river,” she said.

“After heavy rain upstream trees came down and tangled in it.

“It was only ever intended to be a temporary installation and it was never going to last 10 years, given the experience we had when it was reintroduced in Salford.

“I realised then it was never going to be resurrected again, unless so much money was poured into it, which would have made it unfeasible.

She added: “I regard certain parts of Ambit, when it was first launched with an amazing team of people with incredible experience, as absolutely brilliant.

“But, it was soon very clear to me there were major faults in it. It was such a technical construction and there were things about the river we didn’t know.

“It was over-ambitious and everybody was pulled along with it.”