Ambit secretly scrapped: Council reveals Sunderland's controversial £250,000 floating sculpture was sent for 'recycling'

File picture of Ambit in the River Wear
File picture of Ambit in the River Wear
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Today we can finally reveal what became of Sunderland's most controversial artwork

Weighing 22 tonnes and stretching 130ft, Ambit was the toast of the arts world when it was launched into the River Wear in September 1999 as a testament to Sunderland's shipbuilding history.

Ambit's 'halo'

Ambit's 'halo'


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But the £250,000 installation was dogged by problems from the outset, including technical failures and vandalism, and was put into storage in 2002 never to be seen again.

Its location was kept under wraps, and questions have hung over its future for almost two decades, but Sunderland City Council has finally revealed that the artwork was secretly scrapped five years ago.

Councillor John Kelly, the council's portfolio holder for Communities and Culture, told the Echo: "As with many pieces of public art, Ambit always received a lot of attention and controversy, and hindsight.

File picture of Ambit at sunset in the River Wear

File picture of Ambit at sunset in the River Wear

"After it was taken out of the river, it went into storage at the Sunderland Maritime Heritage Centre and its materials were sent for recycling in 2014."

The statement finally concluded the almost-20-year-long saga of Ambit.

The artwork was created by Turner Prize-nominated artist Alison Wilding to be an impressive structure to put Sunderland on the map.

Ambit, which featured a lighting system designed to create a halo in the water, was launched on September 29 1999 on the site of the former the shipyard’s pontoon, which was used to raise and lower ships into the river at Pann's Bank.

It was also to provide an impressive landmark at the end of the C2C cycle route to welcome visitors to the city.

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

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

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 was said to have 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.

However, Tom Coull, then owner of Divesafe which had a contract to look after Ambit, claimed a different fault was to blame.

Speaking to the Echo this week, he said: "I wish someone could tell me where the corrosion was on a stainless steel structure.

"It was electrolysis due to zero cathodic protection and the damage on the light trays were from it bouncing off the river bed every tide."

He added that he felt council chiefs at the time had not listened to his concerns over the project.

He said: "If the council had listened to me and did the things I recommended then this wonderful Ambit that you see in the photograph would have been a wonderful sight to see all around the world.

"I feel very sorry for Alison as she had created a world class floating structure which would have been the envy of the world."

We put Mr Coull's remarks to Sunderland City Council but it did not comment on them.

The story of Ambit once it left the Wear

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, but later turned up in Manchester for a two-month stay as part of an arts exhibition.

Later that year it was dismantled and stored. Only now has its resting place and ultimate fate been revealed.

Ambit’s "recycling" has has fulfilled the wish made by its creator, Alison Wilding, in 2006.

She told the Echo at the time: “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 said the project team had failed to consider "the power of the river", including trees swept downstream in heavy rain which became tangled in it.

She said it had only ever meant to be a temporary installation and she realised when it was in Salford that it was "never going to last 10 years".