Chewing gum artist makes plea to save Millennium Bridge works

Theguardian_ An artist who paints tiny pictures on discarded chewing gum has pleaded for his works to be saved after being told most of them will be removed from the Millennium Bridge in London as part of engineering work.

Ben Wilson, nicknamed “the chewing gum man”, has been painting on pieces of chewing gum trodden into the bridge since 2013.

The suspension bridge, which crosses the River Thames and connects St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London with the Tate Modern on the South Bank, is dotted with dozens of Wilson’s gum paintings. It will close from 14 October for three weeks to restore parts of the bridge that have started to degrade and to give it a “much-needed deep clean that will leave it looking as good as new”, Giles Shilson, the City Bridge Foundation chair, said on Thursday morning.

Later, the foundation said “a limited” number of Wilson’s artworks could be saved. The artist said he thought there were about 600 of his works on the bridge and that he would be upset if fewer than 100 survived.

Wilson, whose work on old chewing gum has featured across Europe, said he was devastated that years of work would be destroyed. “I’ve been working on this bridge since 2013, transforming rubbish into art. I’m quite literally taking what is thrown away and spat out and turning it into a piece of artwork,” he said.

Wilson said he regarded his work as a form of social commentary, with each piece telling a “small story about people”, inspired by those he encountered every day, including commuters, schoolchildren, locals and other artists.

“Art doesn’t just exist in the hallowed walls of the Tate Modern, in museums. It can sometimes be hidden and magical,” he said.

A foundation spokesperson said: “There are currently hundreds – if not thousands – of pieces of chewing gum on the bridge, including those which Ben has painted and many which are not painted.

“Millennium Bridge is a major London landmark linking two of the capital’s top tourist destinations, and we need to make sure it’s not only structurally sound but is clear of any dirt and debris, including chewing gum, and looks clean and tidy.

“However, we recognise the value of Ben’s art and the fact it is well loved by many people, so in consultation with him, we have offered to let him keep a limited number of pieces of his art, which will be preserved during the maintenance work and cleaning. We will work with Ben to identify which pieces are kept. We feel this strikes the right balance between keeping the bridge looking spick and span and allowing people to continue to enjoy some of the artwork Ben has created on the bridge.”

The bridge will close to pedestrians from 8am on 14 October while workers replace the synthetic membrane that separates the bridge’s steel structure from its aluminium bridge surface, or deck.

Shilson said the bridge was beginning to deteriorate as a result of years of wear and tear.

“Since it opened to mark the new millennium, the bridge has become a much-loved and very well-used fixture on the London landscape, but it is starting to show its age,” he said. “The separation layer under the bridge deck has started to degrade, which means it’s having an adverse effect on the bridge deck and needs addressing urgently.

“Replacing this layer is a time-consuming process, meaning we have no option but to close the bridge for three weeks and to work round the clock to get it done as quickly as possible.”

It is planned to reopen by 5 November at the latest.