2017 marks the centenary of Imperial War Museums (IWM) and 100 years since work began to create RAF Duxford.
This landmark occasion is being commemorated with the creation of DX17*, Duxford’s first ever contemporary art installation, inspired by Duxford’s remarkable history. A spectacular and imaginative storytelling device, it engages visitors in a tactile quest to uncover up to 100 memories – narrative fragments, voices, sound, signals, moments, stories or anecdotes – from Duxford’s remarkable past and present.
Inspired by themes of flight and innovation, DX17 is a dramatic large-scale sculpture, similar in size to a Spitfire, futuristic and aerodynamic in form. This innovative sound sculpture has been created by BAFTA award-winning multi-disciplinary artist Nick Ryan. Nick’s previous projects have included Tate Sensorium, an immersive multi-sensory exhibition at Tate Britain and A Living River, the world’s largest sound installation, displayed at Gatwick Airport.
One hundred bright points of light are scattered across DX17’s tactile surface, each representing one of 100 memories. A novel new technology has been engineered for the project which allows audio to be encoded into these light sources and decoded by a receiver into audible signals.
Visitors will first glimpse DX17 in a dramatic darkened space. They will be given a pair of high quality headphones to wear, connected to a beautifully crafted ‘receiver’ device. Holding the receiver in the palm of one hand, the visitor can scan the device over the surface of the sculpture and magically transform these points of light into sound, ‘tuning in’ to up to 100 memories illuminating the surface of the sculpture. An immersive sound system surrounds the sculpture to create a cinematic soundscape in which elements received through the headphones are dramatised around the listener.
DX17 will be unveiled on 15 June.
Artist Nick Ryan said: “I wanted to create a sensory artwork that allows the many people whose lives have been shaped by this unique and special place to speak for themselves and to transmit their memories to us in a direct and palpable way. DX17 is a sculptural object symbolising the extraordinary achievement of flight and making sense of 100 years of memories through sound, light and touch.”
Diane Lees, Director-General of Imperial War Museums said: “Nick Ryan’s DX17 commemorates Duxford’s centenary in a unique way that is relevant to contemporary visitors. This futuristic sound sculpture will surprise and fascinate visitors, enabling them to physically and emotionally engage with personal stories of Duxford’s past and present, immersing themselves in this absorbing sensory experience.”
Stories that can be experienced include that of Jean Mills, who was an Aircraft Plotter with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during the Second World War. Jean describes arriving at Duxford in 1941and the sudden arrival of aircraft from all directions, returning from a dogfight. Excitement turned to shock as one aircraft nose-dived onto the airfield, killing the pilot. As Jean says in her interview: “…we then realised it wasn’t a great lark, it was quite a serious business we were in for.”
Visitors can also hear from Alan Tomkins and Gerry Massey, Art Director and Cameraman for the 1968 Battle of Britain film, who describe creating a film set at Duxford airfield and the challenge of creating the famous explosion of Duxford’s hangar. Alan explains: “…the big moment came and you think it’s never going to come and ‘bang!’ and all that happened were the doors blew off and the hangar didn’t go up. So everyone rushed to see and …didn’t realise that the whole place was live, it could have blown up at any minute so we all got ushered out and the experts went in…they said ‘right, ready to go again’ and so we all went back to our hidey holes to watch and it went and it was quite something.”
*The title DX17 references the centenary narrative (1917-2017). DX was also the airfield identification code for Duxford during the Second World War. It forms part of the Airfield Signal Square, visible from high above in the sky. The two consonants are quickly interpreted as a synonym for the museum and the airfield. DX as a verb describes the activity of listening in on long distance (short wave) radio linking the radiophonic narrative of the installation and the aural connection it provides to the long-distant past.