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Paperbridge: A Red Paper Bridge in the English Landscape


The English Lake District houses one of the most evocative site-specific installations ever.

This is perhaps one of the most evocative pieces of land art there is, but it is not easy to say exactly why. It is a scarlet paper bridge in the middle of a bucolic plain in the English Lake District. A red arch that spent just ten days as a focal point and then… it disappeared.

The PaperBridge was small, barely long enough to cross a narrow stream in Grisedale Valley, about an hour from the nearest town. The Lake District has a long and significant history in the perception of landscape and its aesthetic (let’s recall the famous Lake Poets, for example: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, among others). The piece functioned as a balance between the landscape and the stream, a brushstroke that appears to not intervene in the scene but rather link its parts. But its greatest quality was its material: 20,000 sheets of paper (and no glue).

The structure is a self-sustained arch, with the firmly folded paper practically leaning on itself. In theory, the bridge could hold its own weight: up to four tons. But the artist, Steve Messam, never put it to the test, using only scale models. The scarlet bridge only stood for ten days, but it survived rain and storms; in fact, the inclement weather only made it stronger.

By not being protected with any waterproof material, the rain made the fibers swell and, because the bridge was compressed, there was no room for the paper to expand and it simply strengthened. It became a kind of concrete. Messam is certain that the bridge could have survived for much longer, but it was only an ephemeral installation.

PaperBridge was a site-specific piece: built for exactly that place. But not only that, the paper used was made specially by Burnside Mill, a colored paper factory in Cumbria. Burnside Mill is “the only paper factory in the world capable of producing paper of such a vibrancy and color under the environmental standards required,” Messam says on his website. In other words, the bridge could not have been made anywhere else except in the county of Cumbria.

After dismantling the bridge, all the paper used in the piece was returned to the same factory for recycling. “The transparent cycle is part of the overall environmental narrative of the piece,” Messam explains.

The bridge existed for us, carrying on its span a perfect landscape balance, wholly new and vibrant. The Lake District now has a red point to add to its long history of appreciation of nature.

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