WHAT’S in a spire? Traditionally associated with Gothic-era architecture, a church’s spire represents a wish to be nearer to heaven. But what else?

Spires intrigued the late Scottish artist George Wyllie. He produced numerous meditations on the spire throughout his career, from spindly tripods of metal and cobblestones to arrow-headed asymmetric meshes.

For Wyllie, spires spoke of unification and worked as symbols of community. His 1992 installation 32 Spires For Hibernia bridged a stream outside Derry, with one half of the spire in Northern Ireland and the other in the Republic. His Equilibrium Spires were a series of constructions that Wyllie placed in locations worldwide.

In 1990, he built an Equilibrium Spire on Gruinard Island after the land was declared safe and accessible to the public, 48 years after it was used as a germ warfare testing site. Wyllie’s spire celebrated the news.

Fittingly, the new Wyllie-centric gallery The Wyllieum opens in March next year with George Wyllie: Spires, an exhibition of the largest selection of Wyllie’s spires ever shown in a single gallery space, alongside previously unseen archival documents, photographs and drawings.

The National: Spires for Hibernia (1992-94) 

Situated in Greenock, The Wyllieum is housed in the new Ocean Terminal, a flagship project on the waterfront development designed by Scottish architect Richard Murphy. The space will feature a permanent display of Wyllie’s artworks, and a schedule of temporary exhibitions will underscore the workings of the Wyllie mind and the purposes behind his practice.

Entry to The Wyllieum will be free, just as the artist would have wanted. Born in Glasgow in 1921, Wyllie lived in Gourock – two miles from the gallery’s Greenock site – for 50 years until his death in 2012. A late arrival to the art world, he spent his early career as an engineer in the Royal Navy (he visited Hiroshima just one month after the nuclear blast) and working as a customs officer, before becoming a full-time artist in his late 50s.

His socially engaged practice was informed by the time his work as a public servant had given him to observe the realities of human existence. Furthermore, Wyllie’s interest in German artist Joseph Beuys’s ethical and environmentally conscious projects cemented his belief that art should be made to benefit the world at large.

Wyllie followed Beuys’s work forensically and the two eventually became friends, with Wyllie commemorating Beuys’s 1986 death by building a spire on Rannoch Moor.

After toiling through various group shows in the 1970s, Wyllie achieved modest success with A Day Down a Goldmine, his 1982 experimental theatre piece in which Wyllie took one of the lead roles.

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His breakthrough artwork, though, was a train engine that dangled over the River Clyde. Made from welded steel bars and straw, 1987’s Straw Locomotive sculpture was suspended from the Finnieston Crane that once loaded newly built locomotives on to ships to be transported across the globe.

After 48 days, Wyllie removed his artwork to Springburn (once the site of locomotive manufacturing) and set it on fire, revealing a large question mark at its centre. A requiem for the decline of the Scottish engineering and shipbuilding industries, the artwork set Wyllie’s tone.

Although he never went as far as saying so himself, it’s easy to see why some remember Wyllie as a Surrealist. He possessed a sense of theatrical mischief and a strong grasp of social satire. And, with a certain Dalinian finesse, he referred to himself not as a sculptor, but as a scul?tor who made scul?tures, the question mark becoming his motif.

After the success of his straw loco, two years later Wyllie created a 78ft-long origami boat. Composed of plastic sheets and gauze over a steel frame, Paper Boat was devilishly clever and certainly surreal.

The National:

Launched with the ceremonial honours usually afforded to a royal yacht or an aircraft carrier on to the River Clyde, the boat’s maiden voyage drew a crowd of hundreds. Wyllie even composed a song that was sung during the ceremony.

The boat went on to tour the world and was enough of an attraction to feature on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. (The WSJ headline ran “Laugh You May, But Remember It’s Floating and the Titanic Isn’t”.) After Wyllie had decided his boat had achieved everything he’d hoped for, it was broken down and – in true Wyllie style – recycled. Wyllie’s 15ft-high Truce Goose sat on Islay for a while to symbolise protection for dwindling numbers of Barnacle Geese. It was made from bits of the origami boat.

More key Glasgow-based artworks followed. Wyllie’s 1994 The City As a Living Room installation consisted of a large pair of wally dugs. Built from timber and fabric, the pair sat in St Enoch Square and were illuminated from the inside at night.

Monument to Maternity, Wyllie’s seven-metre-tall, stainless steel nappy pin on the site of the former Rottenrow Maternity Hospital, was built in 1996, and his Clyde Clock, a giant clock on running legs outside Buchanan Bus Station, arrived three years later. Wyllie’s love for Glasgow – and the River Clyde in particular – was profound.

In a 2003 interview with The Times, he said: “The Clyde struck me as something that needed to be helped along with art.

“It’s the fact the Clyde is an eternal thing. It is nature. When all the guys who are building houses around the Clyde die, the river will still be there. It is the artery, the life force. I wanted to remind them of that and of their insignificance relative to this river that they are neglecting.”

Shortly after Wyllie died, the Finnieston Crane was called into use once again. But it wasn’t a locomotive that was suspended this time. Having been asked to create a tribute by the Friends of George Wyllie organisation, artist Alec Galloway used the crane to dangle a giant yellow question mark. The Wyllieum will open on March 28, 2024.