Under the Yolk

An artist explores the cycles of life from a temporary home afloat

The origins of the Exbury Egg emerged in 2011 when I got an email from an organization called SPUD, which had nothing to do with potatoes. It’s an urban design organization, and they wanted to know if I’d like to be part of a project looking at the feasibility of designing a space for an artist in the New Forest National Park on the south coast of England.

It would involve a couple of days’ work alongside various engineers and architects, designing a structure to live in for a year—one that could be taken away at the end and leave no trace.

In some ways it was a planning exercise about temporality, about leaving no footprint, because it was so difficult to get permission for new permanent structures in the park. SPUD asked various artists to come up with ideas. My work is all about man’s connection to nature [in the past, Turner has created works of art from oyster shells that wash back into the sea, and made clay boats that set sail before dissolving back into the muddy estuary], so I was looking to make a structure that would say something about the work I’d made in the past.

I’m interested in places that change, that are less defined. For example, where does the New Forest stop and start? A lot of it is water, so there are incursions by the sea on to the land. At a time of climate change and a change in geography and sea level rise, the New Forest was, even more, a place of change.

Figures from the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that the sea level along the English coast will rise more than a meter in the next hundred years, resulting in the loss of 760 hectares of salt marsh. That’s the area of 700 soccer fields. I did a lot of research, including a trip to the University of Southampton to talk to people working in erosion. I found that the spartina grass that binds the marsh together to its root system was dying out, turning to mud and washing away. Even in the 12 months I’d be there I’d be able to show photographically the slight changes that were occurring.

I liked the idea of this hypothetical object sitting somewhere on the coast or on a tidal river, with an ebb and flow—rising and falling water—like the heartbeat of nature, so it would somehow feel like I was taking nature’s pulse.

I’d spent lots of time beside water but never in a boat. The river I picked was the Beaulieu which flows through the New Forest. It’s 12 miles long, the last four of which are tidal.

We’d been on an exploratory boat trip up the Solent (the strait dividing the Isle of Wight from the English mainland) and stepped ashore onto the salt marsh on the edge of the Beaulieu River. Within 10 minutes I’d almost crushed a herring gull’s nest underfoot, and that’s when it came to me. The symbolism of an egg was perfect: new life, but also the fragility of our relationship with nature.

I’ve wondered why we are so keen to build on flood plains. Human beings have great egos and think we can go anywhere, do anything and conquer nature; we regard it as something to beat rather than working with it. We’ve got to think differently. I thought: if the sea levels are rising, this egg would have to float.

The people at SPUD and the architects nearly fell off their chairs when I told them I actually wanted to live in it. But for some reason everyone was instantly attracted to this notion of a six-meter-long floating egg.

Everything fell into place really nicely—thanks to the skills of lots of different people. Nobody had ever built a giant floating wooden egg before, but I found a local boatbuilder named Paul Baker who was willing to give it a go. He built it like he would two boat hulls, using reclaimed western wood cedar, flipping one hull over and joining the two together. Between each strip of wood there was a layer of epoxy for waterproofing, and Paul used the wood cut out for doors to create the hatches—a solution that worked really well.

She needed ballast though, and that presented real technical problems that needed to be solved. A member of SPUD knew a marine designer and engineer who lived nearby, and got him on board. He designed Queen Mary II, and we joked that the man who designed what was then the world’s largest ocean liner also designed the world’s first floating egg house.

He suggested putting plastic ballast tanks under the floor. In the end we felt quite seaworthy. We launched the egg into the water at Lymington Yacht Haven and towed it down the Solent to Beaulieu River. Once we got out to sea, she rode the waves really well.

We got permission from the Exbury Estate—a stately home and gardens—to moor the egg on their bank of the river. I slept in a hammock initially. I thought that at high water if the egg was rocking, I’d be rocking in the hammock and feel a connection to the sea. But the only connection I got was an aching back. And so I changed the interior slightly and built a bed.

In many ways the egg was a really inconvenient shape in terms of practicality. Even when it leaked—and it did now and again in heavy rain when I’d get water dripping through its red cedar skin onto my head—it was still okay. Something about the imperfection of it made the egg a special place to live. It’s like the Japanese tradition of Wabi-sabi: the beauty of the incomplete and imperfect.

At low water people would barely notice me, but at high water they could see three quarters of the egg poking up from the main river channel. There are lots of leisure craft and day sailors, and often people would come over and say hello. One lady came with some carrot cake she’d baked especially for me.

One of the inspirations for this project was Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, about his two-plus years living in a log cabin in Massachusetts on the edge of a lake. In it he talked about people visiting and bringing gifts. It was never completely about isolation. I had plenty of time for contemplation and quiet moments, but I never designed it in this way; it was about connection with everything living there—including people who lived there, too.

I found myself slipping into a natural cycle: waking at dawn and going to sleep at dusk. In summer, days were more than fourteen hours long; in winter it felt like I was hibernating, but I’d wake up at night to the call of curlews on the water.

I think I was partly successful living off the grid. I made a strategic error in not backing up solar power with wind energy. All the yachts I saw had tiny wind turbines. During the year I lived in the egg I made sea salt, sloe gin, rosehip syrup, nettle tea and dandelion root coffee. And I dyed my clothing with oak and blackberry.

I wonder what to do with the egg now. It could end its time on the canals of Venice. Perhaps it’s of interest to a maritime or art museum? One thought is this: we made it out of wood so we could scuttle it back on the estuary and it could provide a home for wildlife until it returns to nature. There is an ethical question around how to end the egg’s life. I’ve not quite got to the bottom of that yet.


Stephen Turner

Stephen Turner’s work is concerned with aspects of time and the dialectics of transience and permanence. His work often involves spending long periods in odd or abandoned places, noting changes in the complex relationship between nature and the man-made.

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