Rolling through the empty Cathedral Close on a chilly grey morning, I was intrigued to see a delivery of large, assorted carved and uncarved stones. They were being steadfastly ignored by Frink's Walking Madonna, but I was curious and open to anticipation. Previous sculptures have, on the whole, worked well with the almost 800 year old building and the atmosphere of its surrounding Close.
I wondered how long it would take to assemble the jumble strewn out over the grass. It was like being in the midst of a devastated Stonehenge and filled me with a sense of unease. There were also giant sharp-edged spheres, lying like so many discharged missiles of war.
Each stone appeared to be a work of art in itself, and there were groups of them spread over a large area. Some put me in mind of unclaimed mill stones or disassembled cogs from some abandoned megalithic machinery. There seemed a violence in their placement that drew my thoughts to war and its aftermath.
At odds with the ancient forgetfulness, newfound tranquillity and sense of settled purpose, these new stones were as unsettling to me as most mythical images of marauding Vikings. Even their placement in the grass seemed designed to freak me out.
I checked on the Cathedral website and discovered that was the exhibition. Not only was it complete, but it was also called 'Sanctuary'.
This discovery felt like a kick in my emotional guts. I was aware of being shockingly close to tears. If this was sanctuary then what else was misunderstood, misinterpreted, wrong?
In my distress I wanted to look closer at the stones, to maybe see what others saw. But my unease was growing, it was hard to find a group I could access without feeling the turmoil and rejection.
I chose a group where the stones looked a little like oversize bales of straw and played with the idea they were the leftovers from a Constable painting of a hay-making celebration. I needed a way to disassociate from my instinctive and overwhelming reactions, to approach with that 'temperament of receptivity' - open to the artists intention; but it was as if the stones had voices of their own. And easier to believe that they were remnant of the parley, the negotiation after the violence of battle; or broken barricades.
I can see that some of the individual stones might possess an inevitable stillness, that their circular form with access to the solid square cut from their centre, might lead thoughts to an interpretation of sanctuary, but lying exposed with their hearts cut out, extracted with mechanical precision, sanctuary was not what they conveyed to me. Strewn, abandoned over the ground, disassociated from each other, they cried of devastation on an inhuman scale.
And in their midst the Cathedral stood oblivious.
The rolling turmoil, with silent echoes
of Lindisfarne, Colluden, Balaklava
in its chaos, leads into the darker
reaches of the human psyche, places
the mind is adept at justifying,
denying, hiding from the conscious state;
hindsight prescribing past incarnation
projecting future into history.
Only in its worn-out delapidation
does Stonehenge appear to embody
tranquility; a long forgotten past
lost in the solidity of singing stones.
Still as they move into the future chaos
offering no glimpse of sanctuary
only the continuation of decay
of loneliness and wild desolation.
And time, the sheer volume of time, explains
nothing other than the disarray and
confusion. Unlike the newly sculpted
scatterings, spoor emanating from mind;
the human mind, capable of seeing
and unseeing. Able to design the
architecture long after the structure is built.
Rolling through on a warm sunny afternoon and watching groups of people sprawled over the stones brings home to me the untypicality of my reaction.
These sunbathers, picnickers and nappers on the stones must feel some sense of attraction and safety that allows them to seem so relaxed and at ease.
Could this be sanctuary? Is it enough?
'Sanctuary' by John Maine RA at Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire.
8th March - 23rd July 2014
A Salisbury International Arts Festival event.
I recently rolled around an exhibition I would be tempted to describe as invisible.
I find this frustrating. To be surrounded by a body of work that says nothing to me (to the point of invisibility), is somehow creepy; a disturbing and unsettling experience.
I need art to make sense of the world; to expand and finesse the identity I call self and my relationship to those I call others. Through art I may grow into rich diversities of unknown.
The artworks I am drawn to are works that reach inside me to reveal something I have forgotten, failed to recognise, neglected to respond to, or never had the chance to experience. 'If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss. I use these terms loosely, for I am not making an argument but rather attempting to describe the pleasure that comes from recognition or rediscovery of certain essences permanently associated with human life. These essences are restored to our consciousness by persons who are described as artists.' (Saul Bellow's 'It All Adds Up')
The works that seem invisible are works that elicit that frustrated 'so what'; works that barely provoke any kind of reaction beyond the frustration; the practice that consistently shuts me out. They are works that fail to respond to the pseudo-visibility their creators attempt to bestow on them with complex explanations that disappear even as you read or hear them.
My responses do evolve, so I always attempt to hold back on premature negativity; I have learned to be patient, to be disciplined about allowing the work time to penetrate any barrier of initial indifference, to cultivate a 'temperament of receptivity' (Oskar Wilde), but is it not also part of an artist's creative process to facilitate that receptivity?
In ConText conversations I have been surprised to discover creators who are happy to declare that they only make work for like-minded people, certainly not for disabled people, and that the onus is completely on the audience or gallery visitor to put in any necessary effort: 'if they are capable of it'.
Devoting time and energy to work that persists in its invisibility is not merely disappointing, it can leave me feeling cheated, exploited and, on one rare occasion, brimming with art-rage.
When art makes me angry, I want it to be the artwork itself, not the suspicion that I am confronting someone abusing the notion, the essence, of artistic practice.
I can be talking about work that may be technically accomplished and often confidently exhibited yet apparently without the generosity, the courtesy, of any perceived attempt at accessible communication.
I'm comfortable with work that sits silently asking questions; as the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a century ago, “We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue'.
I'm comfortable with mystery. I like to think there will always be unknowns. But the kind of works that elicit that 'so what' of a non-reaction, don't qualify as mysterious. They appear to have been created for self-gratification. They may have technical points that preclude labelling them as bad, but for me, that gut and lingering indifference is worse than bad.
Invisible is as bad as it gets.
to my presence, the work
sits smug in a slapdash
or intricate iteration: either.
Potent and powerful
as the Emperor's new clothes,
each action a possible,
impossible marvel of
craftsmanship. Talent beyond
question by anyone with
status to preserve or with
ignorance to conceal. Work
just hitching a ride on the
naked Emperor's back.
And yes, the title of this blog is also a quote from the magificent Saul Bellow!