7th July -15th October 2017
I love encounters with thoughtful, well executed art in unexpected places. Ark is a superb opportunity to experience 90 works by over 50 internationally renowned sculptors including; Geoffrey Clarke, Steve Dilworth, William Pye, Sue Freeborough, Abigail Fallis, Ellis O’Connell, Bernard Meadows, Lyn Chadwick, Barbara Hepworth, Sarah Lucas, David Mach, Elisabeth Frink, Eduardo Paolozzi, Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Kenneth Armitage and Peter Randall-Page. Chester Cathedral itself is a great, living work of Art evolving with the history of the city. Inside the building there’s a wonderful progression of ceremonial and intimate spaces, architecture that allows the intensity of colour and light from the outside world in. There is also the welcome relief of space for contemplation, freedom of association and interconnectivity of ideas. It’s the perfect place, whatever your beliefs, level of interest or cultural background, to journey to wherever your imagination might take you. The very best works in this show are like portals and exploring where they lead is an enlightening, confronting and immensely enjoyable experience. Outside a white cube gallery space and in the wider context of the cathedral contemporary art can speak in innovative ways, free from the artifice that often surrounds it. Gallery Pangolin have curated an entire spectrum of work from naturalistic, representational sculpture to conceptual works that encourage the wonder of discovery. Positioned throughout the cathedral and grounds, works inform, connect and respond to the architecture, each other and ever expansive concepts of spirituality in life. Nature, evolution and the psychology of belief come into play in surprising ways. In a building filled with fine craftsmanship, sculpture, mosaics, paintings and stained glass, contemporary works can occupy a different kind of stage.
In relation to the Art World the big names are certainly here, but it is fascinating to see how some of them merely absorb meaning from what surrounds them, especially in comparison to lesser known or emerging artists, many of whom are a revelation. This is a beautiful, deeply stimulating exhibition, free and accessible to anyone, that I’m sure many people will want to spend time with and revisit. There are explorations of our relationship with Nature, Spirituality, Science, Art and ourselves in a space that naturally appeals to human aspirations. What I found so invigorating about Ark was the affirmation of creativity as humankind’s greatest gift, an endless source of inspiration and renewal, as individuals and as a species. That self-reflexivity and collective, unconscious drive, to make and to understand, finds holistic focus in the exceptional work of artists such as Steve Dilworth, William Pye and Geoffrey Clarke. There are also artists whose work takes on expanded meaning in relation to the site.
Located in the central nave as an architectural and sculptural focal point, Angus Fairhurst’s (1966-2008) The Birth of Consistency (2004, Bronze and polished stainless steel, Edition of 3, 91.4cm high. The estate of Angus Fairhurst, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London) works in brilliant counterpoint with the reach of the architecture. The protagonist is a gorilla enacting the Classical myth of Narcissus, fixated and falling in love with his own reflection. Beholding himself and tearing the mirror away from the earth, there’s the suggestion of the next evolutionary leap- through imagination and self-knowledge, grasping towards higher consciousness. In relation to the presence or even the idea of God, humankind is still a Gorilla peering with incomprehension and vanity into the truth of existence. The industrial shiny black patina and fabricated appearance of the sculpture juxtaposed with a forest of arches and columns works beautifully as a source of ironic self-reflection. The Divine will always be a mystery, forever glimpsed but never possessed by humankind. At base, we are animals armed with the truth and deception of a mirror. The relative scale of the life size ape, akin to human scale and genetics, shrinks in relation to the cathedral’s symbolic structure.
Purposefully positioned at the south transept entrance, Damien Hirst’s False Idol (2008), a gold hoofed lamb in a tank from the King Midas of YBA Art, assumes a different kind of irony that perhaps intended. Here in the dim light it assumes a ghostly presence, framed by the surrounding architecture like a camera obscura projection of value. The suspension of the animal in formaldehyde solution creates an eerie light, like a rectangular, glowing halo around the lamb of God/ the maker as a false idol of religion and Art. The beneficent meekness of the animal is submerged by a master of appropriation. Being situated in a place of worship heightens meaningful associations with the work, however in the wider context of the show, the power of the object and its core value rapidly diminish.
Geoffrey Clarke’s (1924-2014) Beyond Materialism (1976, Aluminium, unique, 336cm High) is a stunning work in terms of ideas and execution. Although made in the mid 1970’s, it feels miraculous, as if it was crafted specifically for the exhibition. What elevates it is the sense of timelessness in relation to the human condition. It’s a sublime, intelligent and playful example of how architecture, art and belief can potently combine in moments of pure illumination. Clarke’s sculptural ladder climbs the wall, in elegantly inverted concave parallel lines, the lower rungs closer together, then progressively placed further apart as it rises. Half way up is a saddle-like chair for the weary and at the top of the climb, a cruciform portal-like window is left tantalisingly ajar. The iron-like patina gives the impression of a historical artefact, like something a medieval bell ringer would use to access hidden passageways in the cathedral. Psychologically it is an imaginative threshold to crawl into the belly of the building, a maintenance tunnel for the soul and a potential site of rebirth. The black circular disc encompasses Alpha and Omega, the mysteries of life and death. Discretely located in the right-hand passageway of the nave, resting against darkened, aged stone it feels completely integrated with the site. It is a natural extension of the cathedral’s articulation upward, towards heaven and light, aligned with all our strivings over the course of our very mortal lives. As the artist suggests in the Ark catalogue; “the first steps are easy. Most of us however, at some stage, either get too comfortable or tire on the climb”. “Humankind’s tendency to search for material comfort at the expense of anything of greater significance” is wryly observed. The seamless integration of this work into the substance of the building and into everyday life is breath-taking. It is a profound and timeless visual statement of what it is to be human.
Another astonishing work positioned on the left-hand side of the quire, is William Pye’s (b.1938) Coraslot (2008, Bronze, Edition of 6, 100cm high), which feels like a hymn to the natural world and the human mind perceiving it. It is a pure form and a meeting of unexpected elements with flowing water at its centre. From a distance, it resembles a large baptismal font or boat-like structure whose flat surface, entirely comprised of water, resembles the calm solidity of black granite. It is only when you get closer that the perfectly balanced pool of exquisitely calm water becomes apparent, with an internal flow animating the core. The play of light from the stained-glass windows gives the mystical impression of a bottomless mirror of the soul dancing with light, glimpsed at certain angles as you move around the object at roughly waist height. Gazing into its reflections becomes as natural as breathing, connecting the viewer to the physical and metaphysical world. In the artist’s own words;
“The imperceptible movement of apparently still water
A vessel that assumes lake or ocean
Its surface broken by a chasm
A fault line on the desert
A crevasse in the glacier
A passage to the Underworld
What hidden mysteries lie beneath its tranquil surface
Dance of the blessed spirits”
There are magnificent creatures great and small to be encountered in Ark, including Edouard Martinet’s Crayfish, Anita Mandl’s Aardvarks (Mother and Child), Jonathan Kenworthy’s The Leopard, Michael Joo’s Stubbs (Absorbed) zebra, Elisabeth Frink’s Wild Boar, Geoffrey Dashwood’s Peacock Nick Bibby’s Gyrfalcon, Terence Coventry’s Hound II and Goats I & II. The presence of these animals in different spaces take on symbolic, archetypal, ecological and historic significance reflecting the city’s long association with Chester Zoo, opened in 1931. One of my favourite mediations on the nature of Nature was Deborah van der Beek’s (b.1952) series of bronzes a little larger than life size; Glaring Cat, Cat Catching Bird, Stalking Cat prowling the inner passage way of the Garth or garden courtyard. Their open forms feel like reconstructed debris, reminiscent of desiccated cats deliberately placed inside walls of buildings for protection. Here van der Beek highlights the darker, predatory aspects of their nature. These feline forms are animated by encrusted three dimensional lines of a first drawn response, capturing the artist’s ambivalence towards their untamed hunting prowess. However, as creatures of the earth they resist moral judgement, complete and sacred in their perfected design.
Nearby Sue Freeborough’s (b.1941) Becoming (2017, Bronze and stainless steel, Edition of 5, 155cm high) is a superb sculpture of mind, form and feeling, being shown for the first time. The masculine and feminine co-joined figures extend their reach together, with arms splayed and sprouting like elegant branches. With sapling limbs and hourglass confinement inside a metal frame, their bodies merge as one. Suspended in this cage-like space they have a flayed, cruciform appearance, especially in the context of the cathedral. However, on closer inspection pagan, mythological and biological associations begin to surface. The delicate linear structure also has a roughhewn, textural quality and tactile immediacy. The combination of two forms, genders, chromosomes and Freeborough’s alchemical approach to mixing elements, gives her work a feeling of transcendence that is both worldly and spiritual. The artist’s statement reflects her multi-layered approach; “The word ‘becoming’ in philosophical terms is stated as being ‘the dynamic aspect of being’ The sculpture ‘Becoming’ is a symbolic space of being, an ark containing the secret mysteries of human life, of consciousness, reproduction, growth and evolution.” Although her elongation of the human figure in this work echoes Giacomettii, Freeborough emerges resoundingly in in her individual approach to the human subject and material. In another layer of interpretation, the artist’s elegantly fused forms is reminiscent of the ancient Greek myth of Daphne, turning into a tree to escape the God Apollo. It’s a subject sculpted many times in the History of Art, usually by male artists, but here the figures are equal in their evolutionary refinement. They appear not in flight or conflict, but as dual aspects of the human psyche within us all, masculine and feminine elements necessary for conception, procreation and arguably in the balance of attaining a higher state of being.
A British sculptor of the post war generation, Bernard Meadows’ (1915-2005) Cock (Fountain Figure) (1959, Bronze, unique, 155cm high, The Ingram Collection) is a manifestation of raw masculine energy. The outstretched wings of the bird and primitive, roughly chiselled head with mouth agape also appear satirical, like the flapping of priestly arms and robes during a fiery sermon. Strikingly illuminated in dappled light from stained-glass windows, the dominance, authority and violence of the figure is both fearsome and theatrical. In greeting the light with a raucously present voice Meadows’ work directly addresses humanity. In his own words; “birds can express a whole range of tragic emotion, they have a vulnerability, which makes it easy to use them as vehicles for people.”
Another fascinating exploration of humanity is Dagon (2017, Bronze, Unique, 54cm high) by Abigail Fallis (b.1968). This work is brilliantly juxtaposed with Brian Kneale’s curved mirrors inspired by bird’s wings; Curlew (2012, Stainless Steel, Unique, 98cm) and Plover (2012, Powder coated stainless steel, unique, 65cm). Fallis’s Dagon is an intriguing humanoid skeleton bent double, back in on itself with what appears to be an amphibious or reptilian skull. The emerald patina gives the appearance of raw material exposed to water over time, like an evolutionary missing link with a devotional stance, on its knees. The skeletal form appears like the ancient remains of a distant ancestor, crawling out of the primordial soup of our collective unconscious and systems of belief. The hybrid figure has powerful evolutionary and mythological associations, revealed by the artist in her catalogue entry; “this strange fish is believed to have come from the Ark of God. Records show that Dagon, a half fish/ half man deity was worshipped as far back as the Philistines and Babylonians, and was visually depicted in painting and sculpture in Nineveh, Assyria. Our predecessors worshipped this hybrid idol because they depended on a living from the sea and the Earth.” Even without knowledge of this legend, this introspective form, born of water, earth and our own ancestral bones, speaks on multiple levels. Moving further along the same corridor, Brian Kneale’s (b.1930) work informed further readings of Dagon as a human figure in transformation, creating an interesting dynamic between the three pieces. Kneale’s work, exploring “the problem of what one sees and what one knows”, “the attempt to fuse the two and in a special sense disrupt them” creates a wonderful dialogue with Fallis’s Dagon. Positioned adjacent to each other, Kneale’s silver and black concave/ convex mirrors are abstracts of positive and negative, the distortion and truth of malleable human perception. The inspiration of wings gives the mirrors an aerodynamic feel, whilst his chosen material is starkly industrial and unexpectedly beautiful against the stone of the cathedral. This alignment of three works is extremely potent in terms of burgeoning awareness, displayed as you are about to turn a perceptive corner- literally and metaphorically.
Steve Dilworth’s ingenious, iconic Ark (2000, Bronze and Nickel Silver, Unique, 114cm high) and Porpoise (2004/5 Bronze and Sterling silver, Edition of 5 42cm high) regard each other with a window between them, extending through and beyond the walls of the cathedral. The intricate, serpentine curves of Porpoise morph before your eyes in an act of becoming, like an embryonic lifeform, articulated by vertebrae of pure, precious silver. As you drink in every angle and reflection from the inside out, these objects gradually reveal themselves. The unseen Hooded Crow protected within Dilworth’s Ark is transformed from a despised creature to one worthy of respect, carried within the egg. The incredible interlocking inner structure is as organically fired and pure as thought. The presence, living energy and craftsmanship of Dilworth’s objects is unmistakable, sublime and revelatory. Ark is a vessel which alters perception not just of what sculpture can be, but of worlds within and without. Like Dilworth’s Ark, the whole exhibition enhanced and expanded my perception of the cathedral, the city of Chester and my onward journey. Restored, rejuvenated and enriched by the inspiring trinity of Art, architecture and ideas, I was even more conscious of Divine creation in the everyday. This is a wonderful show with work of the highest quality, in a truly inspirational setting – hopefully the first of many such events in the life of the cathedral.