Saturday, 25 October 2014

‘Crucible 2’ at Gloucester Cathedral

‘You must see Crucible 2,’ people have been saying to us for the last few weeks, and now we have done. Crucible 2 is not a film, it’s an exhibition of 20th and 21st century sculpture; the second to be held in, around and even underneath Gloucester Cathedral.

Underneath? Yes, in the crypt, and in the slype below the Lady Chapel at the East end of the building. There are one hundred exhibits, from the monumental – a giant mobile called ‘Constellation 2014’: the stars in their courses high above the nave altar – to the less-than-lifesize (a Henry Moore maquette), displayed in the Close or in the Cloister, and in all parts of the cathedral itself. Where we see sculpture has a lot to do with how we see it, as I have tried to explain in Big Heads, discussing three large sculpted heads seen in public places in Paris, Dorset, Dusseldorf. And putting sculpture in a cathedral creates a very particular context, shaping the way we view each piece.

It has taken us two visits to see the entire show. Second time around, I warmed more to the pair of Lyn Chadwick figures greeting visitors at the main south porch; but I found Damien Hirst’s two angels, when seen again, even more disturbing than at first. ‘Anatomy of an Angel (Black)’, is placed in the north aisle, provocatively in front of a large wall monument, by Flaxman, depicting a mother escorted heavenwards by three winged angels. Hirst’s black angel is likewise winged but definitely earthbound. Seen from a distance or from behind, she –Hirst’s angels are uncompromisingly naked and feminine – looks sleek and demure; full-frontal, however, it’s clear she has been partially dissected, an artist’s model repurposed as an anatomical specimen. It’s as if the sculptor has remembered Lear’s injunction, ‘Let them anatomise Regan, see what breeds about her heart’. The right side of her face has been stripped back to the skull; her breast is flayed, her belly betrays her guts, and a segment of muscle from her left thigh has been excised to reveal her femur. What might from a distance have been a graceful Canova-like angel becomes, in focus, an appalling embodiment of Milton’s definition of Hell, ‘darkness visible’.

Antonio Canova is the starting point for Hirst’s second exhibit. ‘Fallen Angel’, the pose explicitly borrowed from Canova’s sculpture The Repentant Magdalene, is perhaps the most arresting piece in Gloucester Cathedral. Again, no suggestion of sexlessness here: this stunning golden image with huge wings presents a young woman kneeling back against the stump of a tree, her long hair falling, as Mary Magdalene’s conventionally does, over her shoulders and back. The gold is so highly polished that it is not easy to see at first the harm she has done herself. Scratched across her stomach are the words LOVE ME x, and her arms are scarred with cuts.

Come closer (she is placed in the Sanctuary, near to the High Altar): all but hidden from view in her left hand is a folded packet; syringe, spoon and lighter beside her right knee explain the packet’s contents, and above her left elbow a tight-knotted tourniquet is already in place. Hirst has never exhibited ‘Fallen Angel’ before. One day it will have become among his best-remembered works.

But it isn’t ‘Fallen Angel’ that has made the deepest impression on me. Alone in a tiny chantry chapel on the south side of the nave is a hand, the smallest exhibit in the entire show, and I cannot forget it. It is made of bread. The artist, Marc Quinn, has been exhibiting bread hands since 1991, but this is the first time I have seen one in the flesh – as one cannot quite say. To be clear: he has not carved the hand from a loaf of bread, but shaped it from proven dough and then baked it, the final result as much the effect of yeast and heat as of the sculptor’s in(ter)vention. But you can make out, just, the knuckles of its fingers, the lines on its palm.

So here it lies, on an altar: an open but a mutilated hand. What meaning can I give it?  As I try to absorb what I am seeing, words, not images, help me out: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning,” or, more expressly, “If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off.” Then, more insistent still, Seamus Heaney’s memory of his

                                                  … once capable
Warm hand, hand that I could not feel you lift
And lag in yours.

Chanson d’Aventure, from which these lines come, describes the poet’s anguished journey by ambulance to hospital following a stroke, accompanied by his wife, Marie. The poem appears in his valedictory Human Chain (2010), the lines themselves appropriated from an untitled, uncollected poem by Keats:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood …. (1819)

Unlike Keats’s ‘living hand’, Heaney’s has lost its cunning. Without sensation in his hand the poet is in danger of losing touch, literally, with all that’s most precious; sense and connection are denied him. Moved by Marc Quinn’s ‘Bread Hand’ and by this poem of Heaney’s – about which I’ve written elsewhere – I have been re-reading Human Chain, and now see that in these last poems, the significance of hands is an ever-present trope.  In poems after poem hands feel, hold, experience pain, transmit tenderness, acknowledge acceptance. Twice indeed Heaney coins new hand words: ‘emptyhandedness’ to describe human loss, and ‘steadyhandedness’ for that fragile sense of human equilibrium he so tenaciously championed. ‘Bread Hand’ at Gloucester Cathedral sums up for me Heaney’s openness to life in its simplicity, fragility, cruelty and complexity. So perhaps the word to describe this sense is one Heaney himself might have smiled at, then accepted – ‘breadhandedness’.

[illustrations: (i) ‘Anatomy of an Angel (Black)’, 2008, by Damian Hirst, in the N aisle of Gloucester Cathedral; (ii) ‘Fallen Angel’ (2014), by Damian Hirst, in front of the High Altar, Gloucester Cathedral; ‘Bread Hand’ by Marc Quinn, in the Chantry Chapel, S aisle of Gloucester Cathedral.

[References: all quotations from Heaney’s poetry come from Human Chain, (London: Faber and Faber, 2010). The word ‘emptyhandedness’ appears in ‘The Butts’, p.12; the lines from ‘Chanson d’Aventure’ are on p. 15, and the word ‘steadyhandedness’ occurs in ‘Hermit Songs ix’ on p.79.

Text and photographs © Adrian Barlow

You can read my discussion of sculpture in public spaces, Big Heads, here.
I have written about Gloucester Cathedral before:

My previous posts about Seamus Heaney include the following:

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Venice Inscribed (iv): Henry James

If you happen to be caught in an autumn storm in Venice, you know all about it. Late September is, however, in many ways an ideal time to visit the city: the high-summer crowds have dwindled; the frenzy of the Film Festival is over; there are no longer any queues at the Biennale. Even locals dislike excitements such as the recent wedding of a human rights lawyer to a coffee-machine salesman: the Clooney cortège and its accompanying charivari* aroused the wrath of gondoliers and everyone else. Venice doesn’t care to be treated as if it were Sunset Boulevard.

Our arrival in Venice, earlier that same week, had been rather different. We’d installed ourselves in a quiet apartment behind the Arsenale, before heading back to Marco Polo airport to meet friends coming to share our holiday. We had brought them to Piazzale Roma, and were now sitting on the open seats at the back of a Number 1 vaporetto, heading down the Grand Canal. It was nearly 7pm, and the sun was setting. We’d been lucky with the weather all day: the forecast had threatened rain.

By the time we reached Ca’ d’Oro, the last of the sun had gone, and the sky was getting rapidly darker. When we emerged from under the Rialto Bridge, it was clear a storm was approaching. First, though, we were treated to a remarkable son et lumière: spectacular lightning and thunder far away over the Alps. Wherever the storm was, it didn’t seem to be overhead. We thought we’d get away with it: if rain was coming, we told our friends, they’d be safely in our apartment before it started. We were wrong. We should have noticed the gondolas and water-taxis scurrying for cover, for as we left Santa Maria della Salute, the tempest began, the vaporetto bucked, and we were soaked in an instant.

How we got home, I hardly know. The boat battled against the wind but eventually made it to Arsenale; we got off and found the water on the Riva degli Schiavoni already ankle-deep. There was nowhere to shelter, so we ran against nearly horizontal rain towards the nearest passageway, stumbled left into the Calle della Pegola, then splashed our way towards Campo San Martino, staggering with our friends’ sodden suitcases across the little iron bridge over the canal to reach, at last, our front door. What I had planned as a gentle early-evening stroll though one of the quaintest, quietest corners of Venice had turned into a nightmare worthy of the film Don’t Look Now.

Henry James describes a storm like this in The Wings of the Dove, his novel about Milly Theale, a beautiful young American in Venice pursued by two predatory suitors: the aristocratic Lord Mark and the penniless Merton Densher. ‘It was,’ says James’s narrator, ‘a Venice all of evil that had broken out.’ This storm fits the mood of Densher who, to his dismay and after weeks of being an intimate guest, has been turned away from Milly’s palazzo by a common gondolier.  Failing to discover why Milly won’t see him, he heads into

… a Venice of cold lashing rain from a low black sky, of wicked wind raging through narrow passes, of general arrest and interruption …. He had to walk in spite of weather, and he took his course, through crooked ways, to the Piazza, where he should have the shelter of the galleries. Here, in the high arcade, half Venice was crowded close, while, on the Molo, at the limit of the expanse, the old columns of St Theodore and of the Lion were the frame of a door wide open to the storm. (pp.403-4)

Henry James is not my favourite writer, but when he allows himself to observe and record without wrestling lexis and syntax into submission, I warm to him at once. Having reached St Mark’s Square, Densher surveys the chaotic scene; and, in a fine example of free indirect style, James famously writes that

The whole place, in its huge elegance, the grace of its conception and the beauty of its detail, was more than ever like a great drawing-room, the drawing-room of Europe, profaned and bewildered by some reverse of fortune. (p.404)

I enjoy the touch that James adds next: the café tables have been moved out of the rain and crammed under the arcade, ‘and here and there a spectacled German, with his coat-collar up, partook publicly of food and philosophy’. Mocking the manners of Germans abroad is evidently an old sport.

But the philosophical German is a distraction, and this whole description of the crowd sheltering from the storm a deft piece of indirection on James’s part. We, reading, are busy establishing the confused scene in our mind’s eye, and we are even told that ‘These were impressions for Densher too’, who needed to walk three times round the ‘whole circuit’ of the piazza  to recover himself – a walk that in reality would take at least twenty five minutes but which James describes in seven words. Yet before we have caught up with him, he has already stopped dead, having spotted a man he recognizes, sitting (as an English gentleman evidently should) inside, not outside, the café Florian.   Densher is appalled: his rival, Lord Mark, has returned to Venice. For a moment, the two men face each each other through the window; and in that instant Densher realizes, ‘as if he had caught his answer to the riddle of the day’, why he has been turned away by Milly Theale’s servant.

This is what Mikhail Bakhtin called a chronotope**: an unexpected conjunction of time and place, a chance meeting in a crowded place that creates a crisis in the plot, leading the reader forward towards the resolution of the story. I’m pleased to say that, after our storm, we woke to clear skies and bright sun. Venice doesn’t disappoint. Merton Densher was less lucky: for him the storm signalled the beginning of the end.

*Charivari: a raucous procession accompanying an ill-matched couple to their wedding.

**Chronotope: “The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied. It can be said without qualification that to them belong the meaning that shapes narrative.” MM Bakhtin, in The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, 1981, p.250

All quotations from The Wings of the Dove, Oxford World’s Classics paperback, 1984, pp.403-405

[illustration: Santa Maria della Salute, seconds before the storm, 22 September 2014

Here are links to my earlier posts about Venice:

Text and illustration © Adrian Barlow