As a teenage art enthusiast in pre-Internet Poole, I used to gaze at the same few printed images over and over, projecting myself onto the pages, learning them by heart. I loved the cover of one particular Carl Andre catalogue, ‘Secant’ – an outdoor sculpture in which a row of small wooden blocks, placed on the grass, lead off into the distance up the brow of a hill. It may well have been Minimalism personified, but it was anything but cold. It was exciting somehow. I didn’t know where the hill was, or what lay past it. The sculpture was meaningfully, purposefully leading me right into the landscape, taking me away from the gallery, making a line for me to follow. It was a signpost to pastures new, maybe a window into adventure.
Carl Andre’s own doctrine of site-specific sculpture has stayed with me all these years – the notion that art can be a doorway into new experiences and encourage a viewer to look, not just at the sculpture, but also the environment in which it sits. The sculpture takes on different meanings depending on where it’s placed, and the place is altered by the artwork, too.
‘House’, part of the annual Brighton festival, places contemporary artworks in a range of unusual spaces throughout the city. Turner prize nominee Nathan Coley’s piece in Saint Nicholas Church ticks, for me, many of those site-specific boxes. Having hurriedly dashed past St Nicholas any number of times (usually as a short cut from the North Laines after the pub), I realise I’ve been ignoring this, the oldest surviving building in Brighton – a beautiful fourteenth century space with surviving Norman elements.
‘You Imagine What You Desire’ was originally displayed at Jupiter Artland, an outdoor sculpture park in Edinburgh. It takes the form of a single illuminated phrase, mounted on metal scaffolding. In the original outdoor context it would have caught the eye from far away vistas, coming alive in descending dusk. Yet it lives a very different life in an ecclesiastical space like St Nicholas. Churches dwell in their own perpetual, pensive dusk. I visit the Coley installation with friends on a dazzling Sunday, yet we enter into a sombre room with its own, cool, incense-tinged micro climate. The lights of the sculpture dominate the side wall of the nave. They have been arranged to ensure they can be seen from the main entrance, fitting within that pointed door like a picture in a frame. This is the first thing visitors see as they enter; those words ‘you imagine what you desire’
In a world of Instagram, where boldfaced, meaningless feelgood phrases are shared at the click of a mouse, this piece looks at first glance exactly like a giant internet meme. The shouty capitals and fairground style lights speak of showbiz, glitz and advertising. They jar, perhaps intentionally, with this much quieter fourteenth century space.
Across the gap lies belief, or the lack of it. The piece quotes George Bernard Shaw, himself an atheist. In context of this church it sounds far harsher than it would have done in its original sculpture park location. Suddenly the word ‘imagine’ seems sharp as a razor. If we imagine what we desire, then we conjure heaven from our fear of death, and we fashion an all-loving all-knowing God from our reluctance to see the world as basically random and cruel.
I look over at the earnest band of volunteers who are manning the reception desk. One of them sidles over to sweetly reassure us that we’re most welcome to venture past the rood screen or into the lady chapel.
How do they feel about having this huge, ambiguous and potentially cynical message on the nature of their faith singing out from the doorway, glaring down at them as they pray? Are they brave or oblivious? Maybe there is a certain pragmatism at play here. They might just be pleased to get people into the church, get us thinking about faith and have us donating to their tower restoration fund. Or maybe the sculpture is, for them, a statement of possibility, a badge proudly worn – the declaration that all faiths are personal, and personally subjective. ‘You imagine what you desire,’ so heaven and hell are what you make them.
Down the road, my friends and I find a very different installation. Fabrica is a de-consecrated nineteenth century church, now an arts organization playing host to ‘Dawn Chorus’ by Marcus Coates, a piece originally created for the BALTIC in Gateshead.
The church is dotted with nineteen video screens which hang at different levels throughout the darkened space. It’s like walking into a woodland glade before the first rays of sun. Nineteen birds are singing, their songs pealing out and echoing deep into the marvelous acoustics of the Fabrica space.
The videos screens, however, are not playing footage of the birds. Each one features a different human being in an everyday context.
An attendant approaches us.
‘Are you familiar with the Dawn Chorus display?’ she smiles.
We ask for the full inside track, and are amazed to learn that the people on the screens are singers from amateur choirs, and that this utterly convincing birdsong is coming from their mouths. This was by no means an easy thing to achieve. Artist Marcus Coates began by making painstaking field recordings of different birdsongs. Slowed down in the studio, he brought their pitch down into a human range – their tweeting, twittering songs ending up as a series of very human grunts and moans. Coates carefully auditioned singers to select the voice which could best mimic these different sounds. The singers were then filmed in everyday scenarios, singing along live to the slowed down birdsong via a hidden earpiece. Sped up, these human soundtracks became birdsong. Played together they make a full dawn chorus.
The videos have an eerie quality which somehow call to mind the strange, warped mannerisms of the creatures in Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge, David Lynch’s nightmare world. One man sits shirtless on a bed, bleary eyed from slumber perhaps. As he sings, he gestures his arms gently. The sped up video turns these movements into fluttering twitches, gestures which in context of the singing we can’t help but see as birdlike. The frantic micro-gestures of these singers call to mind a songthrush flitting and bobbing nervously on a fencepost.
I remember during my childhood seeing an unforgettable scene on TV in a wildlife documentary. It was creepy and stayed with me for years. The narrator postulated that animals might perceive time differently. Put simply, this is why it’s so bloody difficult to swat a fly. They showed a fly’s eye view of a domestic living room, as an angry man rolled up a newspaper and lumbered slowly towards us, swinging his arm down. He knocked over a teacup and the liquid spewed out like treacle in slow, slow motion.
This installation makes me wonder if birds see the world a bit like that. Maybe they watch us lumber through life at half-speed like Frankenstein’s monster. It’s an interesting thought.
The piece is perhaps also a musing on human society, the singers all captured tweeting alone in rooms – modern habitats separated by concrete walls from their fellow humans. Really, it’s anything but a ‘chorus.’ We’ve come so far from nature to the modern built environment, and maybe it serves to emphasise how far we are from the wild.
Still, I don’t get the sense, despite all this, that ‘Dawn Chorus’ is an overly serious, rigidly conceptual piece, anxious to transmit a message at all costs. As my friends and I wander out of Fabrica and look for somewhere to grab a drink, we all agree we liked it yet find less consensus over what the piece is about. Thinking about it later, I realize this is no bad thing. I like to think Marcus Coates is playing the gleeful role of mad scientist here, and that his installation is, at its heart, a playful, joyful experiment which exists mainly to surprise and delight. For me, it achieved both.
Nathan Coley: ‘You Imagine What You Desire’ is at St Nicholas’ Church, Church Street until May 24th, admission free.
Marcus Coates: ‘Dawn Chorus’ is at Fabrica, Duke Street until May 25th, admission free.