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The heart in pilgrimage

by
02 December 2009

Rebecca Paveley talks to Dorothy Cross about her ‘white elephant’ proposal for Chichester Cathedral

Contemporary view: the Vessel (Heart Sub) proposal for Chichester Cathedral, facing west DOROTHY CROSS/CHICHESTER CATHEDRAL

Contemporary view: the Vessel (Heart Sub) proposal for Chichester Cathedral, facing west DOROTHY CROSS/CHICHESTER CATHEDRAL

DOROTHY CROSS’s art is intended to unsettle. She combines “found” ob­jects — either from the natural world or from her own past — and constructed ones in ways that are both arresting and disturbing.

Her Virgin Shroud, one of a series that uses cow-hide teats and udders, places udders in a crown on top of her grandmother’s wedding dress. The finished piece asks questions about women as nurturers, and makes references to the Virgin, Mary.

Given her fascination with such startling juxtapositions, her proposal for Chichester Cathedral was always likely to shock. And, in her view, it did throw some of the judges. “I could tell who liked it and who didn’t, straight away,” she says.

Her proposal suggests suspending a vessel of war — a submarine —over the 15th-century Arundel screen. It will face the altar, over­hanging the quire by more than two metres either side. Inside this gilded, miniature submarine will lie a real human heart, an object that turns the vessel from one of war, or scien­tific exploration, into a reliquary.

BROUGHT up in devoutly Roman Catholic Cork in the 1950s, Dorothy Cross is familiar with reliquaries, and with the idea of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is frequently depicted in religious art.

Although she did not go to a religious school, “you couldn’t get away from it,” she says. “My parents were fantastically liberal, and I am so grateful for that. I didn’t have the problems some of my friends at school did as they grew up and started questioning things. But I never really hated any of it. I went to church every Sunday until I was 17.”

She left Ireland, aged 18, to study in the UK and the United States. She returned home to a country rocked by referendums on abortion and

di­vorce, and then, later, the scandals about child sex-abuse. Despite that, and her own lack of personal faith, she still has a fondness for the RC Church. “I don’t function any more as a Cath­olic. But I love the para­pher­nalia of it all; I don’t hate it at all.”

HER submission for the Dean Walter Hussey Memorial Commission is her first proposal for an installation in an English cathedral.

“I absolutely loved Chichester Cathedral,” she says. “It is not on a daunting scale, like some. I especially loved the fact you can see the spire from the sea. It was a wonderful invitation to get, but it was actually very daunting. I spent months con­sid­ering how to depict spirituality and God.

“I really, really struggled with it; in a way, it was a wonderful thing to have to consider. But then I realised it is actually impossible. So I came back to the body, as the only place we can be on this earth, and then it all came together. From being ill at ease with it at first, I now love it.”

Yet she came close to withdrawing from the competition — and she would not have been the first. The artist Cornelia Parker withdrew from the process, saying that the ideas she was exploring were too extreme to have any chance of being accepted.

Ms Cross recalls: “I nearly pulled out. I started thinking, really, should there be anything there? — as the committee that first looked at this commission had wondered in the beginning. But now, of course, I think there should be, and it should be the submarine.”

Ms Cross recalls: “I nearly pulled out. I started thinking, really, should there be anything there? — as the committee that first looked at this commission had wondered in the beginning. But now, of course, I think there should be, and it should be the submarine.”

UNLIKE some of her contem­por­aries, she is happy to talk about the process of submit­ting her work for artistic com­missions. “I’m dying to see the other proposals,” she says. “I know Antony Gormley and Mark Wallinger, and have spoken to them about this commission. I met Mark when I was coming out [from talking to the judges]. It was a bit like going to the dentist.”

Her first visit to the Cathedral presented her with a challenge, as she had not realised from the brief that the location for the work was mid-air — that it would be hanging above the screen.

“The idea that it is hanging, suspended, is perfect now, although the fact that you could not have anything touching the screen was difficult. I loved the challenge, and it is a privilege to do it, although it does feel a bit a daunting that it is permanent: normally in commis­sions they don’t want it to be perma­nent. I love the whole legacy of Hus­sey, and the Cathedral’s respect for contemporary art.”

She has been asked to submit work for commissions before. Her best-known public-art commission is Ghost Ship, in 1999, in which she set a decommissioned ship afloat in Dublin Bay, where for three weeks it was alternately illuminated and set to glow and fade.

“I have done some commissions, but I do not always win, especially with Antony-blinking-Gormley being there! I have been in several with Antony. Often I hear from the judges, ‘We love your idea, but Antony Gormley is actually winning it.’ He’s so good at talking about his art; whereas I live in the west of Ireland and go for walks with my dog on the beach.”

Ms Cross is self-deprecating, and describes her Vessel (Heart Sub) submission is the “white elephant on the table”.

A FEW weeks ago, each of the five artists was invited to meet the Cathedral Chapter and talk through his or her proposal. “I was tearing my hair out: when I went to see the judges, they had a screen set up for high-tech images, and I had to say, ‘You won’t be getting any of those.’

“There were 15 faces in a room, looking at me, and I knew I was presenting the white elephant. But I think it gave them the chance to imagine it before they saw the draw­ings.”

One judge could not understand the submarine. “He thought it was a sinister vessel. But it is not more sinis­ter than a man nailed to a cross. There was a theologian present who was asked if there was any theo­logical problem with it, and he said ‘No.’ Of course, I knew there wouldn’t be. I wouldn’t have put some­­thing forward if so.”

Ms Cross says the submarine is a metaphor for voyaging into a differ­ent realm. It will hang between earth and sky, symbolising the body on its final journey through death to eter­nity. “It is a transition from a realm of the known into the un­known. Under the ocean is as un­known in some ways as is space, or heaven. It is voyaging into a different realm.

“The only way to access spiritual­ity is through the obliteration of the body,” she says. “The gilding of the sub is important: it makes it pre­cious. No one will see the heart in­side; it is about faith. The viewer will have to believe it is there, as we do with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I grew up with the concept of the Sacred Heart. I like the idea of it hidden away: it gives the piece life.”

IF HER submission is chosen, Ms Cross will begin the process of find­ing a human heart to go inside. Hearts are available for purchase, but, she says, “It would be wonderful if somebody local wanted to donate a heart. Male or female, it would not matter: Christ on the cross was about suffering and sacrifice.”

Someone commented that she was mad to be thinking of using a real heart. “But it’s the heart that makes the piece work,” she says. “If I had not found the heart, I would have phoned up Vivien at Modus Operandi [the art consultants man­aging the commission] and said, ‘I cannot do it.’”

Someone commented that she was mad to be thinking of using a real heart. “But it’s the heart that makes the piece work,” she says. “If I had not found the heart, I would have phoned up Vivien at Modus Operandi [the art consultants man­aging the commission] and said, ‘I cannot do it.’”

DOES she believe in the view of the artist as divinely inspired? And, if so, does that devalue her own struggle for inspiration for a piece such as this? “The ideas, when they come, may be divine: we are the conduits, and have to be open to things.

“The older I get, I really believe that. When I was younger, I was trying to control things more. But now I think there has to be a certain amount of faith in the creation of whatever stuff is banging around in your head.”

She wants her Vessel (Heart Sub) to inspire wonder. Not shock, or intellectual stimulation or curiosity, but an emotion more transient, less tangible.

“I love the word ‘wonder’. . . I want to inspire wonder about the heart, wonder about the juxtaposition. It is about the invisible and the visible, which is what faith is all about.”

She wants her Vessel (Heart Sub) to inspire wonder. Not shock, or intellectual stimulation or curiosity, but an emotion more transient, less tangible.

“I love the word ‘wonder’. . . I want to inspire wonder about the heart, wonder about the juxtaposition. It is about the invisible and the visible, which is what faith is all about.”

The five proposals put forward for the Dean Walter Hussey Memorial Com­mis­sion are on public display in Chi­ches­ter Cathedral until 14 December.

www.chichestercathedral.org.uk

Vessel (Heart Sub) — Dorothy Cross

Vessel (Heart Sub) — Dorothy Cross

FOR THIS proposal I considered at length how to depict spiritual­ity. I felt that light and projection might be the only methods. I did not want to use technology as, with time, systems change and mechan­isms fail. I turned my direction back to the body. The idea of a gilded submarine con­tain­ing a human heart is aspira­tional. It is about discovery and ad­venture, the im-possible and hope. This submarine is removed from its realm and suspended mid-air inclined to-wards “heaven”: an ascension. The vessel symbol­ises discovery and de­struc­tion resemb­ling both sarco­phagus and capsule. The destruc­tive or explo­sive aspect of the submarine mir­rors the necessary obliteration and relinquishment of our bodies to access the spiritual: from the phy­si­cal to the non-physical ac­cent­u­ating the predica­ment of being body held/limited and the end­game of death to access the other side. The heart is central to the work. The organ of passion will be placed inside the vessel and remain unseen.

 

Next week: Jaume Plensa

 

Next week: Jaume Plensa

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