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Let’s have a show of hands

17 November 2010

To mark the centenary of the birth of Dean Walter Hussey, Chichester Cathedral has commissioned Jaume Plensa’s sculpture Together for its main aerial space. Anthony Cane’s diary tells the inside story of the commissioning process

MY EARLIER diary entries were published in the Church Times on 16 October 2009. I take up the story as the shortlisted artists present their proposals.

28 October 2009

The day of the selection panel (chaired by Tim Llewellyn, former director of the Henry Moore Foundation) arrives. Jaume Plensa, hotfoot from Japan, is first up. He has constructed a beautiful 3-D model of the cathedral interior, containing a tiny maquette of a raised hand, reflecting the risen Christ blessing and absolving his disciples. The idea is that it is a fragment, leaving the viewer to imagine the rest.

Next is Antony Gormley, who describes his proposal (made of thin metal rods) as an energy field, but with the memory of a human body within. Ana Maria Pacheco has the most traditional proposal — a large wooden oval with a carved figure of the risen Christ within it.

Dorothy Cross comes up with the most startling idea, a golden submarine containing a human heart (at which point, I have to confess, my own heart sinks). Finally, Mark Wallinger proposes a simple suspension of the words “I am,” arguing that the Cathedral represents Christ in glory, and this context gives the meaning to his work.

The day ends with a discussion of the various proposals, but, disappointingly, no clear winner. Cross and Pacheco have little support. Comments and criticisms on the other three will be communicated to the artists, and they will be asked if they want to make any changes before the panel meets again in the New Year.

November-December 2009

Vivien Lovell (from the arts consultancy Modus Operandi) produces a series of beautifully designed panels for the exhibition in the north transept of the Cathedral. The cathedral community and the general public are invited to submit comments. There is a huge amount of interest, and more than 1000 written submissions are received. Predictably, the submarine is castigated, but there are letters of support for all the other proposals. The majority, however, are rather lukewarm about all of them.

10 February 2010

I go to London to meet Llewellyn and Lovell. We are to gather at Gormley’s studio to discuss the panel’s concerns with him, and then go to Lovell’s offices to do the same with Plensa (via Skype). Gormley’s studio is north of King’s Cross, behind an almost military-style solid metal gate.

I suggest to him that although his piece is meant to represent a human body within an energy field, you can’t actually see this. And the body needs to depict more clearly the resurrection. Gormley says we just have to trust the artist to make it work.

We take our leave, and go to Modus Operandi’s offices near the Barbican. Plensa’s face fills the computer screen, and we discuss the fact that one of several problems with his proposal is that his blessing hand looks rather amputated, mainly because of the Spanish dolomite he is proposing to make it from (used in his previous commission, Dream, in St Helens, Merseyside). I ask him if he had thought of using other aspects of his previous work, such as his airy stainless-steel figures made up of letters. Plensa’s final words make an intriguing contrast with Gormley’s. He says: “I know how hard it is to trust the artist so I must show you.”

16 March 2010

The second and final meeting of the selection panel. Before the meeting, members look through the written statements from the public. We have received amended proposals from Gormley, Plensa, and Wallinger. As we discuss these, it is clear that Plensa’s is the overwhelming fav­ourite. Although the ideas behind his proposal haven’t changed, the actual look of it is so different as to make it almost a different work.

Plensa’s proposal is for a three-dimensional stainless-steel sculpture in the form of the hand of the resurrected Christ, raised in the sign of blessing. It is constructed of a “cloud” of letters from eight alphabets, a metaphor for human diversity. After months of feeling rather gloomy about the commis­sion, once again there is an air of excitement, and the conviction that here is a piece that meets Chapter’s brief in a beautiful and profound manner.

28 May 2010

A special meeting of Chapter. Llewellyn and Lovell convey the selection panel’s recommendation. Then Plensa introduces his proposal. He is eloquent and humble. He shows off a beautifully constructed maquette, and has some attractive images. I suspect that if Chapter was to make an instant decision, it would be relatively easy to do so.

Quite deliberately, no decision is taken; we remind ourselves that Hussey used to live with artworks for months before deciding whether they would “do”. The Dean suggests that all members of Chapter should write down their thoughts and reflections, and bring these to our next meeting.

14 June 2010

As part of an ordinary business meeting, Chapter allocates an hour to the Hussey Commission. All read aloud their reflections, which are fascinating and thoughtful. We discuss them, and decide to give ourselves at least another month of “thinking time” before making a decision of this magnitude.

11 July 2010

Chapter spends another hour on the commission. By now the key issues and principles at stake are clear.

Is this the right piece for this space, and is it good enough art? We are in the realms of subjectivity, and yet the point is only partly about “liking” or “disliking”. Rather, we should be concerned with the quality of engagement that the artwork enables, and the thoughts, themes, and questions it evokes.

How accessible is the piece? Cultural context is crucial — experience suggests we cannot assume understanding of even basic Christian symbols.

To what extent does the artwork draw on Christian themes? A variety of Chapter members contributed insights: because the work is constructed of letters from eight alphabets, for example, it is literally the “Word made flesh” (John 1.14). It evokes the contrast between the tower of Babel (Genesis 11) and the Pentecostal Spirit enabling each person to hear in his or her own language (Acts 2). It communicates the forgiveness and blessing at the heart of the resurrection and ascension, beautifully connecting these with the priestly gestures in the eucharistic liturgy.

Is this an artwork capable of “speaking” to both worshippers and visitors? We believe so, and would not commission the piece other­wise.

At the end of our discussion, the Dean offers to write a paper over the summer exploring these and other issues, and to give a summary of where Chapter has got to — an offer gladly accepted.

13 September 2010

The Dean distributes his paper. Chapter, finally, is close to a decision. The moment of truth will come at our next meeting.

5 October 2010

Chapter decides to accept the selection panel’s recommendation. Although members have expressed a variety of views over the previous months, everybody swings behind the decision to commission Plensa’s artwork.

11 October 2010

The Dean tells Chapter of a conversation with Frank Field, chairman of the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England (CFCE). Field has suggested that we make a short presentation to the CFCE, and seek its advice before proceeding to any announcement.

21 October 2010

The Dean and I travel to Church House, Westminster, to make our presentation. We have 15 minutes, and we do our best, with the help of PowerPoint. The maquette, which I have transported in a shoe box, is passed around. It all seems to go well, but the CFCE is a large group, and it is hard to tell. We are told that we will receive our advice by letter.

2 November 2010

The CFCE letter arrives. We are encouraged to move on to the next stage of the process, and to bring a refined proposal back to the CFCE in due course, for formal approval. It makes a number of suggestions, including the use of a mock-up to test the form, size, and hanging height of the piece.

Sunday 7 November 2010

A statement from the Dean is issued to the congregation at all four cathedral services, announcing that Plensa’s revised proposal Together has been selected for the Hussey Commission. It is an exciting moment, although the ensuing comments include criticism as well as praise. Personally, I look forward to being able to share Chapter’s considered views in support of its decision, after months of having to be necessarily reticent.

NEARLY two years have gone by since this project began. We have had more hurdles to clear than Hussey ever did, and are not there yet. Given that all of Hussey’s commissions caused controversy, as contemporary-art commissions tend to, it would be surprising if this one was plain sailing. None the less, to be able to announce a work as beautiful and theologically rich as Plensa’s is a huge step forward.

Canon Anthony Cane is Chancellor of Chichester Cathedral, and represented the Chapter on the selection panel for the Hussey Commission. An exhibition of Plensa’s Together will be on display in the cathedral from Tuesday 30 November. Admission to the cathedral is free.


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