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Drawing on the light available

14 October 2016

Katy Hounsell-Robert sees glass creations at Salisbury Cathedral

ash mills

Over the font: Incandescent by Amy Cushing

Over the font: Incandescent by Amy Cushing

THE current exhibition on the theme “Reflection” at Salisbury Cathedral comprises diverse glass sculptures by nine renowned inter­national artists, relating to and in­­spired by the history, architecture, and spirituality of the cathedral itself. The artists, aided by the cur­ator, selected and acquainted them­selves with a space where they felt creatively at home. By reflecting on this, they have produced work of enormous variety in concept, materials, and technique.

The first piece one sees, which is the only one outside in the Close, is Launch by Rebecca Newnham. A shining arch 220cm high made of steel and fibreglass, through which one has a view of the cathedral, heralds what is to come. It is coated with a glass mosaic skin, which gives the impression of a bird’s wings lowered to prepare for flight and to be spiritually uplifted by the exhibition.

Just inside the west door, one encounters New Perspective, which conjures up a feeling of the mystery of medieval alchemy. It is a narrow, mirror-topped working table, with small engravings suggested by words and graffiti carved in the walls and flagstones of the cathedral, and supported by a wooden frame in the shape of the star of David. But it is not just to look at, but to look into, and have an enlarged view of the fine coloured vaulting. A double-sided glass mirror is placed vertically each end, but if you look into the mirror it does not reflect you. When another visitor comes along and looks in the far mirror, you see him or her in the mirror facing you.

Sally Fawkes and Richard Jackson have created this thought-provoking piece. Fawkes sees a design visually straight away, while Jackson’s imagination is sparked off by words or thoughts that later materialise into images. It is a fascinating partnership. Their second piece, Inhale/Exhale, is 332cm high, and stands proudly in the cloister garth. With a steel lower base, the upper structure travels up as fine sculpted translucent glass, a smaller more fragile reflection of the cathedral spire, symbolising the ascent to heaven.

Colour and light affect us emotionally. The medieval stained-glass windows, often originally made of ground precious and semi-precious coloured stones, were not just to tell stories from the Bible, but to stimulate feelings of devotion and piety: hence the use of precious stones in the rings of prelates.

The idea of enhancing William Pye’s beautiful continuously flowing baptismal font with a decoration may seem almost disrespectful, but Amy Cushing has created Incandescent, a delicate modular piece 310cm long, composed of nearly 600 small kiln-formed different-coloured pieces of glass, suspended high over the font from the ceiling. It reflects the blues, purples, yellows, delicate greens, and browns of the stained-glass south window, and is itself reflected in the font and complements it. When the great west door is opened, it moves and tinkles gently.

On the ancient flagstones of the west cloister stand Sabrina Cant’s five 120cm jesmonite white columns. She has used two of the five Platonic solid shapes that occur in nature and ancient cultures — a glowing icosahedron capital decor­ates the top of the central column, while red, green, and black cubes cap, and have been built into, the other four. Their apparent sim­plicity and completeness draws one to look for more depth in each piece where one sees different shapes and geometric structures within. Cant uses a colour-grading technique that she developed at the Royal College of Art and feelingly observes that her visible work is founded on “years of training, experience, research and develop­ment of processes. . . [which] together with many days of hard physical work in cutting, grinding and polishing work is embodied in each finished sculpture”.

Rebecca Newnham’s second piece, Sound Parabolas, is near the choir stalls, and comprises two concave pieces of fibreglass covered with many pieces of polished dark glass which echo or reflect a cap­tured second of music.

On a more sombre reflection on the walls of the south and north aisles, where memorials have been erected over the years, Sylvie Vandenhoucke has placed a loose series of empty picture frames coated with fine frit (crushed glass). This work, Lost Histories, reflects how time indifferently removes even famous men out of the picture, leaving rather uninteresting frames to be filled again with deeds of valour.

In front of the Trinity chapel, Livvy Fink’s two pieces Untitled I and II are placed. They have a tech­nical relationship with the Whistler glass prism in the cathedral’s col­lection, and the artist has collabor­ated with astronomers and micro­scopists to investigate the relation­ship between macrocosm and microcosm. Looking deeply into the small prism of the piece, one can see the world. She skilfully uses phos­phorescence to represent the natural iridescence of living forms.

In the morning chapel, reflecting the beautiful reds, blues, and greens of the stained-glass windows above, and lit by additional artificial light, is Devotion, an array of 81 blown-glass sculptured votive pieces, positioned artistically on several shelves. Reminiscent of a medieval monastic apothecary, they do not, however, contain liquid herbal medicines and ground mineral concoctions. Instead, Louis Thompson has sculpted fine coloured shapes inside them with hot glass. Some resemble living structures.

His second piece in the south transept is a wide white table, 980cm long, laid with another group of many-coloured translucent globules, like a feast of light. Influenced by the fact that the cathedral is floating on water, he calls this piece Sailed on a river of crystal light, into a sea of dew, a quotation from “Wynken, Blyken, and Nod” by Eugene Field. When sunlight floods through the west window in the afternoon, the whole table becomes a river of colour and light. Thompson is intrigued by sequence, repetition, and multiples, in blown and hot-sculpted glass.

In the north transept, a huge black fibre-optic-cable “surrealist” installation, Connection, is sus­pended 3.5m above the floor. It contrasts dramatically with the other pieces, and introduces a refreshing approach. From the cables gushes a spray of open-ended blue curved glass tubes. The piece by Galia Amsel, who
was born in London but now lives in New Zealand, was originally made for a disused cement site on the Auckland waterfront, and has been adapted for the cathedral. Her thinking is that a cathedral is a place where one tries to communicate with God, and that cables are used for communication.


The Cathedral Visual Arts Adviser, Jacquiline Cresswell, has curated the exhibition with the sculptor Rebecca Newnham.
Reflection” is at Salisbury Cathedral until 16 November. Phone 01722 555120.

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