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Manchester gives pause  

04 March 2016

Pat Ashworth follows the PassionArt Trail

Virtual altarpiece: Veneration Bell, by Adam Buick, in St Ann’s, Manchester

Virtual altarpiece: Veneration Bell, by Adam Buick, in St Ann’s, Manchester

MANCHESTER put on its first and much acclaimed PassionArt Trail in 2014, inviting Lenten engagement with particular works of art in some of the city centre’s most iconic locations. The theme for this year’s trail is “Be Still”, an invitation to pause and reflect on wilderness, silence, mindfulness, and simplicity within the everyday. Venues range from the Cathedral and Art Gallery to the social and warmly eccentric workspace that is Ziferblat.

The hollow sarcophagi and funerary jars of Julian Stair’s exhibition, Quietus Revisited, have a powerful impact in the loftiness of the cathedral setting, especially the upright vessels. They are things of quiet, awesome beauty: the caress of a hand over the earthy clay is irresistible. The body of work was prompted ten years ago by the loss of the Stairs’ child, and the presence of two tiny and perfect sarcophagi in a side chapel is deeply poignant. Another sarcophagus lies parallel to a marble effigy of a Victorian bishop. Funerary jars are ranged high up on ledges in the cathedral’s carved wooden screen, shelved like a library of bright books.

The Angelus is being rung daily throughout the period of Lent from the galleried, 300-year old St Ann’s Church. Here, in the white simplicity of its interior, is Manchester’s first digital altarpiece, Veneration Bell, by the Welsh artist Adam Buick. Few things are more evocative and timeless than the sound of the sea. In caves around the coast of Pembrokeshire, Buick suspended hand-thrown ceramic church bells, which chime in repeating patterns as the waves lap against the rocky walls at different states of the tide. The 16-minute projection invites immersion in a very profound sense.

Also in St Ann’s is ceramic work by Rachel Ho which includes a moving piece influenced by the Japanese art of Kintsugi. A jagged scar, suggestive of cancer surgery, breaks the otherwise smooth surface of a vessel, but the wound is edged with pure gold in a brokenness made holy. In the nave of the church is suspended a mist of manna created from the stitching together of thousands of wafer-like paper circles by Lesley Sutton, fibre artist and originator and director of PassionArt.

The dark and mysterious recesses of the latticed John Rylands Library yield up a selection of Ghislaine Howard’s 365 Series, the daily meditations that she has been painting as a spiritual discipline since the London bombings of 2007. They are miniatures inspired by newspaper pictures and none are identified or titled, making what they depict universal. Two women are fleeing, carrying a heavy bag unevenly between them. Hands cover eyes or are pressed to faces in despair. A crouching captive awaits a beating.

Manchester’s “”Hidden Gem”, St Mary’s RC Church — a sea of marble — hosts Norman Adams’s colourful and primitive Stations of the Cross. In the city’s Art Gallery — very actively engaged with the Trail this year — the most mesmeric work is Antony Gormley’s Filter, a figure suspended in a void over the staircase in the gallery’s glass atrium. The arms are passively down by his side as he floats. Movement on the stairs beneath the figure causes a slight sway in its suspended state. It is serene and beautiful.

Makoto Hatori’s tea bowl and Edmund de Waal’s sequential trios of plain thrown porcelain cylinders are pleasingly at home within the meditative space and pristine simplicity of the gallery’s exhibition of modern Japanese design. Gwen John’s painting, Interior, in Gallery 10, depicts a wooden table laid out for tea in a softly lit room with the simplicity of a monastic cell: the artist’s reception into the Roman Catholic Church answered her longing for “the interior life”, and the journal on the table awaits her daily meditations.

G. F. Watts’s powerful and compassionate oil painting, The Good Samaritan, which he presented to the gallery in 1852, is full of tenderness and compassion.

On the first floor of an unremarkable building on an unremarkable street, Ziferblat is where a generation without office space of their own can socialise or do business. They pay an entrance fee of 6p per minute, which includes free tea, coffee, and cake, and can work amid a comfortable assortment of vintage furniture.

So the suspended gilded birdcages of the graphic designer and conceptual artist Micah Purnell look so at home here that I took them at first for part of the setting. They contain images inspired by the temptations of Christ, but intended for a generation caught up in consumerism and celebrity.

One cage contains two identical bars of soap, one costing 37p, the other £25. In another cage, a family sit down together at the table. And perhaps most thought-provoking of all, a quotation from The Elves and the Shoemaker: “The elves go home. They are happy. The shoemaker and his wife have lots of money and they are happy.”


“Be Still” runs in Manchester until 2 April. www.passionart.guide 

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