Menagerie in the cathedral

22 September 2017

Nicholas Cranfield sees the sculptures in Chester’s ‘Ark’

Photography by Steve Russell Studios, Courtesy of Gallery Pangolin

Mind those talons: Noah and the Raven, 1988, by Jon Buck

Mind those talons: Noah and the Raven, 1988, by Jon Buck

SEVEN years ago, the Dean of Gloucester at that time, the Very Revd Nicholas Bury, brought together an exhibition of some seventy sculptures to celebrate the numerous foundries in his county. “Crucible” (Arts, 8 October 2010) was immensely successful in its own right. He had worked closely with the London gallery Pangolin to ensure the dialogue between each work and the sacred space in which it was set. In much the same way, “Odyssey” opened up Bath Abbey (Arts, 19 April 2013) for those who wished to explore it.

Now the outgoing Dean of Chester, the Very Revd Gordon McPhate, has presided over the setting up of 90 works of art (the curating again entrusted to Pangolin) in his effort to celebrate the north-west and the city of Chester.

The recent clever re-use of a former 1930s Odeon cinema, Storyhouse, as a city library, theatre, and cinema, which opened in May at a cost of £37 million, is a measure of how seriously the municipal authorities are working to integrate the arts and the city. The Lord Mayor and the Lord Lieutenant of the County were among the distinguished guests at the opening of the cathedral exhibition.

The exhibition brings together sculptures of animals as they might once have crowded the ark. It also treats of “ark” as a vessel and a safe place of sanctuary. One of the half-dozen new works on display is simply entitled Vessel. Standing 68cm high in the south-west corner of the cloister garth, it is a wooden pot punctured with more than a million carpet tacks. David Mach (b.1956) thinks there may be nearer two million tacks, giving a rough surface to the work which echoes the unevenness of the stone wall of the cloister.

Jon Buck, whose 1988 corvid work Noah and the Raven almost has the raven tearing out the landless Noah’s eyes with its talons (south transept), has stood an equally tall bronze (Repository, 2012) in a niche. Black “glyphs” like the enigmatic cave paintings of so many pre-existing cultures course around the red background as if in a primeval gloop.


Similar “glyps”, Buck’s own word for these simplified animal forms, cover the surface decoration of his Ark: High and Dry (2017), which stands at the crossing. Here, a squirrel chases a scorpion, and a kangaroo bounds in a landscape filled with ibex, octopus, snails, and pumas. Viewed from either transept, the work appears to be almost a large cope; it weighs more than three tons, and is best ducked when turning to enter into the quire.

Some of the placings are particularly felicitous; the sinuous vertebrae of Daniel Chadwick’s Whale, hanging like so many blue acrylic coat-hangers in the north choir aisle from a carbon-fibre backbone 12 metres long weighs only a few pounds and moves gently in the air as it beckons towards the blue window of St Werburgh’s chapel.

Almuth Tebbenhoff (b. West Germany, 1949) was first known for her studio ceramics, but she now works in steel, bronze, and, more recently, marble. Learning that all stone contains water within it, she has hollowed out a block of white marble as if to find the water within the crystalline structure of the rock. Indensity (2014) stands in front of the piscina in the sacrament chapel, decorated by Clayton & Bell in the 1870s. Here, the aumbry, too, reminds us of Moses striking a rock in the wilderness.

For War Horse (2011), Joe Rush (b.1960) had used military waste, including gravy boats from the officers’ mess at Sandhurst, and bullet shells, to form the mane and neck of his work celebrating the tireless part that horses played in the battle zone of the First World War. It is fittingly placed in the chapel of St George, which serves as a shrine for the Cheshire Regiment.

Out in the cloister, the snout of Elisabeth Frink’s 1975 Wild Boar points towards a small mullioned window by Trena Cox of 1934, in which the Gamon family crest is a boar, while two goats by the late Terence Coventry, who died earlier this year, aged 80, stand in the four-bay slype, as if in a barnyard.

Not all the works are quite so happily sited. I am not sure what the Bishop’s latest daughter-in-law will have made of entering the cathedral a day after the exhibition opened to stand on the western steps beneath a chuppah-like canopy (Alastair Mackie) lined with three-and-a-half thousand dry leaves, as she found herself looking at the rump of a life-size gorilla that is spreadeagled on the nave floor (Angus Fairhurst, The Birth of Consistency).

In his valedictory letter in the cathedral newsletter, Dean McPhate writes of the “intrigue, politics, and conflict” of the cathedral community. One can only hope that this Ark offers a safer space in which to explore those tensions and resolve such conflicts as the community enters a new chapter in its life at his departure.

Steve Russell, who is no stranger to photographing zebras, has sensitively photographed each exhibit in situ for the catalogue, and includes the two sculptures by Jonathan Kingdon (b.1935) of Hartmann’s Mountain Zebras, their heads ranging along the low parapet of the Chapter House wall in their new Gothic habitat, besides taming Michael Joo’s 2009 work Stubbs (Absorbed) for its cover.

The preacher at the festival evensong that marked the opening of the exhibition reminded the auditory of the outrage caused four centuries ago when James VI/I paid for the re-decoration of Holyroodhouse chapel. The carvings of Apostles and Patriarchs and the figures of Faith, Hope, and Charity alarmed the more Presbyterian-minded Scots, who denounced the setting up of idols. As the king pointed out, the lion and dragon on the royal crest would not have worried them.

Even with the preacher’s sermon text, of Jeremiah 8.19, in which the prophet fulminates against those who provoked God’s anger with their graven images and with their foreign idols, in mind, there seems little in the cathedral or outside, where Sarah Lucas’s shire horse (Perceval) weighs in at 14 tons, to startle the horses.

“Ark” is at Chester Cathedral until 15 October.

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