Saturday, 25 October 2014

‘Crucible 2’ at Gloucester Cathedral

‘You must see Crucible 2,’ people have been saying to us for the last few weeks, and now we have done. Crucible 2 is not a film, it’s an exhibition of 20th and 21st century sculpture; the second to be held in, around and even underneath Gloucester Cathedral.

Underneath? Yes, in the crypt, and in the slype below the Lady Chapel at the East end of the building. There are one hundred exhibits, from the monumental – a giant mobile called ‘Constellation 2014’: the stars in their courses high above the nave altar – to the less-than-lifesize (a Henry Moore maquette), displayed in the Close or in the Cloister, and in all parts of the cathedral itself. Where we see sculpture has a lot to do with how we see it, as I have tried to explain in Big Heads, discussing three large sculpted heads seen in public places in Paris, Dorset, Dusseldorf. And putting sculpture in a cathedral creates a very particular context, shaping the way we view each piece.

It has taken us two visits to see the entire show. Second time around, I warmed more to the pair of Lyn Chadwick figures greeting visitors at the main south porch; but I found Damien Hirst’s two angels, when seen again, even more disturbing than at first. ‘Anatomy of an Angel (Black)’, is placed in the north aisle, provocatively in front of a large wall monument, by Flaxman, depicting a mother escorted heavenwards by three winged angels. Hirst’s black angel is likewise winged but definitely earthbound. Seen from a distance or from behind, she –Hirst’s angels are uncompromisingly naked and feminine – looks sleek and demure; full-frontal, however, it’s clear she has been partially dissected, an artist’s model repurposed as an anatomical specimen. It’s as if the sculptor has remembered Lear’s injunction, ‘Let them anatomise Regan, see what breeds about her heart’. The right side of her face has been stripped back to the skull; her breast is flayed, her belly betrays her guts, and a segment of muscle from her left thigh has been excised to reveal her femur. What might from a distance have been a graceful Canova-like angel becomes, in focus, an appalling embodiment of Milton’s definition of Hell, ‘darkness visible’.

Antonio Canova is the starting point for Hirst’s second exhibit. ‘Fallen Angel’, the pose explicitly borrowed from Canova’s sculpture The Repentant Magdalene, is perhaps the most arresting piece in Gloucester Cathedral. Again, no suggestion of sexlessness here: this stunning golden image with huge wings presents a young woman kneeling back against the stump of a tree, her long hair falling, as Mary Magdalene’s conventionally does, over her shoulders and back. The gold is so highly polished that it is not easy to see at first the harm she has done herself. Scratched across her stomach are the words LOVE ME x, and her arms are scarred with cuts.

Come closer (she is placed in the Sanctuary, near to the High Altar): all but hidden from view in her left hand is a folded packet; syringe, spoon and lighter beside her right knee explain the packet’s contents, and above her left elbow a tight-knotted tourniquet is already in place. Hirst has never exhibited ‘Fallen Angel’ before. One day it will have become among his best-remembered works.

But it isn’t ‘Fallen Angel’ that has made the deepest impression on me. Alone in a tiny chantry chapel on the south side of the nave is a hand, the smallest exhibit in the entire show, and I cannot forget it. It is made of bread. The artist, Marc Quinn, has been exhibiting bread hands since 1991, but this is the first time I have seen one in the flesh – as one cannot quite say. To be clear: he has not carved the hand from a loaf of bread, but shaped it from proven dough and then baked it, the final result as much the effect of yeast and heat as of the sculptor’s in(ter)vention. But you can make out, just, the knuckles of its fingers, the lines on its palm.

So here it lies, on an altar: an open but a mutilated hand. What meaning can I give it?  As I try to absorb what I am seeing, words, not images, help me out: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning,” or, more expressly, “If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off.” Then, more insistent still, Seamus Heaney’s memory of his

                                                  … once capable
Warm hand, hand that I could not feel you lift
And lag in yours.

Chanson d’Aventure, from which these lines come, describes the poet’s anguished journey by ambulance to hospital following a stroke, accompanied by his wife, Marie. The poem appears in his valedictory Human Chain (2010), the lines themselves appropriated from an untitled, uncollected poem by Keats:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood …. (1819)

Unlike Keats’s ‘living hand’, Heaney’s has lost its cunning. Without sensation in his hand the poet is in danger of losing touch, literally, with all that’s most precious; sense and connection are denied him. Moved by Marc Quinn’s ‘Bread Hand’ and by this poem of Heaney’s – about which I’ve written elsewhere – I have been re-reading Human Chain, and now see that in these last poems, the significance of hands is an ever-present trope.  In poems after poem hands feel, hold, experience pain, transmit tenderness, acknowledge acceptance. Twice indeed Heaney coins new hand words: ‘emptyhandedness’ to describe human loss, and ‘steadyhandedness’ for that fragile sense of human equilibrium he so tenaciously championed. ‘Bread Hand’ at Gloucester Cathedral sums up for me Heaney’s openness to life in its simplicity, fragility, cruelty and complexity. So perhaps the word to describe this sense is one Heaney himself might have smiled at, then accepted – ‘breadhandedness’.

[illustrations: (i) ‘Anatomy of an Angel (Black)’, 2008, by Damian Hirst, in the N aisle of Gloucester Cathedral; (ii) ‘Fallen Angel’ (2014), by Damian Hirst, in front of the High Altar, Gloucester Cathedral; ‘Bread Hand’ by Marc Quinn, in the Chantry Chapel, S aisle of Gloucester Cathedral.

[References: all quotations from Heaney’s poetry come from Human Chain, (London: Faber and Faber, 2010). The word ‘emptyhandedness’ appears in ‘The Butts’, p.12; the lines from ‘Chanson d’Aventure’ are on p. 15, and the word ‘steadyhandedness’ occurs in ‘Hermit Songs ix’ on p.79.

Text and photographs © Adrian Barlow

You can read my discussion of sculpture in public spaces, Big Heads, here.
I have written about Gloucester Cathedral before:

My previous posts about Seamus Heaney include the following:


  1. I'm heading to the 'H' section of the poetry bookcase as soon as I've finished typing this. Thank you for sending me there!

  2. Adrian - a clever segue between sculpture with poetry (a handover..?).

    It sounds like you admired the skill in Hirst's sculptures and the concept? Less playful than the Hirst of yesteryear, but no less serious? If you get the chance, you can see some of Jake and Dinos Chapman's latest work at the Fitzwilliam. They have created a series of drawings based on Goya's Disasters of War - or perhaps more precisely defacements of the originals. And then as part of the Mannequins exhibition, a couple of provocative school children - pig child and duck child - wearing school uniforms adorned with a swastika and the words "They teach us nothing".
    But I sense you admired the craftsmanship in Hirst's sculptures too?

  3. Jake and Dinos Chapman also have an exhibition currently at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings – until the end of the month. But I refuse to be coerced into the admiration of any kind of art that pops its head above the parapet!