It’s a bold claim to name your artwork something as general and broad as ‘Life’: when there are nearly eight billion individual lives on earth, it takes a masterful and almost forensic understanding of the human psyche to capture the all-encompassing, universal experiences we share. Very few artists have caught it and been able to elaborate upon it. So, when I found out that Luxmuralis’ light show, ‘Life’, was coming to the northeast, I couldn’t resist.
And neither could the rest of Durham. Testament to the show being sold out from the opening night, I joined a queue that appeared to almost wrap itself round the front of the cathedral. Everyone was keen to experience the cathedral in – quite literally – a new light, and to be taken through “a journey through earth, sea and sky”, in which we are urged to “explore and contemplate [our] own personal journeys and reflect upon life on today’s planet that occurs in a single 24 hour period”.
The project appears to have focused on reinterpreting the cathedral’s architecture through light and audio. Andrew Usher, an organiser at Durham Cathedral, hoped that “this new installation [gave] people a different perspective on the spaces in the cathedral [people] know so well,” and Peter Walker, an artist behind the project, aimed – quite fittingly – “to bring the architecture to life”. Entering the exhibition space, though, the kaleidoscopic array of colour seemed to draw upon unoriginal and platitudinous preconceptions of vitality. Lots of colour seemed to equal ‘life’. Perceptive.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. The artistic feat was impressive in its technical sense (i.e. the capabilities of the projectors, lights and speakers within such a large space); and I think that the dynamic patterns and representations displayed were compelling in their modern conception of traditional church mosaics and frescos that would have illustrated biblical narratives. I feel as though this latter vision was best approached in the Nave – what seemed to be a visually impressive climax to the exhibition that awed me. For me, it evoked the idea of our beginnings.
This was perhaps the only redeeming quality of an otherwise mediocre installation. The Nave sequence was, to me, successful in the evocation of the sublime, effected by the larger space available. The projection stretches from the Choir to the end of the Nave and so, walking down this, the temporality of the artwork expands. Through the larger spatial dimensions, there is more time to induce contemplation and to embrace the sublime; and, with each second, you become immersed and embedded within the work’s narrative structures, transitioning from a viewer to a participant. As we accept our role within the artwork, we indulge in our submission to the awe-inducing display before us, which, for me, evoked vast concepts of creation.
When I say ‘sublime’, I mean it, in this case, in two senses. A Burkean understanding of the sublime would argue that the ‘terror’ of the existential contemplation of, for example, creation might awaken in us a thrill that comes from playing at peril with the promise of safety; whilst a Kantian perspective would suggest that it is the triumph of contemplating this experience that results in the surge of vitality (‘Life’) that we call awe. This twofold presentation of the sublime in the Nave successfully exerts a forceful, coherent impact on the viewer.
It is, however, difficult to argue that the rest of the exhibition had this same sense of clear artistic vision. Before approaching the Nave, I was left wondering what specific aspect of life was being interrogated by the artists. Afterall, the exhibition has been pointedly advertised by its reflections on “the natural world” and “our responsibility to protect it”; yet, I felt as though this was, at most, secondary to what was displayed. Projecting the odd fish does not qualify an artwork to be wholly focused on nature. Psychedelics; Genesis; death and destruction; narrative; the natural world. Nothing coherent – but all the fragmented thoughts that passed my mind. That doesn’t make the artwork profound either – just muddy and confusing.
This confusion emerges from (what came across as) the artists’ own bewilderment in not knowing what to do with the rest of the space. Where the light through the Nave sculpted itself along the horizontal expansiveness of the space, for the smaller, vertical displays the lights offered no emphasis or reimagination of the cathedral architecture – they merely projected onto it. The serialisation of an artwork and creating a general template for all exhibition spaces is risky – and here it showed. Indeed, I would posit that the weaker parts of the display almost began to endanger the sanctity of the cathedral, as well as its symbolic democracy. The lights became mere lights: the viewer became much more aware of the technical structures comprising the experience rather than the experience itself. Viewers were wrapped up in taking photographs rather than embracing the felt experience of art. This is no fault of the viewer (obviously art is to be photographed!), but rather the artists’ failure to interpret the smaller temporality of the smaller spaces they were working with properly (in contrast to the much larger space of the Nave). It left people hardly present with the work as there was simply no duration allowed for it; there was no reverence, no awe, for viewers were in no way engaged in the same power dynamic experienced in the Nave. Here you took a photo, you walked on. At these points, the cathedral became less a place of high contemplation and more an object of commercial, aesthetic beauty. Is it controversial, then, to suggest that these weaker areas were only open to further monetise the cathedral?
Considering the lack of a student discount for tickets to the show, the case for an underlying capitalistic agenda gains more substance. Indeed, the commercial success of the exhibition appeared to be a point of celebration for the organisers, with Usher saying:
“Where the installation has been shown in other cathedrals ticket sales are generally at around 60% sold on opening night. Here at Durham, we’d sold 98% of tickets as we opened the door on the first night and by the end of the evening all the tickets had gone.”
Maybe the boldness of this very article is somewhat hypocritical. Whether or not that is true, however, it is imperative that how art interacts with places of historical significance is interrogated and done so with consideration – especially in the current cost of living crisis. Naming the exhibition ‘Life’ was a tempter that I believe does not live up to its name; and that, to truly experience the universal truths of life, you might be better off visiting the cathedral during the daytime, for free.
Both art and religion are democracies that are open to all – we cannot lose either of them.
(Image: Catchik Paul Jordan)