‘When Artichoke are in town there is no normal’ says one of its Directors, Helen Marriage. Her words remind me of some of Wallace Stevens.
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said ,”You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
The changing of things as they are: this is the common cause of art and religion. Both stretch the imagination in new ways, requiring us to appreciate that there is always much more to appreciate than we first see, and to recognise that there is more to understand than we yet understand.
Grouped with friends who had travelled from the Midlands just to see it, the Crown of Light, playing out the prehistory of Durham Cathedral on its own north elevation, was another revelation this year. I have seen it before, but each time another mystery is disclosed and I am drawn to marvel all the more deeply at the faith that made the place.
Inside, the flickering and darting light of [M]ONDES in the almost complete darkness of the Cathedral’s nave spoke to me of the sparklers of a child’s bonfire night, the first rays of dawn on a frosty morning and, more metaphysically, of the tumbling and tacking of faith though the course of an honest human life. Nothing linear or bombastic here, but a coiling, charming and compelling counter-reality, an uber-reality, even, that gives strength and purpose though its luminous fragility. This, perhaps, is faith.
Of a completely different texture was the Consumerist Christmas Tree in the Prince Bishop’s Shopping Centre. This reminded me that one of the reasons contemporary art so easily outwits contemporary religion is because it is so comfortable with that most strangely generative of idioms, irony. The splendid cone of plastic shopping bags speaks with wit to thousands who would never be the slightest bit touched by a rant from a pulpit about the ‘commercialisation of Christmas’. This Tree was most at home in the shopping centre, and it was an act of audacious irony to put it there. This, perhaps, is prophecy.
The crowd control arrangements this year have been far better than in the past. If you don’t believe me believe this tweet from Durham Constabulary: Durham Police would like to commend the organisers of Lumiere on the vast improvement on crowd control this year. #lumieredurham This meant that I spent over an hour standing in North Road last night (maybe you did too) and had plenty of time to admire ‘Keyframes’ at the Durham Miners’ Hall. This installation was a dance of stickmen who begin digging coal and end up dancing the night away; reflecting the history of the building whose facade they illuminate in an edgy yet playful way. On the floor is 16 tonnes of coal. Rumor has it that someone was heard saying, in a local accent, ‘what’s all that black stuff’. It makes you wonder about things as they are – and what changes them.
Six years ago I visited Tamil Nadu, the state with the most spectacular Temples in India. At one of them I encountered an elephant, who, for a one rupee banana, would delicately lay his trunk on your head, as if in blessing. That made me think we needed an elephant at Durham Cathedral. Well, we haven’t got one yet, but Artichoke gave us one at Elvet Bridge, welcoming all who come and inviting us to see what is, and to see it differently – as if played upon a blue guitar.
Earlier today I asked a Cathedral chorister what he had liked best in Lumiere. ‘The fish in the telephone box,’ he said. ‘Good answer,’ I replied. The crowds were thick when I got to it, but with patience I was able to get close and allow my mind to be transported by its strangeness. It made me wonder how many lifetimes I would need to think of something as creative. It also seemed to me that the fish were very happy, given so much depth to explore.
I have no idea whether fish are happy, of course, or whether they can experience anything like happiness – or for that matter anything other than happiness. They are famous for shortness of memory and maybe there is a kind of bliss in that, but deeper joys come not when we just say ‘ooh’ and forget something, but when we scratch our heads and begin to wonder deeply, see differently and imagine freshly.
Artichoke aims to ‘invade our public spaces’ and put on events that ‘remain in the memory for ever’. In Lumiere Durham 2013 they have done exactly that, and I for one want to offer both thanks and congratulations.