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By: Collaborative Space | Hannah Allan & Jeni McConnell
This blog documents the development of The Gates of Paradise, a project by Collaborative Space artists Jeni McConnell and Hannah Elizabeth Allan, commissioned by In Certain Places. They are two of five artists selected to create new artworks in response to the city of Preston, to be presented as part of the Guild celebrations in September 2012 – an historic event that takes place once every twenty years.
More information: http://www.incertainplaces.org
# 1 [5 January 2012]
Collaborative Space | The Gates of Paradise | Introduction
Collaborative Space is a partnership which emerged in 2009 from creative projects and explorations undertaken by artists Hannah Elizabeth Allan and Jeni McConnell working together, and leading collaboration with a range of artists, makers and performers.
The initial seed from which this way of working has flourished is the cast copy of the Gates of Paradise which quietly adorn the café walls of the Harris Museum in Preston. They are one of a group of full cast copies which exist around the world, duplicates of the original gold laden bronze doors which hung majestically on the Baptistery in Florence, Italy for over 500 years.
Our project focuses on interpreting the replication in cast form, as well as providing a basis to explore and define the nature of collaborative working practice. Investigations and working methods to date have included film, drawings, bookmaking and writing - produced over a period of two years after site visits in Preston, London and Florence.
In late 2011 In Certain Places approached Collaborative Space to further develop and extend The Gates of Paradise project to coincide with the Preston Guild 2012 celebrations, and alongside three other artists commissioned to work on independent projects.
The next phase for Collaborative Space is to conduct a research trip to visit cast copies in Berlin and Florence in February 2012, during which we will explore working methods with other artists, as well as between ourselves.
This blog will function not just as document but as meeting place; between the artists, ideas and sites. A creative form where a number of 'voices' around the project will be heard.
For further information about In Certain Places, the Guild, and our fellow artists follow the links below...
http://incertainplaces.org/home (Twitter: incertainplaces)
# 2 [13 January 2012]
In 2009 a simultaneous filming of the casts at the Harris Museum, Preston and the Baptistry, Florence took place. The text below recalls the intervention as a conversation between the spaces.
Absorb the historic surroundings; ancient, powerful and majestic buildings stand proudly cheek by jowl with the contemporary sentries which guard the perimeter. Paving slabs of grey, soft and smoothed through constant footfall support the eternal travellers.
We arrive too early, unexpected visitors. Echoing footsteps on the marble floor approach with the trundle of trolley wheels. Money counted coin by coin. Cutlery polished with a clean white cloth. Puzzled looks. Rewinding tape breaks the silence.
Amidst the buzz and unceasing chatter; nearer passing footsteps mingle with mechanical clicks and whirs of recording equipment. Wireless voices transmit through the airwaves, unseen, unheard except by those who sport the team colours, passing on the narrators story to them, the listener. Singular units that move almost as one; the flock shifts to a new location, a new fascination, triggered by a voice in their own tongue. And so the mingling of languages becomes incessant and drifts, distorted by the talkers own first voice, shadowed, hinting at their mother's tongue.
A slow trickle of visitors. Pairs sit down although many alone, hurrying through loaded down with bags of words. Frowns at the intrusion, suspicion of change within this static state - their space - questioning is required... "so what do you think you're doing?". An expectant shuffle and challenge. Tongues are bitten. Information given.
Swift feet pass as I stand . . . still . . . and look.
It is the people that shift here - ageing, greying, multiplying, beginning - the space remains unchanged, witness to their inconsistent state
Street beggars, some dressed in white billowing clothes with white faces pester, piercing your protective bubble, catching your eye, looking directly into your inner soul for a hint of generosity. Policemen talk together, with an ever watchful eye, guns loaded, strapped to their leather belts. Again there are more people, cameras facing you, taking pictures over your shoulder of what's behind, and you realise that there is so much to see. A short stop on the busy guided route, following the upturned umbrella, newspaper, the fluffy toy on stick, the handkerchief, the book; signs of the leader of your gang.
Still, silent. Cool and shaded. June's afternoon sunlight doesn't reach here.
The constant images taken to recall at a later date, adding 'we've done this' on the list of things to do before you die, a tick marks them being there, the classroom register harks - a snatched memory to look back on, a trigger and a mask in one.
The slow rhythmic swing marking a separate time, becoming hypnotised by its regular elliptical path. Too constant to bear after a while. Some visitors follow the camera's eye... interest piqued, information boards read. A small diversion to the routine.
A bell, a bicycle's faster movement catches the attention. Few run, most walk but with a constant eye to the surroundings, here not guided by narrow streets but wide open spaces and visual stimuli everywhere, perhaps it is just the sky and the ground that hold no interest and then you notice the camera held aloft. Perhaps there is nothing here that does not appear on an image somewhere around the world, in all those technological archives to be brought out at dinner parties.
The room slowly clears, tea drinkers moving on, shuffling away. Plates are cleared breaking the silence all too obviously. Hushed tones feel fitting here.
Suddenly the space clears, a solitary female stands resolutely in front of the fence, smiling, waiting patiently for her image to be captured, she had come at the right moment and as she moves away and before the next group arrives I can finally see that which I have been waiting for all this time.
# 3 [17 January 2012]
In November 2010 a research trip took place to the Cast Galleries at London’s V & A. Collaborative Space founders Hannah and Jeni were joined by artist Orly Orbach. After a discussion around Ghiberti’s Gates housed in the museum all three went on to create individual responses to the day.
Hannah developed an artist’s book containing pencil drawings and typewritten text (from Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’).
I was struck by the frailty and lack of grandiose posturing in the copy. These were neither the plaster of the Grand Tour tradition, or painstakingly replicated painted doubles, instead here were bowed and shunting sheets of tin. Misplaced in rooms of cool, grey monoliths and towering crosses. Unimaginable feats and times, great constructions, the oppressive sense of scale lingers in the mind, dizzying. Renaissance tin plate is easy to ignore in these surroundings.
Sitting here, I am spoken to less by Italy, and more of that London workshop which was surely not far from here, now idle. The replica, in being all too real, too fallible in its nature as duplicate, focuses the mind on its physical nature: the imperfections, its existence as pale shadow, a reminder of ‘the thing’ but never its own.
The essence - a half-life of a memory, an idea. Dissipating, weakening, yet also spreading.
Can a shadow begin its own story?
# 4 [6 March 2012]
This year I am able to see who rings those bells. I will always remember glancing over at the doorway to the south sacristy, where a priest stood in a perfectly placed shaft of sunlight, exuberantly pulling the bell rope once the dove had returned. In that moment it struck me how joyful Easter must be to a person who has devoted his life to the service of God. For many of us, it is a herald of spring, or an excuse for an extravagant feast, chocolate bunnies and brightly coloured eggs with surprises inside, but for Catholics Easter Sunday is the highlight of their religious calendar.
The explosions continue for a quarter of an hour. I hear the parade of Florentines in historic costume as it retreats from the piazza, and know that the police are stepping through the debris to remove the barricades now that the crowds have started to disperse. While the party outside may be over, inside the real celebration is just beginning. It's exciting to be in the basilica, to find out what happens after the cart explodes-now it seems more like a prelude to the main event. Even though the Scioppo del Carro tradition continues mainly for the sake of the tourists, it thrills me to be part of this event that began nearly a millennium ago. How dramatic it must have been when the explosions used to take place at midnight, under a veil of darkness. Even without the cart, midnight is still a significant moment of the holiday. Just before twelve, having rested silent since midnight on Holy Thursday, bells from all around the city join in the joyous song, calling people to this first mass of Easter.
As the long mass proceeds, people continuously traverse the area in front of me, their shoes squeaking on the marble floor. I observe the many priests; there is one who nervously twitters around, emphatically gesturing, unconvinced that all is well; the bell-ringer, well chosen for his enthusiastic disposition; and the archbishop with his beatific smile. The cheerful priest escorts young women and men to the sacristy; later they emerge with baskets to collect the donations. All the while children are admitted to a sectioned-off path along the main altar, proudly holding Easter eggs in their arms, or carrying them in pretty baskets or fresh kitchen cloths. They will be presented for blessing in the sacristy, something I had read about but did not imagine still happened.
Throughout mass, a number of honoured guests are admitted within the octagonal-shaped altar: trumpeters, their almost fluorescent red medieval costumes slightly reminiscent of a Santa Clause outfit; members of the military; the handsome city council member who attends all the cultural events; a tiny hunchbacked woman whose iridescent shoes always catch my eye as she walks through my neighbourhood on the other side of the river. Finally, the holy men parade around the choir, wearing lace and floral brocades in shades of spring-green, pink, lilac and yellow. With a nod towards the thousands of international visitors who come to Florence to celebrate Easter in the Duomo, prayers and closing greetings are spoken in ten languages. And regardless of your faith, or lack of it, you can't argue with the message of peace and harmony that the archbishop encourages everyone to carry into the sunny day.
# 5 [6 March 2012]
Last month (February 2012) we undertook a research trip to visit cast copies of the Gates in the Berlin Neues Museum and those hung on the Baptistry in Florence. Spaces were connected and compared through the casts, understanding how identical artworks are viewed and understood within their differing contexts.
Following posts will chart the visits through field notes, creative text and images.
In the meantime…
Visiting Florence allowed for the chance to reconnect in person with artist and writer Lisa McGarry, a resident of the city, who has been involved with the project since its initiation in 2009. Lisa’s book ‘The Piazzas of Florence’ intertwines personal experience of the spaces, with historical information and travel guide; a snapshot of the evolving environment beautifully illustrated with painted maps of the Piazzas. http://www.lisa-mcgarry.com/Lisa_McGarry/The_Piazzas_of_Florence_The_book.html
The following passage in particular struck us both as an evocative description of participating in an event held within the Duomo (Cathedral) and the Piazza which the Gates look onto. (Reproduced with kind permission of the author).
This Sunday morning feels like just another April day-sunny, lots of pedestrians on the streets, the cafes and shops open for business, with the usual Sunday exceptions. It's not until I have nearly reached Piazza del Duomo that I feel sure today really is Easter: the hordes of pedestrians have come to a halt, and a few blocks ahead, between the baptistery and the cathedral, Il Brindellone, the traditional cart containing the fireworks for the Scoppio del Carro, waits expectantly.
Once I enter the church, I wander among the crowds for a while, listening to the roar of thousands of people talking and the sweet voices of a children's choir piped over the speakers. 'It's almost as big as a soccer field,' I overhear a man say in Italian-the Italians always seem to have soccer on the mind.
I have never seen the church so packed. I finally find a spot by the altar, under the cupola. Centred before the raised altar is the column that supports one end of the wire, with the mechanical dove in the starting position. Helicopters are circling outside. There is a feeling of anticipation and excitement as I look around, taking in details that I have only read about before. Last year I was in the piazza and couldn't see much more than heads and shoulders. Even so, waiting in the closely packed crowd, hearing the spark of the dove upon its arrival and then the explosions of the cart-joined a few moments later by the joyful ringing of the bells - filled me with unexpected emotion. I am growing used to this fragmented way of witnessing celebrations here though - it's like assembling a collage or creating a mosaic of compiled memories over time.
# 6 [13 March 2012]
dry stones abut edge to edge
shifting feet skim the surface
audible scuffs, precise steps overlap
and envelop me
# 7 [19 March 2012]
one half of a performative lecture which took place 16 03 12 at the Harris Museum, Preston. Based on field notes from February visit to Florence.
Cool, damp marble. Tracing rusted veins that run along the surface.
Tinged blue morning light creeps into the square.
Trucks wake and haul the streets. Calls ring through, excavating stone, shattering, chipping away, illuminating.
Light moves through, and space begins to shift.
Sirens and bells pierce intermittently. Birds flee. Fading paint peels and falls. Soft brass.
Space and stillness
Brighter, people moving past. Loosely formed groups disperse and reform. Pausing, stilted movements, capturing.
American girls, laughing, form a line. “I’m the only one in the dark”. A shuffle along. Image after image. Positions shift. Adolescent loyalties played out for the camera, played for memory.
I was here.
A sudden crowd descends on the space. Always through a screen, only glimpsed, indirectly. A recreation of a recreation. Experience metered down.
Layers of detachment forming the image.
Softly booming around the space, into the city. Above new chimes, melodic yet overbearing. Rehearsed, a pattern, overlapping one another.
Silence rings through.
Chatter slowly re-inflates the square. Movement begins. Doors closed to milling women in hats.
Shadows flit overhead, darkened, sillouetted against the imposing light.
Metal rails hold and contain the mass. Tidal in pulls away and towards. Further back, removed, watching.
Intrusions into photography, loved ones alongside the anonymous spectator. Site on the map, marked in time.
Shoving motions, laughing exclamations. More people than place. Follow them through the city.
Out staring lenses at the cathedral doors. Will he catch my eye? Or only later, at home, and wonder what that mean look was for?
Teenagers just beyond, sat on steps, bored, smoking. Teacher delivers a flustered lesson, begging attention. Clipped facts, names, dates, strain above the hum.
Groups ebb, leaving and arriving in formation. Stragglers run to catch, a cursory nod towards the subject, more concerned with the now.
Indistinguishable forms twisting, audible… moving closer
Heads thrown back, snap forward. A few staggered steps ahead, straightening.
Intense stares, whispering and looking on darkly. Others vibrant, in the bright silver, dancing.
New visitors, groups and space claimed by the subterranean. Beneath the surface a shift. Flashes of neon rising into the night sky. Laughter and outreached arms, a chase.
# 8 [21 March 2012]
rise and fall, shaping physical shifts
mingled with human conversation
over-burdening, interfering, resurfacing
my visual stimuli
# 9 [28 March 2012]
one half of a performative lecture which took place 16 03 12 at the Harris Museum, Preston. Based on field notes from February visit to Florence.
Here we are in front of the cast copy of the Gates of Paradise in this beautiful ground floor atrium space that houses the café and entrance to the library in the Harris Museum here in Preston.
Replica casts of original sculptural and architectural original works of art were first created in the 16th century. Over time the process became more mechanised and their popularity grew.
The biggest display of casts in this country was seen by over a third of the British public at the 1851 Great Exhibition which was organised by Prince Albert and Henry Cole, the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. It is almost certain that a copy of this cast was on display for that event.
Casts were seen as educational tools and cast collections were formed in art schools over the world.
Casts were also purchased by collectors and museums to be displayed for the general public to view and marvel at works from around the world; works that they may never have the opportunity to see. Remembering that cameras weren’t invented and travel costs were very high, this was their opportunity to experience part of the world in their own town. You could say it was like bringing parts of the grand tour to their doorstep.
This building was designed by local architect James Hibbert. It is now a Grade I listed building, which houses the Library, Museum and Art Gallery.
Hibbert was an interesting character, someone who had a passion for doing what he believed was right for the town and the people who lived here. He wanted to create a building and its contents that would educate, inform and enlighten those who visited. You can see that this was expressed in a permanently visible way in both the interior and exterior texts on the building. You can see this around the central atrium space, but have a look on the outside as you leave too.
The Preston cast of the Gates of Paradise was part of a wider selection of 30 casts personally selected by the building architect James Hibbert to adorn the interior of the building. The purchase was supported by a grant for £500 from the Victoria & Albert museum which represented 50% of the total cost.
This particular cast was supplied by the Brucciani Casting Company of London and arrived by train in 7 boxes in December 1890. It cost £100 and was one of the most expensive and largest of the purchases, along with a cast of David which is no longer here. Delays nearly led to the grant running out of time and being lost, eventually Hibbert personally paid the £100 for the Gates of Paradise and was reimbursed by the committee later.
The Gates of Paradise have been on permanent display here since the grand public opening in 1893.
Over time it has been necessary to protect this cast which was originally white plaster. This material was favoured to allow people to have a clear vision of the sculptural qualities of the work. Over time you can probably see here that damage has occurred, and the museum has at some point decided to protect it with paint and an over layer of varnish.
Preston was not alone in choosing to purchase a cast of the Gates of Paradise. There were other casting companies in Europe and America producing both plaster and metal or electrotype cast replicas.
Casts began to fall out of fashion as the debate ensued about the values of real versus fake, copy versus original. Many cast collections were broken up in the 1950s and 1960s.
# 10 [11 April 2012]
Photographs Florence, February, 2012
A creative partnership led by artists Jeni McConnell and Hannah Elizabeth Allan.
Since 2009 they have been facilitating a process of enquiry and experimentation to explore the history and function of spaces and objects, reflecting upon the impact these have on individuals engaged in remembrance and forgetting.
Collaborative Space seeks to unearth obscured, unnoticed or ignored narratives connected to the everyday, be that an urban street or object; re imagining and retelling its past, present and questioning the future – connecting people, place and object.