Liverpool Biennial-The Oratory, St James Cemetery (next to Liverpool Cathedral)
North West England

1000 hand-blown glass bells, nylon string, 5.1 sound system, lighting

Audio duration: 8 mins 2 sec

Music by Fernando Rocha

New Commission for Liverpool Biennial 2010, Touched

The Oratory, St James Cemetery (next to Liverpool Cathedral), Liverpool L1 9DY

The Oratory sits in the shadow of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s Liverpool Anglican Cathedral and can be overlooked by the visitor in favour of the breathtaking sight of the red sandstone gothic monument. But for the duration of the Biennial the public will be encouraged to take time to enter the small, chapel-like building of the Oratory to view Brazilian Laura Belém’s artwork installation “The Temple of a Thousand Bells”. Acting as a trailblazer for the International Festival of Contemporary Art, Touched 2010, the installation was opened to the public on Friday 20th August but our visit on a bright and breezy Saturday afternoon acted as the starting point for this Liverpool Biennial review.

Entering the space you encounter an open central area surrounded by classical columns leading the viewer’s gaze upwards to the sky-lit installation of 1,000 glass bells. They are quite individual, slightly differing in size, hand blown glass and precious; none of them is more than a few inches high, each one suspended by nylon string at various heights from the translucent paneled ceiling. These bells are unusually clapper-less and redundant of sound. Even the gentle movement afforded to them by way of the breeze entering the space does not allow them to clash against one another and so they tantalize us with unfulfilled expectation. Sound is provided through the 5 strategically placed speakers which surround the empty central area. At the beginning of the sound piece, which lasts just over 8 minutes, you can hear gentle atmospheric sounds of wind, sea, chiming bells, which seem in keeping with the contemplative environment of the oratory. After a short while a male narrator’s voice overrides the soundtrack and begins to tell the legend of “The Thousand Bells” and thus attempts to explain the meaning behind the artwork.

Unfortunately the narration dominates the visual and aural experience which was enough on its own to powerfully convey notions of loss, fragility and melancholy. The sight of the gently swaying silent glass bells, the sparkling light captured on their forms, accompanied by doleful chimes and echoing abstract sounds communicated the “story” far more effectively than the slightly inaudible bass tones of the storyteller. This commentary is too literal and limits your reading of the work, taking away the mystique and stifling the viewer’s imagination. The attempt of a 3D sound-scape fails to ignite or enhance the beautiful spectacle from above. The success of Belém’s piece is due to the fact that it does not overpower the spirituality of the Oratory. It subtly relates to the whiteness of the marble, the alignment of the columns, and compliments the fabric of the building rather than being obtrusive.

The experience changes again with the addition of more visitors so that, as a communal gathering, it becomes less spiritual and more spectacle. It’s obviously an installation you would want to re-visit many times over in order to truly appreciate all aspects of this experience.

It’s wonderful to have access to this building which is normally off limits to the public and to be able to get up close and personal to Tracey Emin’s “Roman Standard” but the downside is an incredibly awkward, ill-conceived access ramp. The construction is shabby, distracts from the alignment of Emin’s sculpture, interferes with the classical lines of the Oratory building itself and is a poor introduction to the seductive and spiritual place which Belém has invented. Surely a design team could have devised a solution which was more in keeping with the experience of this site specific artwork.

Presently the installation relies mainly on daylight so it will be fascinating to see how the seasonal changes will alter the dynamics of this glass work. Will further consideration be needed to provide artificial lighting?