A few weeks ago we had our opening show ‘Hidden/Revealed’ at 35 Chapel Walk, our new space to explore art and spirituality in Sheffield City centre. Beneath the building, down steep steps, is the cellar. Its walls are dank and crumbling and it was here that artist Keith Barley worked for weeks on his installation piece ‘Everything/Everywhere’.
In the text to accompany his piece Keith writes about the child reading a book under the bed covers with a torch and descending into the cellar gave that sense of emerging into another world, a world that is familiar and yet fantastical.
Strange symbols are inscribed on the walls, plaster has been chipped away to reveal the brickwork beneath and it’s hard to tell what is the work of the artist and what is the intrinsic decay of the building. It feels like an undiscovered tomb or the site of an arcane ritual. Coloured lights and shadows twist and leap cast by maquettes on turn tables that are sculptures in their own right and look like tiny stage sets. There is soil and branches on the floor as well as urban scenes in the shadows and strewn broken glass as if all kinds of places and experiences are folding in on themselves in this one small room. And then, flickering on and off, a UV light reveals new shapes and symbols, invisible before. The space is dynamic and alive.
And whilst, in some ways there is a sinister edge to the experience, what strikes me is the warmth. The dank, damp cellar has been transformed by the heat of the lighting so that I feel safe, held in the womb of the earth. One person has written in response:
“I have seen quite a few art installations in my life but not one had an effect like this one. I don’t have any words for the mixture of complex emotions it evoked in me. I can tell you what they are not – they are not fear, they are not anxiety, they are not disappointment or any form of unhappiness. They weren’t the opposites of these either.”
For me it feels like revisiting that childhood world under the bed covers, only this time the innocence has gone and we know from our experience of the world that the monsters are real. And yet this isn’t a cause for despair.
Before Aristotle it was believed that light originated in the eye to be reflected back by the world in order for us to see. This is clearly untrue in any rational understanding of the way the universe works but there is something in the nature of our gaze that transforms what we see and determines what is hidden and what is revealed to us. Just as the ultraviolet, red and blue lights all revealed something new and hitherto unseen in the cellar so the light from our own eyes illuminates the world and casts shadows. If we choose the gaze of love, of hopefulness and optimism we will see different things than if we look with fear or judgement.
The monsters are real, they do lurk in the shadows and sometimes in plain sight but we can choose the light that we see them by.
All photos © Keith Barley