It looked like an enormous vacuum cleaner part – a black plastic tube emerging from the stone archway of an upper gallery, coiled into a knot in midair, and dangling just above our heads. A cluster of clear claw-like objects protruded from the open end of the tube. I stood in the transept of Salisbury Cathedral puzzling over the purpose of this contraption. They must be involved in some kind of cleaning or restoration project, I thought. Perhaps the tube was a chute for removing debris from the upper gallery. Or perhaps when it was uncoiled the tube reached to the ground and the claws became a tool for cleaning the stone floors. Neither idea was very convincing. At this point I turned to see my husband chatting to a cathedral docent, an elderly woman who could have just stepped out of a Barbara Pym novel. I wandered over and could scarcely believe what I heard. The vacuum cleaner tube was an art installation! Part of an exhibit called Reflections it was relocated from its original site in a disused cement silo on the waterfront in Aukland, New Zealand. Apparently, if you stood directly under the mouth of the tube and looked up, the plastic claws became a rainbow of reflected light. We tried it out and it worked. But what a tiny payoff for such an eyesore in the magnificent Gothic cathedral.
I am no fan of installation art, as readers of last year’s diatribe against exhibits in the Flemish cities of Bruges and Ghent will know. But at least those were in secular spaces. Even a non-believer wants to see a Gothic cathedral look … well, Gothic. But, as we sat on the patio of the Bell Tower Tea Rooms next to the cathedral enjoying a traditional cream tea, I had to reluctantly admit that another piece was quite beautiful. Shards of colored glass hung above a font that gently poured its waters over the lip at four corners. With reflected light on the glass echoing the stained glass windows and the running water reminiscent of a holy spring, this modern installation lived in perfect harmony with the medieval spirit of the cathedral. Hmm, could I be softening my attitude to art installations? Perhaps for a moment, but the next stop on our itinerary would only harden my heart.
A couple of days later we left England to visit my relatives in Belgium. If I had been horrified by some of the installations in Salisbury Cathedral, much worse was to come when I entered Sint-Baafskathedraal in Ghent. First there was the enigmatic rather silly installation in a side chapel. It looked as though a cake decorator had gone berserk with a frosting pipe or perhaps it was the sorry result of a preschool papier-mache project. That some form of intelligent life had actually planned it to look like this seemed improbable.
We moved on to the entrance for viewing Ghent’s most prized possession, the famous Flemish panel painting The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan van Eyck. Called Het Lam Gods in Flemish, it is known familiarly as “de lam” to the people of Ghent. This painting holds a special place in my heart quite apart from its importance in art history. Whenever I stayed with my grandmother in Ghent when I was a child we would make the pilgrimage to the cathedral to visit de lam. At home in England we had a small wooden replica of the painting in our living room. Today it is in my living room. For me the painting is inseparable from my love for my mother’s country and nostalgia for the world of my childhood.
So imagine my shock when I saw a crude parody of the painting on display right outside the entrance. Photographs of a heavily tattooed modern couple represent Adam and Eve on the door panels, the faces of the figures on the upper panels are ugly red blobs, and on the lower panels some humans have morphed into pigs. Overall the painting is sloppy and amateurish in stark contrast to the meticulous fine detail of the original. We stood looking at this monstrosity with mouths agape. I was particularly horrified that the children with us were exposed to it before they had seen the real painting. Despite the “no photographs” sign and the watchful eye of the official in the ticket booth, one of our company managed to sneak a photo of the offensive parody.
To be clear, I am no censor. I have no objection to anyone painting a parody of de lam or anything else for that matter. But I question the judgment of cathedral officials. What were they thinking when they allowed this to be displayed in the cathedral? And where visitors to the actual iconic work of art couldn’t fail to see it. Before they entered the sanctum. My indignation was still in full force when we gathered at a bar that evening for drinks with my cousins. “Have you seen it?” I asked. They had not, so I whipped out my phone and showed them the photo. If I had expected shocked agreement I was disappointed. My cousins chuckled and pronounced that they liked it. Well, they live in Ghent and take de lam for granted. It does not have the talismanic meaning for them it has for me.
After our sojourn in Ghent we traveled on to Paris. I can report that here there were no modern art installations marring the beauty of the cathedrals and churches we visited. It is hard for me to admit that France may be superior to England or Belgium in any way, but Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, and Sainte-Chapelle were mercifully installation-free. All were making an obvious effort to maintain the atmosphere of a house of worship despite the hoards of tourists. As we entered Notre Dame a large sign spelled out Silence in a lengthy list of languages. In addition an official stood by with the sole duty of saying “Shhh” every few minutes and as needed. It was the loudest, most officious Shhh I had ever heard despite having spent my professional life in libraries. (Contrary to the stereotype, most librarians never say Shhh). Ignoring these admonitions many tourists chattered away, at first in whispers but gradually becoming louder. When the noise level became too high a recording came on with a spectral Shhh echoing through the vast space like the voice of God himself. Then the word Silence was intoned in a multitude of languages like the tolling of a great bell from the Tower of Babel. For a time a mortified hush fell over the crowds until a fresh influx of visitors started the chattering up again.
The next day we visited a temple devoted to the worship of an earthly God, Louis XIV’s Chateau de Versailles. The vast size of the building and gardens make Buckingham Palace look like a humble cottage. The sheer amount of gold ornamentation, baroque paintings and sculptures covering every available surface, and idealized images of the Sun King everywhere you look is overwhelming. In the Hall of Mirrors the mirrored walls and crystal chandeliers reflect and dazzle with an almost blinding light, the apotheosis of Louis’s self-aggrandizement. Emerging from the Hall of Mirrors in a daze of sensory overstimulation is the perfect preparation to appreciate the modern art installation in the next room, the first I have unequivocally cheered.
Part of a Versailles exhibit by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, the installations play with the themes of light, mirrors, and water that are central to the design of the palace and with Louis’s identification as the Sun King. In the room outside the Hall of Mirrors the visitor is confronted with Solar Compression, a large circular mirror dangling from the ceiling. The mirror turns slowly with ever changing reflections of the tourists in the room. When the edge is opposite the viewer it flares with a golden light as blinding as the sun. The simplicity of the object is a welcome relief from the excesses of the palace and its comment on those excesses is clear. Narcissism like that of the Sun King can be blinding.
Eliasson also designed a new water feature in the extensive palace gardens, though at first I thought it was part of the original design. I wasn’t altogether wrong about that, because the artist got the idea from Louis XIV’s landscape architect. Andre Le Notre left drawings for a spectacular, extremely ornate waterfall that was never completed. Eliasson’s Waterfall in contrast is minimalist in design. The tower that carries the water up is only visible when viewed close up from the side. Viewed from the distance the water seems to emerge from the air high above the Grand Canal. A pleasing trick of perception.
In one of Versailles’ many circular enclosed gardens, hidden away behind walls and hedges that make it easy to get lost, Eliasson created an absence of water. In his Glacial Rock Flow Garden he replaced the fountain water with cracked glacial rock flour to draw attention to the effects of global warming.
So, surprising myself, I left Versailles somewhat of a convert to installation art, but with limits. Please, not in the cathedral! As for that beautiful installation in Salisbury Cathedral that I was tempted to make an exception, it turns out the most beautiful part, the font, is actually a permanent feature. It was designed by water sculptor William Pye in 2008 to replace a medieval font removed during a restoration project in the nineteenth century. Who needs the modern glass mobile when the surface of the water reflects the medieval stained glass windows and offers an unobstructed view of the nave?