This year Barnaby Festival in Macclesfield launches two major new works of art as part of their midsummer programme Barnaby Bright, ‘Our Future is Ancient’ (2021) by Not Quite Light (Simon Buckley), and ‘Presence’ (2021) by Liz West. Both works explore subjects of light and place as part of the series of events happening around the summer solstice in the historic spaces of Macclesfield town centre.
Using St Michael’s Church as an anchor, Simon Buckley’s multi-disciplinary approach promises to bring the local forest into the town, starting from the church and growing into the ginnels of Macclesfield, whilst Liz West’s new work ‘Presence’ has been designed to offer a sensory experience for visitors through a combination of light and colour in the Grade 2 listed Christ Church.
It is pertinent that both commissioned works will be inhabiting two separate churches in the town as we continue our re-emergence from national hibernation. Churches are more than simply places of worship, they represent the ‘third space’ – neither work, nor home – and crucially, non-transactional. Over the past year, whilst the third space has been the least used, it is potentially now the most vital as we continue the re-habitation of shared spaces – places for community, belonging, thriving, co-operating, and being. These are the sort of spaces that are needed now more than ever, and especially when it is outside of the gallery context, art has the innate ability to highlight this.
Launching over the opening weekend of the programme, ‘Our Future is Ancient’ will be in three parts, a performance including film, music and spoken word, a guided ginnel walk through Macclesfield, and regular showings of the film at Savage Tower in St. Michael’s Church. The 15-minute film captures a year of visits to Macclesfield Forest, from solstice to solstice, punctuated by the monthly passing of a new full moon and carefully considered thoughts recollected in poetic spoken word. The film is bathed in haunting piano and the transformational glow of dusk and dawn – the sort of half-light reminiscent of that fleeting time of change when the familiar can become strange, and the unknown can become magical. From the setting of St Michael’s Church, the work will grow into the ginnels of Macclesfield as Buckley leads walking tours of the twists and turns of the town centre as part of the festival of events, discussing images and ideas from the work and bringing thoughts from the forest into the town itself.
The artist presents himself as an onlooker, chronicler, storyteller, and interpreter: a person involved in the humble, yet poetic process of sharing ideas. The spoken word that narrates the film presents Buckley’s relationship to the forest as operating in a slightly disorientating space somewhere between the artist’s daily urban life in his home city of Salford, and a sort of primal longing for the sanctuary of trees.
Through anthropomorphic descriptions the film considers the wonder of activities that are mostly incomprehensible to us humans, such as the interconnectedness and communication of trees and fungi and their involvement in sharing information through a web of veins and arteries under the surface of the soil. A thought that is perhaps both nourishing and humbling for the soul of a city dweller. Through the film, Buckley references research conducted where trees have been shown to omit sounds, perhaps communicating, at a frequency of 220 hz – akin to the key of A. Buckley intends to explore this further during the one-off performance of a specially extended version of the film for Barnaby Bright which will include musicians Rioghnach Connolly (vocals, flute) and Liz Hanks (cello) performing in the key of A to complement the ambience of the film, along with a live spoken word performance by the artist. There’s a sense of coming home, or at least returning that infuses the film. This is the idea of returning the town to the forest, the forest to the town, and returning ourselves to the quiet magnificence of trees and their primal complexities, in what Buckley describes as the ‘primal world of self-protection rituals’.
‘Our Future is Ancient’, as the title suggests, looks both backwards and forwards, in a paradoxical yet comforting account that considers our ancient home of the forest in contrast to our urban life, whilst using the solitude of the onlooker to emphasize the togetherness of trees. The film uses these examples in opposition to explore the notion of the in-between. The half-light of dawn, and the half-light of dusk, and the feeling that something is about to happen, as if on the verge – potentially something that we cannot understand but can appreciate as beautiful.
Practically speaking too, ‘Our Future is Ancient’ was made through and amongst the in-between. Being commissioned by Barnaby Festival in 2019 as a year-long research and development project, the work started before the pandemic, and is being shown now, as we emerge from it. Unsurprisingly an account of this has made its way into the context of the film, as Buckley talks of his visits to the woodland more like pilgrimages than perhaps they otherwise would have been. The nature of the in-between seems to be an all-pervading narrative running through this piece of work. A work that is rooted in the inter-relationships between light and dark, day and night, thought and memory, and the translucent lens through which we view, but cannot quite fully understand our ancestral habitat of the forest.
Translucent in a more immediate way, ‘Presence’ by Liz West promises a moment of meditation and contemplation in a site-specific work that uses the phenomena of colour and natural procession of daylight to create a sensory and immersive experience. Taking the form of a tunnel created from several hundred coloured acrylic panels, it cuts through the central aisle of the Grade 2 listed Christ Church with different colours on each side designed to complement the change and direction of natural light throughout the day.
Like all of West’s work, this is as much about time and interaction as it is about colour and space. The intensity of the colours change depending on the time of day, season and weather, and the direction of light and inter-play between colours changes depending on the placement of the viewer and how they are moving through the space. The work is also as much about you (the viewer) as it is about itself; to be present with the work makes for meditative reading as you become immersed within the simplicity and immediacy of light and colour. The behaviour of this light and how it reflects, depends on the behaviour of the viewer – you must be there, fully present, to notice.
There’s a certain balance between the familiar and unfamiliar within ‘Presence’, especially given its setting in the church. West’s installation provides an almost deconstructed, or distanced, stained glass effect. It is common of course to find stained glass within churches, but not quite like this. One might also think of The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, a chapel in the French town of Vence often referred to as the Matisse Chapel. Henri Matisse spent four years on this project near the end of his life, and the chapel is widely known for the liquid light and pure essence of beauty created from the stained-glass windows. But the sense of detachment within ‘Presence’ promises to do something different. It puts our precise location into question, as the light doesn’t emanate so much as bend into position because of the physical distance between the window and tunnel. A deconstruction of light through the space, reconstructed and skewed by the installation, in order to provide some new perspective to the present and offer considered reflection for ourselves, for the architecture, and the light emerging through the church windows.
West is no stranger to exhibiting in church settings – her work ‘Our Colour Reflection’ (2016 – 2020) was shown at St. Mark’s Church Mayfair in 2016, and again in Chester Cathedral two years later in 2018. The work, also shown in various other venues both nationally and internationally, is wonderfully adaptive to changing environments as the light bends and reflects from the various acrylic discs on the floor in different ways depending on the nature of the building and its roof. There’s also a sense of movement whereby the light changes once more as one moves through the space, becoming a performative conversation between viewer and setting. West’s new work for Barnaby Bright promises something even more special and more distinctive. Through the artistic support offered by the programme, ‘Presence’ is built to be site-specific rather than site-responsive, so viewers can expect the architectural nuances of the Grade 2 listed Christ Church and its unique geography to be reflected in the design of the artist’s kaleidoscopic tunnel.
To offer another contrast to ‘Our Colour Reflection’, ‘Presence’ is more akin to West’s ongoing ‘Through’ (2015-) series. Acting as a space-within-a-space whereby the viewer travels through the installation, becoming fully immersed in the bathing of light and shifting perspective. In other words, walking through, rather than around. The artist’s immersive light-filled installations tend to have a certain universal quality to them, a level of accessibility and fundamental assimilation that removes the need for interpretive text and background information. The works tend to exist as they are, ready to be activated as soon as the viewer arrives. Picasso famously said: ‘People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.’ In line with this sentiment, the best thing about West’s works is that they don’t demand explanation, they simply need activation and response. The only way to understand her work is to immerse yourself within it, to slow down, and be fully present.
Barnaby Festival takes place biannually as a midsummer celebration of contemporary arts and culture in Macclesfield, a town that was previously dubbed ‘the least cultured place in Britain’. As a reinvention of the Barnaby Fair, which dates back to the 13th century, Barnaby Bright, looks both backwards and forwards – providing a bridge between tradition and contemporary culture. Alongside the two pieces by Liz West and Not Quite Light, visitors to Barnaby Bright can expect to see a hive of cultural activities celebrating a sense of light and place of midsummer in Macclesfield. This includes a visual arts and craft market that supports the artistic, creative and cultural life of the town, a showreel parade screening that celebrates stories of local people, a spoken word poetry night, cartoonist workshops, and a midsummer art-beer launch to celebrate Barnaby Bright – Estival by RedWillow.
By commissioning works of art such as ‘Presence’ and ‘Our Future is Ancient’, the festival harnesses the universal human subjects of light and place that are associated with summer solstice, and positions them into the context of contemporary art and culture, achieving something timelessly meaningful and significant.
Barnaby Bright is a series of works and events staged 17 – 27 June 2021 at various locations in Macclesfield. Booking is required for some events, and can be made online. Alternatively the new online gallery Second Sight, which has been created by Barnaby Festival in partnership with FutureEverything and artists in Macclesfield, provides a curated space to view the art connected to the town and discover more about the artists involved in the past, present and future of the programming.
Neil Greenhalgh is an artist and writer based in Greater Manchester.
This preview is supported by Barnaby Bright.