Familiar for centuries, and to millions, Durham Cathedral is still somehow a revelation every time you see it. Of course, it’s pretty much transcendentally beautiful, but it’s also visibly ‘of the earth’ – the stone is worn and sketchy, almost ‘blurred’. The gothic splendour of its outline is coloured-in with blotchy tones, like it’s been painted in a hurry. By a bad pointillist-painter. In the rain. Looking at it, you nearly feel compelled to refocus your eyes. And, refocussing our eyes as we leave the ice-clear winter sun for the dark nave of the Cathedral, F. and I look in the only direction anyone looks when first entering a large church: Up.
Up several flights of stairs in an unassuming and totally ugly office building on Durham’s North Road is TESTT Space, a new ‘action research’ project by art-collective Empty Shop. The idea is to actively encourage multi-disciplinary contemporary art in a city dominated by its own traditionalism. Consisting of three mezzanine-stepped spaces comprising one open-plan floor, TESTT manages to wrest from water-stained carpets and patchy panel-roofs a genuinely onward-and-upward looking sense of progressive community art. Project manager Nick Malyan speaks of his sadness as members of Durham Miners’ Association pass away and the Union diminishes, but in the same breath enthuses about the opportunities and new unities in Durham’s increasingly un-sequestered buildings and spaces.
In the Cathedral, F. says, ‘If you look up high enough for long enough, you forget your feet!’, and then, beautifully, ridiculously, improvises a little jingle: ‘I forgot my feet in Durham Cathedral’. Sometimes the uncanniest thing is the most familiar. Sometimes the sensation of recognition itself is exactly what defamiliarises the world. In what seems to us both like an outrageous coincidence, we find F.’s little song echoed back to us in the inscription on the Durham Miners memorial, set into the south-aisle: ‘He breaketh open a shaft away from where men sojourn; They are forgotten of the foot that passeth by’.
I can’t remember the last time I used cardamom was TESTT space’s first public exhibition. Curator Ollie Doe used the hybrid gallery/office space to unlock a kind of sensory synaesthesia, engaging the ghosts of taste and smell that can be triggered by sight. ‘We wanted something//bigger//to swallow our hurt’ writes poet Jessica Andrews in the accompanying publication, words scattered across the page, breaking open shafts of light between the lines. And, similar but different to the cavernous Cathedral, this exhibition swallowed you. Made you swallow. Stacey Davison and Josh Raz’s uses of shape and colour in a process of emergence moved you between sight and sensation. Raz’s ‘Joke (Still Life)’ (2016) posed the possibilities of taste, but blocked by geometry and surface, brushstrokes looking like frustrated licks of a tongue. The ravenous chihuahuas in the foreground of his ‘Small Dogs With White Owners’ (2017) looked, craving, across a vista of water and flesh.
Jawbone Jawbone’s sculptures exercised a literal and pointed form of sight-framing, recalling you to your own act of seeing. Through them you watched the suspended narrative, the pained and unmoving feet, of Matthew Pickering’s obliquely accessed, Beckettian film world. And, perhaps most movingly, Janina Sabaliauskaite’s prints re-appropriated the sexual-gaze, touchingly highlighting, to a point of abstraction, details of two entwined bodies.
I couldn’t remember the last time I used cardamom, but I could remember the last time I read the word. In, of all places, the Bible’s ‘Revelations’. Among the worldly materials that have become tainted by commerce and commodification are ‘cinnamon, cardamom, incense…horses, chariots – and bodies – and people’s souls’. In a strange form of delicious horror, bodies and souls are objectified in a bold rejection of objectification, in order to move towards transcendence. It’s a kind of textual, imagist transubstantiation. This exhibition attempted, and at moments achieved, something similar.
F. and I move back out of the church through a shaft of light, reflecting on how memories of memories shape the future, how becoming familiar with the weirdnesses of who you were, and what’s around you, can be part of becoming who you will be. Or something. I can’t really remember. But I definitely used cardamom in my dinner that night.
I can’t remember the last time I used cardamom, TESTT (The Empty Shop Think Tank) Space, Durham.
25 November – 8 December 2017.
Adam Heardman is a poet and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne.