Laura Belém: The Temple of a Thousand Bells at York St. Mary’s

York St Mary’s is celebrating its new summer commission by Brazilian artist Laura Belém. Originally commissioned for the 10th Liverpool Biennial and exhibited at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, this evocative and poignant work has been reinterpreted and rehung for York St Mary’s. The Temple of a Thousand Bells, composed of a thousand cast glass bells all individually hand blown, hang from the nave above an array of surrounding speakers where a composed polyphonic sound piece creates a spatial and sensory experience for the viewer.

Upon stepping into the space it appears that the clappers inside the bells above are absent, creating a visual metaphor that matches the narrated accompaniment. The speakers tell about the lost music of the bells in the depths of the ocean while the translucent bells above induce a visual demeanour of water which convey a sense of fragility and imagination that cascade and place the viewer into a transcendent dream like quality.

On closer inspection of the story, the sound of these bells could be heard by travellers crossing the sea even at a great distance from the island. Over the centuries, the island sank into the ocean along with the temple and its bells. As the story continues it is revealed that the island and its shrine are not completely forgotten, as shown by the unremitting attempts of a sailor to hear again the music of the sunken bells.

The bells hang in silence, however when the chimes begin to ring from the surrounding speakers it immerses the viewer into an multi-sensory conversation. The initial chime which begins the piece is resonate of the bells that hang above, with a delicate clink of glass it seduces us into believing that the percussive objects suspended above have come to life. The experience is then enriched as the sound continues to compound using many different bells of varying timbres and we begin to feel encapsulated within the work.

A common thread that runs through Belém’s work is one that can touch the viewer’s heart and soul. Her works often use narrative strategies which enhance the potential meanings of the works in the conversation between the viewer, the context and the site specificity of the work itself. Her poetic installation Enamorados (Enamoured), at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, featured a pair of rowing boats with searchlights on twenty second timers which continuously signalled to each other across the water like a romantic conversation of love and loss, nostalgia and memory in a City famous for such sentiments.

Her recent installation Beneath the Sky 2012, consisted of a Gallery ceiling which has been lowered with translucent tiles that cover the entire length of the room. Above the tiles are blue and purple paper kites. The kites are watched through the tiles and the viewer can climb a ladder strategically positioned against the sidewall of the gallery despite the fact that when at the top of the ladder the viewer’s are still unable to reach the ceiling or kites. Her choice of materials are somewhat fragile, her positioning and curation calculated, and the artist’s ability to tempt the viewer is ingenious.

Spending time with the piece, nothing replaces the live experience of the work as the body and the senses provide an encounter that will awaken the viewer’s imagination and allow the reassessment of their own relationship with the surrounding environment. With repeated narratives of loss, displacement, nostalgia, exile and memory the viewer negotiates this overriding tension between presence and absense.

Here there is no question of experiencing the added layers of meaning to the commonplace, the artist reevaluates our encounters and calls attention to the unexpected poetry which is inherent in our everyday lives.

The Temple of a Thousand Bells is part of Art in Yorkshire Goes Modern, a celebration of modern and contemporary art in 27 galleries throughout Yorkshire during 2012.

Laura Belém: The Temple of a Thousand Bells, 25th May – 4th November, York St. Mary’s, Castlegate, York, YO1 9RN.

Text: Clare Nattress