Soaring to New Heights of Bad Taste

Today a new sculpture by British artist Antony Gormley was revealed at Canterbury Cathedral, formerly the seat of the Primate of the Catholic Church in England and, since the great disaster, now that of the #2 in the Church of England (below Her Majesty, of course.) The six-foot long piece, made out of iron nails salvaged from repairs to the roof of the Cathedral, is a humanoid form, suspended in the vaulting above the vestry of St. Thomas Becket in the Cathedral crypt. The piece, entitled “Transport”, is described thus by Mr. Gormley:

The body is less a thing than a place; a location where things happen. Thought, feeling, memory and anticipation filter through it sometimes staying but mostly passing on, like us in this great cathedral with its centuries of building, adaptation, extension and all the thoughts, feelings and prayers that people have had and transmitted here. Mind and body, church and state are polarities evoked by the life and death of Thomas Becket. We are all the temporary inhabitants of a body, it is our house, instrument and medium; through it all impressions of the world come and from it all our acts, thoughts and feelings are communicated, I hope to have evoked this in the most direct way possible.

Not to be outdone, the Dean of the Cathedral expressed his views of “Transport” as well:

It is very thrilling for all of us here at Canterbury Cathedral that Antony Gormley has taken the old nails from the roof which was being restored and from them created the statue TRANSPORT. The sense of passage which the word TRANSPORT conveys tunes well with the constant movement of people through this place of prayer and creativity. It also suggests the way in which sacred spaces communicate a sense of time and eternity, of the finite and the infinite. We are hugely grateful for this work.

Those who are regular readers of this blog know what I think of Mr. Gormley’s work. Regrettably, his set decorations from a bad West End musical version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” have appeared in churches before, such as his “Flare II”, suspended in Sir Christopher Wren’s great staircase at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, looking something like a Slinky which has been trodden on by its 4-year-old owner one too many times. Yet this new piece reaches new heights of tackiness.

“Transport” dangles like one of the bodies in Michael Crichton’s film version of the Robin Cook novel “Coma”, near the spot where one of the greatest English saints was martyred. It certainly lives up to its title, for the first reaction is to be transported with rage that something so awful could be welcomed by the Cathedral. This is then softened by laughter, however, for its location in the crypt cannot help but bring to mind more film parallels: images of iron maidens – sans cabinet – from the old Hammer Horror films, for example, or the infamous Pinhead from Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” series. Like a plastic skeleton with red LED lightbulbs for eyes at a Halloween frat party, “Transport” is little more than a cheap thrill.

And what of the Dean of the Cathedral’s comments? We can surely expect verbal claptrap from Mr. Gormley, a former Catholic who, like many former Catholics in the public eye, has spent most of his life justifying his running away from Rome to worship of himself rather than God. One would hope that an episcopal minister would know better than to place this carnival sideshow piece in such a sacred place and justify it as being appropriate because of the “constant movement of people” and “creativity” of the space. A church is neither a railway station nor a fingerpaint studio: it is a place to worship God, and the Reverend Willis appears to have either forgotten or glossed over that fact.

Those of us on the proper side of the Tiber have produced a lot of terrible art over the centuries, though we seem to have become particularly adept at doing so within the last 50 years. One thing which many of a more traditional bent within the Catholic Church have pointed out is that, even though they are out of communion, the Anglicans at least have very good taste: perhaps it is time for that statement to be re-assessed. Whatever the case, if you are seeking a concise, visual statement encompassing how the Church of England has gone completely off the rails – and in this case, onto the nails – then gentle reader, I suggest that Mr. Gormley has most surely provided it.

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