An exciting piece of site-specific contemporary installation art will be displayed in the Norman Chapel of Durham Castle until 14th March.
More than just a passive viewing experience, the installation encourages viewers to engage with the historical and quasi-spiritual dimension of the Normal Chapel itself.
The Grey Lady Galatea was commissioned by Hazel Donkin, lecturer in the University and SCR Arts Secretary of University College, as the first of a series of commissions designed to “highlight the potential of this building [the Castle] for the display of contemporary art”.
The installation is the result of a collaboration between Ben Jeans Houghton, a contemporary artist based in Newcastle and Diva Dompe, an LA based ‘intergalactic healer’ who wrote and record- ed the narrative that plays as part of the artwork.
The main, visible parts of the sculpture include a rectangular mat in a corner of the Chapel and standing on the mat there is a speaker, a stand holding a microphone, and two bottles of water, creating the illusion of a speaker standing there in the corner.
This illusory aspect of the sculpture is deceptively simplistic; the casual mess of wires that hang down from the microphone are in fact steel structures forged by the artist at 1,300 degrees celsius.
The other aspect of the installation, audi- ble even to passers by outside the Chapel, is Diva’s voice that narrates a ‘guided meditation’. The seven minute reflection proceeds like a yoga-class meditation that blends features of the Norman Chapel such as the swirls and carvings of its its pillars into the record.
Ben explains that as an artist he has interests in the “resurgence of Medieval ideas” and the “habitual momentum of perception,” and these concerns shine through in the viewers’ experience of the installation, which is full of curious contra- dictions. On the one hand, Dompe’s narrative feels oddly misplaced. Viewers confront the unexpect- edness of listening to a Californian accent guiding them through yoga class-esque meditation in a dimly lit, medieval chapel.
On the other hand however, the sculpture and narrative also feels strangely appropriate. Approached with an open mind, the soothing instructions of the speaker for us to “feel our breath,” to “taste the foliage,” to follow the lines of the “strong pillars” does indeed root us in the present moment, guiding us to contemplate the aesthetic and spiritual potential of the Chapel.
The tricky business of displaying contemporary art in historic spaces such as the Norman Chapel is successfully manoeuvred by The Grey Lady Galatea. In its use of ‘new age’ methods tactfully adds to the atmosphere and dignity of the space. It does what the best contemporary sculptures do: to revitalise the site of the installation.
Passing by the Chapel these two weeks then, you shouldn’t be too alarmed to hear a Californian woman’s voice booming from within. This exciting and worthwhile venture should whet our appetite for further art commissions in the Castle. They not only showcase the historic spaces in the Castle, but also brings to students a forward-looking and creative element to the traditional sites of Durham city centre.
Photograph: Ben Jeans Houghton