The Dark Self. Susan Aldworth at York St Mary’s.

Sleep is a great subject for Art. Mysterious, unknowable but vital to our health and well being sleep is an experience which we all share. It is the stuff of fairy tales and fantasy. We ask each other about it, talk about it, worry about it and attempt to find meaning in our dreams. It is a central part of our lives which we have no control over, our secret self, or as Susan Aldworth calls it in in her exhibition at York St Mary’s this summer, The Dark Self.

St Mary’s is an atmospheric space, a decommissioned church, which responds to beauty and mystery and this exhibition fills the space with both. The soundscape provided by composer Barney Quinton for the film installation, Dormez Vouz, unifies the whole space into a single experience as you walk around and makes it into a place for dreams. The film is both haunting and surreal- much like sleep itself- and you find yourself pulled into a slower, meditative way of being as you look at it, taken down into different world.

Susan Aldworth’s monoprints are both gentle and beautiful and the pillowcases, embroidered by 414 individual embroiderers from all over the country which hang in the central space and form the work 1001 Nights have dignity and presence. They are old pillowcases, with a history, used and slept on, and each person has made a kind of testimony as they sewed. They are all different, all unique to the person who made them and together they make a statement about our common experience and how we see it. It’s a fascinating piece which is both a piece of community Art and a work particular to the artist whose vision brings them together and allows them to speak with one voice.

I think the piece I loved most was the sculpture Evidence of Sleep III, five white porcelain pillowcases which rested calmly in a sunlit corner under a mullioned window. They were not quite what they seemed, hard porcelain masquerading as softness and comfort, and that deception and sense of mystery seemed exactly right.

This exhibition is a beautiful breathing space in the centre of the city for the whole summer while is is thronged with visitors and I shall make sure that I get back to it whenever I can.

Aesthetica Art Prize Exhibition. York St Marys. 06-04-15

The Aesthetica Art Prize exhibition, a small show featuring the top eight shortlisted works, is well worth a visit. There is plenty to make you think and sometimes great beauty. The exhibition has quite a sombre, contemplative feel and sometimes as with Julian Day’s piece Requiem, (2012-1014) and Fear by John Keane (2012-2013) the works strike sparks off each other when images of people facing the terror of Stalinist show trials are accompanied by the steady plaintive hum from the synthesisers close by. The four portraits which make up Fear are beautifully painted and very moving. You look at them helplessly as they stare out silently, asking for recognition and justice and there is nothing that you can do.


I was lucky to see Mobius by Owen Waterhouse on a day when sunlight was flooding in through the church windows, lighting it perfectly and showing off the sinuous movement that runs through the curves of the polished steel. It is beautifully constructed, a very fitting tribute to the steelworkers of Sheffield.


When I first saw the photographic images which make up Marcus Lyon’s Exodus (20210-2014) from a distance I thought that they were stained glass windows. He is interested in the way that the world is too visually complex for us to make sense of within a single image so I suppose that is as good a comment on them as any.


An interesting show, right in the heart of York. I hope that some of the hundreds of people milling around in the streets around the Yorvik centre will find their way inside by chance and be surprised by it.

The Matter of Life and Death. An installation at York St Marys by Julian Stair. 18-06-13


Roman funerary vessels.

“In the last few thousand years art has changed significantly, but our perception of death and our reaction to people close to us dying has remained remarkably consistent.”  Julian Stair.

The potter Julian Stair has created an installation for York St Mary’s that resonates with the space perfectly. St Mary’s is full of memorials to the dead which still look down on what is now a contemporary Art space, reminding us that it has a past. The Matter Of Life And Death is a sombre installation which combines Julian Stair’s own interpretation of funerary ware with a selection of funerary objects drawn from York Archaeological trust’s collection. His own work has clear, crisp lines and a quiet presence which both contrasts with the objects from the past and echoes them. The ancient objects have gained a patina and personality of their own through time. It’s almost as if the new objects are how the ancient ones once were, a reminder that death is a constant throughout history. The word the in the title (rather than the word a which might be expected) reminds us that it is a very particular matter for each of us, something which we all have to face. It is a solemn group of objects which has found a perfect space in which to speak. I say speak because they do speak. Memories always speak and each object represents an attempt to remember. Even their emptiness carries an bleak echo of the person who was once there. A cast which carries the imprint of a barely visible human being, an empty medieval casket which once held a heart preserved in wine, part of a Roman face full of humour and personality in a broken vessel, stand alongside the brand new pristine vessels, elegant and watchful, waiting to be filled.

There is an interesting wall of post it notes where people have been invited to say how they would like to be remembered. Among the many variations on being a good friend, a loving person, a just person, a Godly person, which people had posted there was one which caught my eye. It was lively and full of personality and it made me think.


I liked it because it took me away from the rather solemn business of exploring the fact that none of us are here forever and back into today. The present moment is all that we have and perhaps how we are remembered is not that important at all. How we are known in life is what matters. Memory is unreliable, it plays strange tricks and it can be unjust. Like the people who once populated the funerary urns the truth is that if you wait long enough almost all of us are going to be forgotten. These objects are a kind of final goodbye to the world which honour the fact that someone was once here but like the new work which Julian Stair has made they are now all empty.


Not the most cheerful exhibition I have ever visited, but one with a haunting chill about it and a sensitivity to all those strangers who have made their own silent contribution, and to those who will come. A sad salute to humanity.

The Temple of a Thousand Bells. Laura Belem. York St Mary’s. 22-06-12

There is a legend about an ancient temple on an island where there were a thousand bells which

slowly sank into the sea………………. a sailor attempts to hear the lost music of the bells.

York St Mary’s, on Coppergate in the centre of York, is a wonderful space for contemporary Art and especially when the installation uses the spiritual resonance and history to be found in a tenth century de-consecrated church which still has a considerable presence of its own. In summer 2011 it was home to Cornelia Parker’s 30 pieces of silver, a piece which is a very hard act to follow. That work fitted the space so perfectly that it was hard to believe that it hadn’t been commissioned for it and really sang out beautifully.

This year’s installation, The Temple of a Thousand Bells by Brazilian artist Laura Belem,began life in Liverpool at the The Oratory, a nineteenth century mortuary chapel. It is very lucky to have found a second home where it can make its mark and exist in harmony with a setting that overlays its own history on the work and allows it to draw power from a setting which has its own memories of a shifting past.

It is a simple but effective idea. One thousand identical small bells, hand blown in clear glass float in mid air along the nave. They are silent and clapperless, ghost bells which have nothing to say, a remnant of the heavy cast iron bells which would once have called worshippers into the same space for worship. These new bells are light and airy, waiting silently without any purpose other than to be themselves. They are ephemeral, delicate and vulnerable, shimmering in the light from the clear glass windows, randomly postitioned so that some catch the sun and some seem to fall back and disappear into the shadows, floating off from the edges of the piece. It is a work about memory and loss. There is a sparse soundtrack, by Fernando Rocha, of sounds and phrases, adding fragments of memory which float into the space from another time. Placed in York St Mary’s it recalls all those people who were called to this space to worship in a place which is now a silent shell of its former self. It gives a sense of spirituality back to the empty stones and allows us to think about the past and how we stand in relation to it, We can examine truth and belief and recall our own lives and losses as we look at it. It feels like a very Buddhist work to me. It brings with it a real sense of being in the moment, a feeling that you are in a quiet meditative space in the middle of a busy city which allows you to breathe, set aside the concerns of the day for a time, and take stock. It is also very beautiful, an underused virtue in contemporary art, and that never goes amiss.

Thirty Pieces of Silver by Cornelia Parker. York St Mary’s. 22-10-11

Photograph by Shannon Tofts.

Cornelia Parker made her work Thirty Pieces of Silver back in 1988-89 and it is a major work, now in the Tate collection, consisting of over one thousand silver objects of all kinds, both useful and ornamental, which have been flattened with a steam roller and suspended on thirty two kilometres of fine wire. It has been on show at York St Mary’s for the summer filling the central space of what was the nave of the church with an eerie beauty. There are all kinds of transformed silver objects floating calmly just above the stone floor; spoons, candlesticks, a flute, trophies, trombones, fine wire mesh baskets, bells, mirror backs, plates, trays forks and knives. They are meticulously arranged into thirty perfectly balanced circular groups which hover, poised, serene and still. It is a moment frozen in time. It is only when your eye settles and begins to look closely that you sense movement, both within the composition of the piece itself, swirling shapes interacting gracefully with each other within each circle, and as breaths of air cause the objects to sway almost imperceptibly on their wires. There is a real meditative pleasure to be had from the concentration needed to notice these tiny movements and follow them with your eye. The fine wires shimmer as the sunlight falls on them through the plain windows of St Mary’s, making a sunlit gossamer curtain of indoor rain through which the blurred shapes of the arches and stonework of the church can be seen. Everything is shades of grey and glittering silver. From the high balcony as you look down on the work it fills the church, claiming the space as its own. The worn stone paving tiles underneath the circles are a perfect background for the piece, complementing the greys within it and allowing the silver tones to shimmer over its dull surface.

Photograph by Shannon Tofts.

Thirty Pieces of Silver is a poignant title. As well as being a straight description of what is in front of you it also alludes to the fee paid to Judas in return for betraying his master. This in turn leads to thoughts of death and resurrection. Each of the objects has been transformed. They have had a previous life in an entirely different form and carry the resonances from this life forward with them. You watch them and wonder.

Photograph by Shannon Tofts.

It is hard to believe that Thirty Pieces of Silver is not a site specific work made for the space at St Mary’s which it fits so perfectly. The size of the space and the tones and colours within it complement the piece perfectly and St Mary’s itself has also undergone its own transformation from a church into a contemporary art space. These may be two very different uses but they also share strong similarities, especially when a beautiful contemplative work like this is placed there.

Photograph by Shannon Tofts.

Cornelia Parker’s silver objects are not the only ones to gather new resonances and change with time. At the back of the balcony area there is a board where visitors can describe the special meaning that silver has to them and pin their note onto a thin wire. People of all ages have enjoyed telling their stories and here are just a few. I think that Cornelia would like the first one, written by a child and accompanied by an illustration.

“My silver christening bracelet got run over by a fire engine.”

“I have a silver threepenny bit from my twenty first birthday cake and I am now 74 years old.” Ray.

“I have a newish silver and rose quartz ring bought by my husband on a weekend away. I wear it and it reminds me that when away from everyday life we get on very well and I love him. x”

“Silver tarnishes. It needs love and attention like people.”

Thirty Pieces of silver will never find a better home. I wish that it could stay at St Mary’s forever.

I would have loved to be able to take my own photos but I am thrilled to have been given permission to show you photographer Shannon Toft’s stunning images.