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The space outside the Old Library has been transformed by a new sculpture. The work “Trinity” was created by the artist Helene Fesenmaier for her exhibition “Trans|figur|ation” at Trinity Hall.

All the works in the exhibition have multiple resonances and this sculpture is no exception. Looking relatively modest at first glance, “Trinity” works on many levels to challenge the viewer. Its tripartite construction, embodying the title with its associations of Christian spirituality, is striking for its appearance of fragility. Its verticality and the use of wood and metal echoes the Crucifixion, and in particular the artist’s preoccupation with Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece which has played a pivotal role in her work.

Grunewald’s depiction of the lacerated arms and tortured hands of Christ is echoed by the emaciated and battered arm and hand (possibly of the artist herself?) which help to anchor the piece. The gilding on the arm links it back to the altarpiece, reinforces its sacred/sacrificial quality and reminds us also of the toxic therapy used for cancer (through its visual reference to “The man with the golden arm”).

That a such a fragile looking sculpture can stand up to the elements is a surprise, but within it is a hard core, literally the backbone of the piece. This central element of concrete, metal, wood, slate and flint speaks of humanity’s ability to endure, even when completely stripped back to essentials. Here we have an embodiment of suffering: from Christ’s suffering on the cross, through the universal suffering of living beings, to the artist’s own struggle with cancer and the ravages of the illness and treatment.

Trinity spine

As we move round the sculpture we are challenged once again: writ large is “The birth of a book is the death of a tree”. What are we to make of this statement in the middle of a Cambridge college – at the heart of academia? The title of the piece leads us to identify the “book” with the Bible (and the New Testament in particular) and the “tree” with Christ, through his sacrifice on the cross. However, the artist’s choice of words also points away from the specific to the general – to further layers of meaning.

Trinity by Helene Fesenmaier

The choice of site for the sculpture is significant. It is set squarely between the Fellows garden and the Old Library. Here we have the opposition between the natural world and civilisation. The rough wooden plank faces the garden while the gilded arm with its polished books faces the Old Library. In order to read the message on the piece we have to turn our back on the garden and face the Old Library. Are we in danger of turning a blind eye to the damaging effects of our civilisation on planet Earth? The artist forces us to confront the impact of human progress on the natural world and to count its cost.

The “Trinity” can be seen as the trio of nature, civilisation and the human being who, as the fulcrum of the piece, is poised between the two. There is conflict: humanity is faced with a choice and is pulled in two directions. But there is also interdependence: each of the three elements of the piece plays a vital part in supporting the whole and cannot exist in isolation.

Trinity detail

Moreover, human beings act as both agents of change and interpreters of the world around them. This is not nature in the raw – the tree has been through the saw-mill and it has been inscribed (maybe even beautified) by the power of the word. Our environment is constantly affected by our intervention and is perceived through the filter of our literary imagination. We may yearn for Arcadia, but our very presence alters, interprets, tames and even brutalises the wilderness.

Culture does not come without human cost – the arm is elongated and weighed down by the books it holds. We are reminded of the pressure of academic life at Cambridge and the demands that are made of students and academics alike. But learning is something to be prized. Books are precious: they are brushed with gold and are the most polished element of the piece. They form the anchor of the sculpture underpinning the structure just as learning and academic excellence underpin the life of the College.

Detail of Trinity by Helene Fesenmaier

For Fesenmaier poetry is at the centre of her inspiration and books are a recurring theme in her work. And this brings us full circle to the Isenheim altarpiece – itself many layered, with its leaves unfolding just like the leaves of a book.

Forthcoming talk

There will be a unique opportunity for students and the general public to hear the artist Helene Fesenmaier talk about the exhibition on Tuesday 13 November 2012 at 5:45 pm in the Graham Storey Room.

Exhibition opening times

Trans|figur|ation – an exhibition of paintings and sculpture by Helene Fesenmaier is open to the public from Saturday 29 September until Sunday 25 November 2012 at the following times:

Saturdays 9.30 – 12.30

Sundays 2-5pm

Bibliography

The exhibition catalogue is available for purchase from the Porters Lodge:

Helen Fesenmaier: Trans|figur|ation (London: Redfern Gallery, 2012) ISBN: 0948460377

See in particular the Introduction by Mary Rose Beaumont with her discussion of “Trinity” on page 6 of the catalogue.

Links:

Helene Fesenmaier is represented by the Redfern Gallery

Wikipedia for articles on Arcadia, the Isneheim altarpiece and the “Man with the golden arm”.

Isenheim altarpiece image from strawhutembassy.wordpress.com

You Tube video of the unfolding of a maquette of the Isenheim altarpiece

Man with the golden arm image from http://www.creativereview.co.uk/

TTrinity Hall and Cambridge University offer an extensive network of pastoral support  to students and academics to help them with the demands of academic life.

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