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Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: St Margaret Cley-next-the-Sea

Conversation (dialogue, exchange) has been the motif which has done most to open up theology, the scriptures and ordained ministry for me from my ministerial training through my ministry to date. The everlasting exchange of love within the Godhead into which we are drawn as Christians, the dialogue between the different books and genres of the scriptures, the great debates between God and his people through which we read of God changing his mind; all are examples of ways in which conversation  opens us to the beating heart of faith.

With this as background I was thrilled to make my first visit to Cley contemporary art and find that it was titled, 'A Creative Conversation.' Cley contemporary art is an annual exhibition organised by the North Norfolk Exhibition Project which is held at St Margaret's Church and in the wider environs of Cley next the Sea. Cley, whose population doubles in the months of July and August, is well known for its Windmill, the Cley Nature Reserve, a Smokehouse, Pottery, Art Gallery and an award winning Delicatessen.

Each year the exhibition has a different curator or curators. This year the joint curators are Polly Binns and Rod Bugg who have themselves been engaged in a shared creative conversation for the past five years. This conversation has been aptly described, using a phrase from author Emily Post, as being an 'exchange of thought.'

The pair write that the 'notion that at the core of so much artistic practice there is a dialogue or conversation seems to have struck a chord with ... many artists in North Norfolk.' One manifestation of this is the 'conversation line' which runs throughout the exhibition guide which captures moments from conversations held in the exhibition's preparatory months. Here some of the underlying spirituality of the artists' practices and ideas emerge with church, nature and studio all viewed as sacred spaces.

The exhibition begins in the churchyard with inscriptions in stone by Les Bicknell and Teucer Wilson. Wilson's three inscriptions are taken directly from the entries for Cley, Snitterley and Holt in the Little Domesday Book of 1086. These tax collection records sited as gravestones stand as a requiem for a past way of life. Bicknell cleverly divides and mixes up his carved inscriptions; the substantive becomes fragmented thereby opening up opportunities for new combinations in what is usually perceived as fixed and immovable. Cathy Runsey's work has synergies with that of Bicknell but in the more transient medium of paper.

Many of the artists here are utilising media and notions of transience. Among the most poignant are the broken ceramic heads made by Sue Maufe; some of which have been left among the pebbles of Cley beach to be claimed by whoever finds them. Judith Campbell has made fragile hessian vases for twigs and buds from the local heath. She compares them to butter lamps in a Buddhist temple and views them as carriers of her prayers.

Explorations of the nature of prayer also feature in the most overtly religious work on show. 'The Song of the Heart' features video monitors set into prayer stalls with kneelers that say respectively 'dilemma' and 'respond.' The stalls are set apart from each other suggesting a prayerful dialogue between the two and the videos in each combine images of sea and sky with fragments of text from various faiths and none. Helen Otter and Sara Ross (a.k.a. Decca Maclean) met while studying art together in Norwich and are collaborating for the first time in this exhibition. If this work is an indication of what they can achieve when combining playful concepts with attention to the unseen, then I, for one, would want to see more collaborations.

St Margaret's Church, featured in Pevsner's Architectural Guides and in Simon Jenkins’ 1000 Best Churches, dates from the early part of the 14th Century and has been a welcoming host to the exhibition. The south porch of the Church with its carved stone heraldry, provides a beautiful entrance. Once inside one is aware of the almost cathedral-like proportions of the high nave and the vast west window and the cinquefoil windows of the clerestory flooding the interior with light. As a result, it provides an excellent space in which the artworks can be shown. 

As much as possible the works are integrated into the space with some work on spandrels, some hung from the ceiling and others grouped around pillars or the font. The exhibition extends to the churchyard, beach, wildlife trust and other locations around the village. Among work on the beach is Mary Crofts' 'let them eat ...' installation with hundreds of empty plastic water bottles filling a dinghy as a reminder of the ecological disaster caused by our throwaway culture. Rob McVicar's 'Ping Pong Tower' references the construction of St Margaret's Church; an immense man-made structure from millions of individual flints. In McVicar's work, light and ephemeral ping pong balls are glued together to form a slender tower which, against expectation, endures amid the wind and waves on the beach.

Guest artist Roger Ackling was also engaged with themes of ephemera and transience. His poem in the catalogue describes his practice of using the sun's rays to burn bands of ash onto wood:



Ackling's invitation to return to exhibit as a guest artist (he was part of the very first NNEP exhibition in 2001) was made more poignant still by his death on 5 June 2014 from motor neurone disease. His work, with its focus on natural materials and processes, recycling and ephemera, has been a clear and transparent influence on many of the artists showing work at Cley14.

David North, Norfolk Wildlife Trust Head of People and Wildlife, sums up many of themes explored by Cley14 when he writes in the exhibition catalogue:

'The coastal marshlands of Cley and Salthouse touch us deeply with their wildness. Connect us to something larger and more powerful than the everyday ...

The Cley14 exhibits and installations, some in the landscape, some in St Margaret's Church, challenge us to look in a different way, to glimpse the extraordinary in the ordinary. They open our eyes to details we would otherwise miss, revealing patterns, from tiny detail to landscape scale. Cley is a great place to gain a sense of perspective, to see things both literally and metaphorically in a new light. This exhibition helps us do both ...

Artists and naturalists both share the ability to see things which others may not notice. To see detail where others may only see uniformity ... Cley14 will hopefully both tantalise and surprise you.'


The Innocence Mission - The Wonder Of Birds.

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