Understanding time and painting Exeter Cathedral and Gloucester Cathedral with light

(Author: Mark Ware MFA) Exeter Cathedral and Gloucester Cathedral are both generously supporting the wavelength project . They will host some of the creative outcomes that will arise from the project’s art/science collaboration next year and they offer some of the most remarkable environments in which to exhibit artwork and stage performances. The two cathedrals share a strong tradition of working with craftsmen and artists that has spanned many centuries. It is an honour for me to have the opportunity to contribute to that creative timeline.

Exeter Cathedral (left) and Gloucester Cathedral (right) Photos: Mark Ware
Exeter Cathedral (left) and Gloucester Cathedral (right) Photos: Mark Ware
900 Years of Light multimedia performance, Exeter Cathedral Photo: Mark Ware
900 Years of Light multimedia performance, Exeter Cathedral   Photo: Mark Ware

Our connection with Exeter Cathedral is a continuation of the relationship that built up throughout the Arts Council England supported Cathedra 900 project (2012-2013). Cathedra 900 was an interpretation and celebration of Exeter Cathedral’s remarkable 900 year timeline. We staged a wide variety of multimedia activities for Cathedra 900, including an exhibition of 28 x 3D artwork banners displayed in the cathedral’s nave, and multichannel soundscapes and creative workshops staged in the cathedral’s Chapter House.

The project culminated in multimedia performances in the cathedral’s nave that included live music, the spoken word, light projections, soundscapes and two videos; Michael Bickerton’s dynamic ‘Votives Ornamentales‘ and my ‘900 Years of Light‘.

‘900 Years of Light’ was a silent video composition accompanied by live classical music and the spoken word read by actor, Emily Kreider. The idea behind this work began when I pondered on what the description, ‘900 years’ represents. We often talk about lengths of time that are beyond our personal experience without having an understanding of how we relate to them.

 

Detail of a column in Exeter Cathedral's nave Photo: Mark Ware
Detail of a column in Exeter Cathedral’s nave Photo: Mark Ware

For example, the columns in Exeter Cathedral’s nave are made of Purbeck stone. On close inspection of the columns you will see fossilised shells that date back millions of years. How can I relate to and understand ‘millions of years’? Dr Alex Woodcock, author of a book on medieval carvings at Exeter Cathedral entitled, ‘Of Sirens and Centaurs’ once told me that after studying his family tree he realised that he is only 15 generations from the late middle ages and that that made him feel connected with that period in the past.

In an to attempt to get a similar feeling for the 900 year timeline of Exeter Cathedral, the video entitled, ‘900 Years of Light’ contained exactly 900 images, each representing one year in the cathedral’s history.

 

The ‘Light’ in the title ‘900 Years of Light’ refers to one of many extraordinary qualities contained within cathedrals. Cathedrals were designed to maximise the impact of light, no better illustrated than when you walk into them during the day. The first thing that people typically do when they enter these buildings is look up at the daylight that illuminates their remarkably constructed ceilings. This applies to both Exeter Cathedral and Gloucester Cathedral. The wavelength project is concerned with sound and light and so we decided to begin our new collaborations with the two cathedrals by creating photographs of their naves after dark by painting the ceilings, walls and floors with light using hand-held LED torches (with the generous help of friends and employees and volunteers at the two cathedrals). Since my pre-digital photography days I have been interested in paining-with light-photographs. They are created by keeping the shutter open on a camera that is focused on a very dark scene. The scene is then slowly lit by light using the torches.

Trees painted with light Photos: Mark Ware
Trees painted with light Photos: Mark Ware

Above are two examples of tests I carried out several years ago in a park in Brighton. The length of each exposure was approximately 2 minutes. At Exeter Cathedral and Gloucester Cathedral, the length of each exposure was approximately 10 minutes, due to how dark the naves were after dark. Why is this technique of interest when similar effects can be achieved using Photoshop or similar software? The answer is that painting-with-light at the cathedrals made us all aware of our surroundings and made us look. Added to that was the magical feeling when, after ten minutes of painting with light, a single image miraculously appeared. Photoshop and similar software are wonderful things and I use Photoshop on a daily basis, but they can encourage lazy work because it is so easy to create ‘artistic’ effects with one or two clicks of a mouse. E.H. Gombrich wrote about style and how art history would not exist without it. The use of Photoshop effects is the use of someone else’s ‘style’ and so it raises the question, is this form of ‘digital art’ art?

It always feels good to contribute time to the creation of artwork, even if it is only ten minutes per photograph, as in thc case of the two painting with light cathedral images. Surely that’s better than ten seconds?

We are very grateful for the Gloucester Cathedral personnel who generously gave up their time to paint the cathedral’s nave with light. Similarly we would like to thank Exeter Cathedral personnel and friends Mike and Tacy Rickard, Chris North, Bryan J. Robinson and Helen Beare for their light painting contribution at Exeter Cathedral. The LED torches that were used in the making of these photographs we generously supplied by Teign Hardware (Teignmouth, Devon).

Below are the two cathedral painting with light photos:

Gloucester Cathedral nave painted with light Photo: Mark Ware
Gloucester Cathedral nave painted with light Photo: Mark Ware
Exeter Cathedral nave painted with light Photo: Mark Ware
Exeter Cathedral nave painted with light Photo: Mark Ware

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