I’ve just spent some time in Greyfriars Kirk in the Old Town in Edinburgh looking at Rosie Lee and Roswitha Chesher’s lovely video installation Liquid Gold Is The Air. It is in the form of a small, glowing, Northern Renaissance triptych, with a picture frame containing a central panel and on each side a narrower wing angled slightly forwards. With it emphasis on simple frontal perspective and on brightly coloured natural details, it is a bit like a Van Eyck altarpiece with its green garden landscape and angelic figures in red and gold. In Greyfriars Kirk it has been placed in a side chapel to the right of the main altar with a few rows of church seating – with their slots for the hymn book and psalter – so that people can sit and contemplate it. It is not a new work but has already been shown in other historic churches and cathedrals. It was filmed in an arboretum in Milton Keynes that had been planted using the floor pattern of Norwich Cathedral. The resulting garden is called a Tree Cathedral.
Typical of other pieces that I’ve seen by Lee, it strikes a delicate balance between very simple task-based but strong, clear, almost conceptual movements, and a humanistic sensibility that comes from the calm, almost meditative concentration of the community of dancers – ranging from young children to senior citizens – who support each other as they execute them together.
It doesn’t surprise me to find Lee has made what is a fairly explicitly religious piece. It is quite open in its religious affiliation. There is no overt Christian symbolism that I could detect, but a kind of abstract spiritual ambiance. For some research about dance during the First World War I’ve been reading about Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall. When he was designing it, apparently, he was under a lot of pressure from the then Archbishop of Canterbury to include a cross on its front face, but Lutyens resisted, insisting that the abstract proportions of the monument would themselves create spiritual resonances. He himself at the time had been working in India and was interested in eastern religious ideas.
Liquid Gold Is The Air is a bit like the Cenotaph in this respect. It has no specific religious message or any imagery that can be identified with any one organised religion. But, looking at it, it conjures up for me of all sorts of random associations. Some of it remind me of Gurdjieff’s The Movements in Peter Brook’s film Meetings with Remarkable Men. I was reminded of bits of Tai Chi – for example two hands surrounding an invisible globe of energy. One strong recurring image is of triangular groupings of dancers holding up their palms as if to bless a central, favoured man or woman. These reminded me of the pyramids blessing the bride or groom in Nijinska’s Les Noces.
The hands also made me think of one of my favourite pieces that Lea Anderson made for the Featherstonehaughs, Jesus Baby Heater. Anderson explained that the title referred to the fact that some of the dancers responded to the idea that they were reaching out towards spiritual energy, while others were implacable atheists and had to imagine they were warming their hands on an invisible electric fire. The fluttering gold painted palms in Liquid Gold Is The Air make a mandala around the central figure, and at these moments Graeme Miller’s sound score includes the sounds of birds as if the hands are angels’ wings.
The figures in red could be seen as resurrected souls in a depiction of the last judgement, but they could equally be Hindu sanyassins. The figures in gold could also be renaissance saints but their whirling dance is reminiscent of Sufi dervishes while their ankle bells could be those of a kathak dancer but might equally have been borrowed from a morris dance side.
There’s a man in a motorised wheelchair in one of the scenes, and one young black girl in another, but it is not a very diverse group of dancers, predominantly white. When you are creating with non-professional volunteers you have to some extent to work with what you’ve got, a skill that Lee has perfected over the years. What I appreciated about Liquid Gold Is The Air is to detect its evident ability to appeal to the high-church Anglicanism of the Norwich and Christ Church Cathedrals as well as to the members of the congregation of this histrorically puritan church. I imagine it could also appeal to inter-faith groups and to those like myself with no religious affiliation. Liquid Gold Is The Air uses movement to convey joy – a quality that, like gold, is currently in somewhat short supply.