The Red Place, by Alison Thistlethwaite

Dan Papworth reviews the installation The Red Place.

The Red Place, by Alison Thistlethwaite

Review by Dan Papworth

To those familiar with installation art, The Red Place seems at first glance to be unsurprising. A deceptively simple shape, a cube (2m each side), made entirely of red perspex bolted onto a steel frame, with an opening on one side so that it may be entered, and other, smaller openings at above average eye level in two of the “walls”. Redolent of Colour Field painting (especially Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?), The Red Place is an invitation not only to observe but to enter. It has been described by its creator as a sanctuary, and by others as a holy place, a bridge and a place of encounter. In the setting of an historic church, as it presently stands, it provides a stark, but not jarring, contrast with gothic lines of Cotswold stone, stained glass and scrollwork.

Like many installations, The Red Place has generated a plethora of words. For the artist, who was prompted to create it in a dream, there is a sense of Temple and Tabernacle, into which the High Priest enters at some personal risk. The Greek μsνω (pronounced “meno”), “to dwell”, is significant for her as a word that Jesus himself used. It is a place, almost a Tent, of Meeting, and a space that calls forth what is within. As an artwork that does not depict anything created, it is one with which Muslims in particular feel free to engage and some have already spoken positively about their experience with it. There are of course those who choose not to enter or, in one case for medical reasons, are not able to do so. For such a simple design it is interesting to hear how many different responses there have been.

The Red Place took three years to create and was completed on 22 September 2011. It has been seen in Worcester Cathedral and this year’s ”Fresh Air” sculpture show. It came to Cheltenham on two years and a day after completion and will be on display until after Christmas*.

My own experience, snatched at the end of a presentation about it on a cooling Autumn evening, was of entering into quiet. There is no door, but the solid walls reduce the volume of those talking outside. Staring towards the one wall behind which a light shone, I could not see myself and for a few precious moments experienced a feeling of being almost disembodied, unable to tell how far away the wall was and, very quickly, losing any sense that a wall was even there. To my left the rectangle of the entrance was reflected, the figures outside moving and speaking like a projection, as if being shown on a screen, present but suddenly irrelevant. Staring into the red space before me I became calmer and felt the warmth of the colour. Blinking caused a flash contrast of green as my eyes adapted to the pure stimulus of one colour, similar but not quite equivalent to seeing a light through closed eyelids. I was sorry not to have time to allow this artwork to speak to me more deeply as I would like to have done. Leaving the cube, the green effect was even more stark. it was as if I was floating in a clear, green pool. Then it was as if a dial was being gently turned: the colours returning to normal and other people becoming real, and present, once more.

I’m not keen on over-interpreting modern or postmodern art, preferring to allow the work to speak for itself, and allowing my own projections to come to the fore. One thing is for sure: just as with the Temple of God’s presence, when you enter you bring yourself with you, and seeking an encounter with God leads inevitably to an encounter with yourself. Perhaps the gift of The Red Place is not that we meet God in a new way, but that we are confronted with the things we are carrying into God’s presence, and are taken deeper into that Temple which has been chosen to be the place of Christ’s dwelling.

*Originally billed as being in its present location until the middle of November, The Red Place will now be at Cheltenham Minster until after Christmas, when it will move to Cirencester Parish Church

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