Extracts from A Midday Meditation given by Revd. Canon Dr Graham Dodds, Maundy Thursday 2016 at Wells Cathedral. The Sculpture ‘A Second Home’ by Simon Burns-Cox can be viewed in St. Katherine’s Chapel.
I find it interesting that when the four presenters were asked to provide a work of art for these lunchtime meditations, three chose a picture. For me, when the email came through my mind immediately went to thinking about a sculpture not a picture – a particular sculpture that came into the Cathedral in 2011. We comprehend the world through different means, auditory, visual, kinaesthetic to name but three. So I want to provide an introduction and three short reflections on this piece entitled ‘A Second Home’ by the sculptor Simon Burns-Cox.
Simon was born in 1962 in Sussex. He was educated at Clifton College Bristol and London University. In 1995, aged just 33 he was taken seriously ill with a brain haemorrhage which left him unable to speak for two years. During this bleak period, however, he discovered the art of Stone Carving which he found allowed him to express himself and gave him much enjoyment. When eventually he recovered after intensive speech therapy, he decided to train formally in Stone Carving in the UK and then went to Rome, Italy where he spent nearly four years learning the skills and techniques of marble sculpture from Italian craftsmen and artisans. Upon his return to the UK, he worked at The Bath Artists Studios for six years and then moved to Edinburgh where he is now based at The Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop.
When Simon approached me in 2010, I was taken both by the work and the artist. Simon told me something of the background to the piece and while I am not going to talk extensively about it, I want to offer three short reflections, which are purely subjective and not in any sense an explanation of it. They are more a stream of consciousness, partly based on what Simon said to me when he came to install it. They are meant to begin thoughts, but you might equally want to ignore what I say and follow your own stream. So I shall introduce an aspect of the piece that has provoked me to reflect and after each, I will allow an equally short time to meditate in quiet.
So I begin with my first reflection:
As I come to the piece, my first thoughts are of incarceration, being trapped, slavery, imprisonment, pain, claustrophobia and pity. I find myself wanting to touch it, and indeed Simon’s plea was that it should be put somewhere where people could touch it. First I want to run my hand or hands over the crown of the Sicilian marble head and feel its contours and gently massage it. I have done that several times. Why do I want to do that ? Am I trying to relieve some of the pain of the poor captive individual? Am I attempting to empathise with the victim, am I trying to make the plight a little more bearable?
What sort of imprisonments am I thinking about – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual? There are so many imprisonments in today’s society.
My thoughts turn to individuals who I met when working as a chaplain among those with mental health illnesses in the Maudsley hospital in London. Young people with anorexia, older people with various degrees of mental illnesses and/or dementia. I was moved by their frustration in trying to break out of some abyss of confusion, trying to find some semblance of order in their lives, some freedom to enjoy life again, to choose what they wanted to do and when. The captivity of the mind is such a frightening place. I wonder if the sculptor reflects some of his illness here.
The second thing I want to do is to destroy the work – to prise off the metal grating to rip it off, to wrench it until it is twisted and broken and snapped from the base. It is rusted and inhuman, and vile, and it diminishes all that is created and good and freeing. The juxtaposition of the drain cover, for that’s what it looks like to me, and the Sicilian marble head places in contrast the enormous potential and complexity and beauty of the nerve centre of the human body, with the iron clad inanimate grid block. I want to take an angle grinder to the piece.
But then I think again. If I did try and saw it off, I would of course protect myself with apron and goggles – but when I see how close that face is to the iron bars I would surely cause more harm than good. I could blind the person. So in my mind I imagine myself trying to pull the granting off yet even then to get leverage I could easily make matters worse.
So as we house and contemplate we might ask:
What captivities does it represent?
How great is the piece of freedom?
I peer through the bars and see what was once a face. What I imagine once might have has some handsome and beautiful features, has now been pushed back. It is almost as if it is shrinking back from the world. Elsa Van Der Zee describes it as an agonised face in her book about Wells Cathedral. The eyes are sunken, the nose is rubbed off, the mouth is as though it has not taken food or drink for many days. It is slowly becoming faceless, the bars are preventing sustenance getting through and it is as though the identity of the person is being flushed down a drain.
So for the final election I change the perspective to a more personal one. I imagine the head to be a free person, and for this picture I imagine a man, a righteous man, looking into a drain cover to see what lies underneath it.
The piece is entitled ‘A Second Home’ and I’m aware that I haven’t made reference to that. I have done that deliberately. We have encountered the sculpture but more than that, the sculpture has encountered us, and it asks further questions – fundamental questions – Who am I ? Where do you see me in the world today? Am I a male or female and what difference does that make? Why am I called a Second Home? Do you like me? And what does liking have to do with anything? What might we learn together?
Since this sculpture has been here in the Cathedral, literally hundreds of thousands of people have encountered it. I wonder what conversations have occurred and what difference it has made.
Perhaps you might want to visit ‘A Second Home’ sometime in St. Katherine’s Chapel and begin a new conversation and learn and pray together.