For Under an Equal Sky: Baldwin & Guggisberg at Canterbury Cathedral, 2018.

In May 2018 a marvellous apparition appeared in the Nave of Canterbury Cathedral: a ghostly boat, its outline indicated by one hundred clear glass amphorae, hung as if floating in mid-air. This was the first part of Philip Baldwin and Monica Guggisberg’s ten-piece intervention in the Cathedral, titled ‘Under An Equal Sky’. Besides its beauty, with the daylight that pours through the clear windows of the 14th-century Nave reflecting off the vessels, bringing aspects of the boat into clear outline while others seemed to vanish, it was also a most affecting introduction to the entire conversation between that ancient English building of stone and glass and Baldwin and Guggisberg’s glass artistry.

The boat effectively launches visitors on a journey through the Cathedral, preparing them for a sequence of encounters in side chapels and along the aisles. But it also represents a new embarkation for Baldwin and Guggisberg. With this collaboration they have taken further than ever before the potential for glass to speak of the issues that most concern them. They have made the material, its processes, histories and associations work for them, so as to explore not just particular histories of people and places but universal questions about humankind – questions that are appropriately raised in this 1400-year-old seat of spiritual power.

Photo by Christoph Lehmann

Photo by Christoph Lehmann

The foundations for this more politically conscious direction were laid in 2016 with a triptych the pair made for an exhibition at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh. Titled ‘Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow’, the piece consisted of three vitrines denoting past, present and future: in the first there was just sand and broken coloured glass – sand being a component of glass, not to mention the substance of countless once pristine beaches, with the broken fragments a reminder of all the beauty and splendour that has passed; the second vitrine was filled with free-blown glass vessels of all kinds and sizes, colour and form, expressing the colourful plural richness of our present; while the third was packed with styrofoam, the monochrome waste of our blinkered consumer society.

At the time Philip Baldwin and Monica Guggisberg wrote (together - they do everything together, as they have for forty years): ‘We have not participated before in contemporary art’s passion for politics and shock value or the intellectual obsession with “meaning”. But as the 21st century matures into full-throttle adolescence we felt a growing need to stand up and be counted, in short to declare ourselves. This is our first foray into very troubled waters.’

They were aware that taking their work from the realm of the joyous and the decorative and requiring it to speak about the dark underside of our lives was a risk. But for them, it felt a necessary move. They have spent the past four decades working with glass, at first making table-top glassware, then collaborating with industry as designers, while also initiating one-off projects with the renowned Venetian glass company Venini, based on Murano, and at the same time creating single works of great technical complexity and aesthetic distinction in their own studio. And for what, in the end, does one acquire expertise in a difficult artistic language if not eventually to express a view of the world, informed by all that you have made, thought, felt and done?

Fundamental to their intervention in the Cathedral, is the notion of community. Neither Baldwin nor Guggisberg is conventionally religious. However, they have responded powerfully to the architectural space and the history it embodies. This building has been built over centuries by generations of stonemasons, stained glass artists, carpenters and sculptors, drawn from all over Europe. It has been lived in by communities of the religious and the lay personnel who sustain its functions. In addition, throughout history, Canterbury, based as it is near the sea ports closest to France, has played host to successive waves of refugees, from Walloons and Huguenots fleeing persecution in France and Belgium in the 16th and 17th centuries to the most recent arrivals from Calais. As self-confessed nomads, having moved at different stages of their lives from Baldwin’s North East America and Guggisberg’s Switzerland to Sweden, Switzerland, Paris and now mid Wales, the pair have a profound sympathy for, and belief in, the nomadic instincts we each have within us, and in the immigrants and emigrants who cross-fertilise the cultures of the world. Since 2012, and with growing numbers of migrants losing their lives at sea, they have also become acutely aware of the desperation driving thousands into flimsy boats, where once traders set out with cargoes of produce. As Baldwin says, ‘you have to embrace the dark side of the story, because it belongs there.’ It is solidarity with these nomads that drives the unfolding drama of their installation, marked first by the symbolic hauling from the shore of a fragile boat up into this hallowed space. The Nave, after all, is named from the Latin for boat, navis. It holds its people, those who congregate within it, drawing on the idea of the boat as a place of safety amid the storm.

This year is the centenary of the Armistice at the end of the First World War, and so ‘Remembrance’ is another significant thread running through the work. As two non-British artists, Baldwin and Guggisberg have picked up this theme from their own particular vantage point. Philip was born in 1947, Monica in 1955; they grew up in the shadow of two world wars.

For both, it is the continuing legacy of these wars that is most disturbing: the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, the civilian casualties and refugees regarded as mere ‘collateral damage’. There is no complacency in the remembrance. Each amphora in the boat in the Nave represents one of the hundred years between 1918 and today. An amphora, which carries water and oil but also the ashes of the dead, is thus symbolic of the individual journey of a single life. As the Dean commented as the boat was unveiled to the public: ‘Each of those years belongs to one of us. What have we done to fill that emptiness?’ For Baldwin and Guggisberg the boat is equally a reminder of how the past haunts the present – its lineaments clearly visible in the right light.

From here, the artists have developed ancillary themes, all of which interconnect and cast light on each other, giving substance and texture to the exhibition. Down in the space dedicated to Thomas Becket that commemorates his martyrdom, in the niches beside a tomb, they have placed four remarkable glass statues, made in collaboration with Venini. All four are made in two parts, with gleaming dark lower halves and intensely coloured upper parts: bright blue, ruby red, a vivid green and pure white.

They are like sinister giant chess pieces, standing in for the four assassins sent, some believe, by Henry II to rid him of his rebellious Archbishop. For Baldwin and Guggisberg they represent the accomplices in all state crimes, merely doing their duty, as we all collude in the oppressions exercised by governments in our name.

As historians know, there are no definitive heroes and villains, whether in the dramatic story of Thomas Becket’s resistance to Henry II’s assertion of royal power, or in the muddle of contemporary conflicts. Becket is remembered again in the ebullience of ‘The Pilgrims’ Boat’ placed on the spot where his shrine stood from fifty years after his death in 1170 until 1538. So powerful was the cult of this martyred Archbishop, canonised by the Pope in 1173, that Canterbury became a leading place of pilgrimage. The Trinity Chapel was largely constructed to house his shrine, and retains deep grooves in the marble where countless pilgrims knelt. In 1538, Henry VIII, in a whirlwind of revenge, had this symbol of Papal power destroyed. Baldwin and Guggisberg choose to remember, however, a more triumphant moment, the first blessing of the new shrine in 1220, the fiftieth anniversary of his martyrdom, when crowned monarchs and religious leaders from throughout Europe made the journey across the Channel to do him honour. There they are, jostling for space, in a boat, in all their richly coloured, variously shaped glory.

Almost immediately behind this work lies The Corona. Like much of this part of the Church, it is flooded with multicoloured light from the 13th- century stained glass windows, paid for largely by pilgrims. Here Baldwin and Guggisberg have placed a work made entirely from elegantly twisting strands of white steel. Like ‘The Pilgrims’ Boat’, this is a homage to another kind of community, Europe, jubilantly celebrating the diversity of peoples who necessarily come together to build a church or create a civilisation. They have often used metal in their glass sculptures. Here, they took the opportunity to let it speak.

Before you get here, however, there is a darker moment, a pair of works in the North Aisle, entitled ‘You, Me and the Rest of Us’ and ‘Ordnance Boat’. The first is a hanging screen of one hundred amphorae, of different sizes representing humanity. The work echoes the one hundred amphorae in the Nave. But where, there, the vessels were all transparent, and all the same size and shape, and hung freely in the space, reflecting the essential freedom and equality of all human beings, here the vessels are strictly ordered in a grid, and identified by just three colours – clear, black and gold – suggesting a hierarchy determined by wealth and the crude divisions that exist in the world between the haves and the have nots: under our equal sky we are ever more unequal.

Nearby, the pair have placed a glass-sided barque filled with used ammunition. Beneath, a series of carefully chosen statistics details the numbers of people lost or driven from their homes as so-called ‘collateral damage’. As they point out, ‘More than twenty-two million individuals, over half of them children, were refugees at the end of 2016 as a result of conflict, violence or persecution.’ These are bald truths the artists want us to confront without embellishment or false sentiment.

These pieces are matched on the South Aisle by two modest interventions in the name of hope. Glass blowing is an intrinsically collaborative art form, and the artists have always worked in collaboration with others. In the austere St Anselm Chapel, rather than add a work in glass, they commissioned a simple boat to be hewn by the Cathedral’s expert stonemasons, in the same Caen stone of which the Cathedral is built. This is a highly personal gesture of humility. The boat has become a key symbol for Baldwin and Guggisberg. Both come from families of sailors and they have found the motif, reduced to its simplest, most abstract form, increasingly resonant. Here, in a chapel dedicated to the great immigrant Archbishop Anselm, alongside a beautiful altar commissioned from sculptor Stephen Cox by the people of the Italian autonomous region of Valle d’Aosta, birthplace of Anselm, made from Aosta marble, they have offered a small but potent gesture of solidarity, while contributing permanently to the fabric of the Cathedral. Inside the boat is cut a double helix, a symbol of our common humanity.

Nearby, in the South Aisle itself, hangs ‘The Architect’s Mobile’, strung with simple glass forms in primary colours – the five basic buildings blocks of every man-made structure in the world – the DNA, if you will, of our shared cultural inheritance.

This Cathedral is no more English than it is French. It accommodates after all a water stoop inspired by African bowls. As with the Nave boat, we remember here all the dead and celebrate all the living.

The Crypt is the ancient heart of the Cathedral, begun in the 11th century and the site of Thomas Becket’s tomb from his death until 1220. It is here that Baldwin and Guggisberg have chosen to site ‘Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow’. In this new location it offers a stark, if more abstract, counterpoint to Antony Gormley’s ‘Transport’, a meditation on human suffering. After journeying through Baldwin and Guggisberg’s stationed installations in the Cathedral above, with their alternately sober and optimistic visions of our nature and destiny, the piece takes on a new urgency.

But Baldwin and Guggisberg do not leave us there. Out in the empty, highly decorated Chapter House, they have created the ‘Peoples’ Wall’. Taking its cue from the central vitrine, ‘Today’, from ‘Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow’, this wall of glass is entirely filled with the fruits of their labour: hundreds of free-blown and cold-worked glass vessels, of many different sizes, shapes and styles. The wall is offered as an emblem, a dream, of what should be an achievable reality but seems ever faster slipping from our grasp: inclusive, pluralistic, riotously colourful and vibrantly creative communities, here and everywhere. Can we somehow turn the ‘Boat of Remembrance’ this way and fill those empty vessels with life and colour?