Kindred Flight

Kindred Flight
Kindred Flight, an audio-video installation in the Narthex of Guildford Cathedral, 2000. Photograph: Phillip Carr.

Guildford Cathedral, 6 Nov – 2 Dec 2000

Flesh is merely a lesson,
We learn it
& pass on.

From ‘The Buddha in the Womb’ by Erica Jong

During this residency, I interviewed the Cathedral’s guides, asking them what their most memorable flight in an aeroplane was, and whether they could describe the first time they flew in one. One man described aerodynamics, and his scientific language brought an abrupt awakening to the religious environment. His story described what we rely on to transport our bodies great distances.

Kindred Flight combined the imaginary and the real. The work was inspired by the many doves and angels ascending and descending throughout the Cathedral. On entering the narthex, a diptych of projections was seen. On one side a projected figure soared slowly up in an arc, and slowly descended on the other. She appears to pass through the walls like a spirit. Her effortless, looped movement encouraged meditation on the stories of flying in aeroplanes, which formed the soundtrack to the piece. This quadrophonic sound could be heard alternately from a lofty space above head-height, and from speakers at floor-level. For instance:

“I’ve seen too many bits of broken aircraft in my working life to enjoy flying really”

There were other anecdotes about the Second World War, for example:

“I flew up, and apart from the pilot, obviously, there was me, six mules and no parachute!”

Leaving the installation you walked into the nave, tall and imposing. You could look up in reverence: it might easily house an aircraft. The architect, Edward Maufe, designed Guildford Cathedral in 1932. He was inspired by aircraft hangers, and created a suspended space. This brought particular significance to Kindred Flight, since the Cathedral was built during the first century of commercial air travel. In retrospect, this work has added poignancy as it was created the year before the plane attacks on the World Trade Centre.

In life we often yearn to escape, to let our imaginations fly. Now the technology exists to take us there and see the Earth from many perspectives. Kindred Flight was a reminder of science and technology in contrast to the mystery of spirituality and the afterlife. The work was cyclical and spoke of both life and death. It is intangible, created with light and sound: media we cannot touch.

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Kindred Flight photomontage

Susan Diab’s response to the installation

Figures leap, fly, and dive through a deep watery sky, a heavenly ocean. They arch over the entrance to the Cathedral, an opening to an immense space. They frame a gaping hole with their sideways energy, anti-clockwise. Moving in staccato jerks, as if trapped in their sideways dynamism, we watch them from right to left, reading in the Other direction, perverse, going against the grain. Fish figures, female in sparkly leotards, touching in their striving for perfection. Feet strangely tapered, thighs taut, sexy in a disciplined manner.

I sit in the porch or ‘narthex’, a cough medicine of a word, at home in the smaller hallway, looking cautiously at the immensity beyond. At home with these figures, these shadows, acrobats, dolls, dancers. I think of Undine and Amy Johnson, the mythical and the real people of water and of air suggested by their blue insubstantiality.

And the voices. As I look I hear English voices telling their own stories of flying. Well-spoken, feather-edged, middle class voices, telling genteel stories. The beautiful suggestiveness as the mature female voice recalls the young pilot with beads of seat on his brow, the huge mountain someone else flew over once in a very small plane, their extended syllables drawing an aural picture of contrasts in scale. Turbulence in the air, in the voices recalling incidents from the past, a tremor, a restrained cough. So touchingly English are these people, so well-behaved, so likeable. Their tones are as ordered as the arching leapers’ movement, yet hinting at at the emotion underneath the surface. There is something nostalgic in their longing, in their reference to the war. I have a brief encounter with each voice, as if they are sharing their experience only with me and as if I am eavesdropping on their tales at the same time.

Others sit nearby and watch the progress of the figures and we smile at each other in recognition of the voices and the strangeness of the forms.

© Susan Diab 2001
Residency and installation commissioned by Art and Sacred Places. Sound edited in collaboration with Lewis Williams. Curated by BN1.
Many thanks to the guides at Guildford Cathedral, and to Stephanie Atkins, Natasha Risman and Jeff Saunders at Woking Gymnastics Club.
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