Festival: New Zealand International Arts Festival
Location: Museum of Wellington City & Sea – Wellington Museums Trust
Dates:  26 February – 21 March 2010
Media:  33 glass vessels of water, 2 vessels containing ash and gold leaf, metal frame, digital animations, sound
Dimensions: 4000mm x 7000mm
Music by Mark K. Johnson

VESSELS was commissioned and  funded by the Museum of Wellington – Wellington Museums Trust for the 2010 New Zealand International Arts Festival. It was a world premier interactive 4-movement multimedia installation consisting of 33 vessels of water suspended upon the central atrium wall of the museum, illuminated by spotlights from above. The wall forms a backdrop upon which a myriad of water reflections emanate from the vessels.

VESSELS was inspired by Dante’s early-14th century epic poem, Divine Comedy, which predicted that directly opposite Jerusalem in the great oceans of the southern hemisphere lies an island, above which shines a constellation of four stars in the shape of a cross. Atop this island sits the original Garden of Paradise. The mythological location of this island is where New Zealand now lies. According to Dante, an angel in the form of a divine white bird eternally pilots vessels of souls from the underworld to the island shores. Ripples of light emanate from the vessels, so radiant that the eye can barely endure them. (Purgatorio, Canto 2 of 33).

The installation – like the sacred island encountered in Dante’s poem – is structured in 7 terraces: 7 lines of 5 bowls each. 33 of these glass vessels are filled with water and 2 are filled with blackened ash and shreds of gold leaf. The installation’s 33 vessels represent the 33 songs (cantos) in the Divine Comedy Book 2 (Purgatorio). This interactive work symbolizes the threshold separating land and sea, light and darkness, time and eternity – the intermittent zone between life and afterlife. The piece is activated by vibrations emanating from the music and the visitors, witnesses to the world of souls. The installation and music are structured and presented in 4 movements – Vessel, Aquilon, Tidings and Innocence – which follow the thematic narrative of Dante’s Divine Comedy Book 2 (Purgatorio), the discovery of the island and reaching the original Garden of Paradise above. The 5th and final movement was never performed.  The movements represent the changing radiance of light experienced throughout the voyage.

Original music by American composer Mark K. Johnson established the sounds of a ghost vessel silently approaching the shore, and then eternally receding once again. The music contained the whispers of the tide; the sounds of the sea repeating in endless cycles; the haunting echoes of a ship’s bell in the distance, warning of obstacles.

I.Vessel-1024x684I. VESSEL (4:24) The 1st movement suggests the light at sunrise. The music represents a boat’s bow slowly cutting through the morning fog sending out ripples of sound & light until the accumulating overtones break on the shore in a dissonant warning, only to commence again. In the mist a melody is passed back & forth between distant ships’ horns. This song on the wind is ultimately taken up in the tolling of distant ships’ warning bells as they witness the vessel’s passing.

II.Aquilon-1024x682II. AQUILON (5:41) The 2nd movement ‘Aquilon’, (which means north-west wind), represents the light at midday. In the music of the second movement, reflections of the wind and water converse with each other in song – first in echoes and imitation, and then evolving into a dialog of queries and answers on the duality of life and afterlife. As the movement comes to a close, it revisits the main theme from the first movement and foreshadows the themes of the third movement.

III.Tidings-1024x682III. TIDINGS (4:50) The 3rd movement represents the light at sunset. The title ‘Tidings’ suggests the  movement of the tides as well as ‘foreshadowing’ the discovery of the Garden of Paradise. The music commences with the sounding of a single warning, accompanied by rumbling of waves of timpani. In the distance is heard the sounds of drifting voices, a hymn of falling sighs. Soon the voices incorporate the theme from the 1st movement into their song.

IV.Innocence-1024x682IV. INNOCENCE (3:18) The 4th movement represents nightfall and arrival at the Garden of Paradise. The music uses a theme from a 12th century Gregorian chant. In this final movement, ‘Innocence’, a memory of a simple tune is conveyed through a child’s toy piano naively played without guile or rhythmic variation, while the eternal sea of the underworld echoes portions of the melody as it ebbs, flows and churns in wait of the next turning of the cycle of life.

V. INTO THE LIGHT (5:25) This 5th movement was meant to be heard to the ambient transformations of light emanating from the vessels.  It represents arrival into the light after moving through the darkness following the discovery of Paradise, as the movements of visitors to the installation and the overtones of the music created vibrations within the vessels and resulted in changing patterns of ripples and light reflections above.

I. Vessel: “Then as still nearer and more near us came
The Bird Divine, more radiant he appeared
So that near by the eye could not endure him,
“But down I cast it; and he came to shore
With a small VESSEL, very swift and light,
So that the water swallowed naught thereof.”
Divine Comedy, Book 2, Canto 2, lines 37-42

II. Aquilon: “To the low shores mine eyes I first directed,
Then to the sun uplifted them, and wondered
That on the left hand we were smitten by it.
“The Poet well perceived that I was wholly
Bewildered at the chariot of the light,
Where ‘twixt us and the AQUILON it entered.”
Divine Comedy, Book 2, Canto 4, lines 55-60

III Tidings: “Little could there be seen of things without;
But through that little I beheld the stars
More luminous and larger than their wont.
“Thus ruminating, and beholding these,
Sleep seized upon me, sleep, that oftentimes
Before a deed is done has TIDINGS of it.”
Divine Comedy, Book 2, Canto 27, lines 88-93

IV. Innocence: “Here was the human race in INNOCENCE;
Here evermore was Spring, and every fruit;
This is the nectar of which each one speaks.
“Then backward did I turn me wholly round
Unto my Poets, and saw that with a smile
They had been listening to these closing words.”
Divine Comedy, Book 2, Canto 28, lines 142-147

Exhibition Construction and Project Management: Workshop e Ltd
Assistants: Johann Nortje, Nazia Kachwalla, Andrew Charleson



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