uk day 7 & 8: blank canvas?

Greenbelt was a great experience, but exhausting.  Most of the 7th day of the Oxygen UK tour was spent travelling from Cheltenham up to Manchester, and in recovery mode.  After a quick look around the city here in Manchester, it was sleeping, clothes washing, and general ‘down’ time for the rest of the day.

Today we’ve had the chance to meet together as a group, reflect on our greenbelt experience and look toward the next week, part of the tour.

We’ll be spending two nights in Manchester, meeeting with the team from Sanctus & Nexus Art Cafe (tonight), and with Chris Baker tomorrow.  Then it’s on to Telford for a couple of nights and opportunities to meet with Mark Berry and the Safe Space community.  Saturday we’ll be on the road to London where we’ll stay until the end of the trip.

Manchester is an interesting place. The metro area is the second largest in the UK, with around 2.5 million residents.  The inner city area is a busy place, a centre of commerce, retail, arts and more.  It’s famed in recent times for hosting the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and for being home to two of Britain’s premier league football teams – Manchester City and Manchester United.

I took a walk around town today, and found a few interesting things.  I was reminded not for the first time that in the UK, city centre areas are mostly very pedestrian friendly (at least all the ones I’ve been in). There are wide footpaths, and lots of ‘pedestrian’ only areas.  And the city centre was packed today – there were thousands of people out and about.  It’s obviously a very multi-cultural community too – much more so than Leamington or Cheltenham (or greenbelt for that matter) which are more apparently mono-cultural.

I wandered into the CUBE gallery today, just across the road from the hotel.  At first I thought I’d come on a bad day, and that the gallery was in between exhibitions. It was all white walls and bare floors.  Turns out its an exhibition called “The Perfect Gallery” designed to showcase the gallery itself, enabling visitors to focus on the architecture, design and layout of the space.  I have to admit, I thought “right…….that’s pathetic then” (!), but walked on in anyway.  And the space was somehow surprising, and interesting, and it captured me.  It was as if the building itself were a blank canvas, ready for anything that an artist, a creator might bring to it.

Except that it’s not a blank canvas.  It’s a space that is shaped in particular ways, with light and shadow falling, angular steel furnishings, concrete and timber floors.  An artist designing an installation for this ‘perfect gallery’ would have to take note of the features of the gallery itself, using their art to complement the space.  I came away with the impression that in a gallery as much as anywhere, context matters.

As we continue to explore ‘contextual’ expressions of church here in the UK, I’ll be interested to see how the creators have shaped their faith communities in response to the features and characteristics of their host communities.  How have they recognised light and shade? How does the faith community fit with the furnishings of the city and its people?

I have to say that one thing this trip has opened my eyes to, perhaps for the first time, is the value of art and creativity in public spaces.  I’m not thinking about paintings or drawings necessarily, but sculpture and architecture that invite the observer to be a participant.  Manchester city has quite a few ‘public art’ installations, and I enjoyed interacting with them today.

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