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Friday, 23 September 2011
Jean Genet: Gallery 3
Simon Withers, Artist and Nottingham Contemporary Gallery Assistant

Having invested quite some time invigilating the current exhibition, my attention has been drawn towards two works, the bell from the Galleries of Justice (1858) and Walking man 1 (1960) by Giacometti. On a formal level I am forging connections between these two works – bonds which may or may not be essentially prevalent in the work. The empty triangular space between the legs of Walking Man echoes the pyramidal form of the bell – do I use the word pyramidal here imprecisely to describe a form that has feminine qualities? The bell is curvaceous in shape so perhaps it is more akin to an eroded ‘stepped’ pyramid rather than, say, a great pyramid in Giza.

There is something about the cast object that interests me, as both of these forms have a degree of ‘fallible permanence’ – a hard-softness. These two constructs look as if they could be everlasting; yet they could be cast down to zero, whereby even the histories attributed to them shall perish and they could then undergo a metamorphosis and be cast anew. It is not surprising therefore that my thoughts turn towards death and rebirth. Whilst I am alive I have ample time to turn my thoughts to morbid things as William James did, saying the morbid ‘was an all too valid way of seeing the underlying realities of existence.’

As for the bell on the floor of Gallery 3, which once tolled in the execution of condemned criminals, it was made by Whitechapel Bell Foundries – Britain’s oldest company, founded by Charles and George Mears in 1570, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. This illustrious bell foundry also created the Liberty Bell, Big Ben and ‘Great Tom’ (the large bell in Lincoln Cathedral). The foundry additionally crafted the tenor bell of St Sepulcher in London, this bell long ago used to announce the imminent death of some unhappy wretch in the Gulag like Newgate prison. Incidentally, the tenor bell was at some subsequent date substituted by a large executioners hand bell.

As I stand observing the public in the course of visiting Gallery 3, some appear (consciously or otherwise) to adopt numerous qualities of the Walking man, they strike up similar gaits and stances. The emaciated figure, in stark contrast to the nourished individuals scattering the gallery space, is by comparison wearing an endurable sum of flesh and (perhaps stoically?) he strides out with resolution, as though on a death march towards that void – the white wall of the gallery.

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