Ancient legend provides a divine inspiration for artist

York Museums' staff helping to install Laura Belem's 'Temple of a Thousand Bells' in the nave of York St Mary's in Castlegate
York Museums' staff helping to install Laura Belem's 'Temple of a Thousand Bells' in the nave of York St Mary's in Castlegate
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A new art exhibition has seen bells returned to a York church but, says Sarah Freeman, don’t expect to hear them ring out.

Artist Laura Belém was in a meditation centre when she was first told the ancient tale which would later inspire a very modern artwork.

The story focused on a mythical temple and an island which sank beneath the waves. Many years later, so the legend goes, a sailor hearing the sound of bells embarked on a dangerous mission to discover the source of the music.

Fast forward a few years and Brazilian-born Belém, who trained at Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design was putting together a proposal for an installation at the Liverpool Biennial. Initially, she had the idea to sink a house in the city’s Albert Dock, but remembering the ancient tale, she decided to take a different route.

The end result was The Temple of a Thousand Bells which, after its debut in Liverpool, has just been installed in St Mary’s Church in York.

“The theme of the Liverpool Biennial was Touched and the more I thought about it, the more I realised how much the legend to the sunken temple had touched me on an emotional and psychological level,” says Belém. “It just wouldn’t go away, so I decided to rewrite the legend as a piece of art.”

As the title suggests, the installation comprises of 1,000 glass bells, produced by the Welsh company Glassblobbery. While they were designed without the usual clapper, The Temple of a Thousand Bells also features a specially created polyphonic soundscape, with snatches of surf, seagulls and the voices of sailors recalling the ancient legend.

“Through all my art my aim is to create unexpected encounters and I also want to engage with the space,” says Belém.

“I was really excited when I was approached about displaying this installation in York. The setting is just incredible and I think it does add an extra layer of meaning for people who come to see it.”

The Temple of a Thousand Bells is the latest exhibition to take over the interior of York St Mary’s, which was turned into a contemporary art space eight years ago.

Standing in the centre of the city, the church is a few yards from the Jorvik Viking Centre, but it feels a world away from the crowded streets and usual tourist haunts.

Laura Turner, curator of art for the York Museums Trust, says: “We first saw this incredible piece of art at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland and thought it would be ideal for the contemporary art space in York St Mary’s.

“The glass bells don’t have a clapper, but they stand as a metaphor that matches the narrated legend which tells about the lost music of the bells in the depths of the ocean. There’s also a real sense of fragility about the installation which conjures up ideas of memory and displacement.”

The Temple of a Thousand Bells, York St Mary’s. The exhibition opens today and runs to November 4. For more details visit www.yorkstmarys.org.uk

Medieval church that became contemporary art venue

York St Mary’s is a medieval church in the centre of the city. It was deconsecrated in 1958 and in 2004 York Museums Trust opened it as a contemporary art venue.

The first exhibition was a light crescendo, which brought together a number of works by international artists.

Since then installations have been commissioned from the likes of Caroline Broadhead, Susie MacMurray, Keiko Mukaide, Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings, Susan Stockwell and Cornelia Parker.

The church is open daily, from 10am to 5pm and admission to The Temple of a Thousand Bells is free.