‘The cascade of bells and words fills the room in a sonic ballet.’
Emma Fielden ‘The Bells’
It’s a wet winter Sunday morning and I’m waiting for an art performance piece devised by Emma Fielden to start. She’s performing it with Lizzie Thomson; they will read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells as a canon, while the bells of Christ Church St Laurence ring.
It is an act of faith to wait quietly in this ecclesiastically white gallery space, the two performers in dark draped dresses, poised and contained in front of three tall windows that look out onto a passageway between the church and the courtyard.
As I wait the room comes into focus, the rectangular fanlights of the casement windows are old hand-made glass, and their distortions create secondary ripples on the corrugated iron roofing of the sloping walkway behind the gallery. This external walkway is angled like it too is a part of a clever stage set. There is a lacy edge of spider web along the middle window frame, a possible metaphor for pattern making. The floor of the performance space is anchored by a white square, diagonally bisected into triangular quadrants, suggestive of origami instructions, choreography and old games that might be played with white stones. I know there is a microphone outside somewhere, and I can hear large drops of rain falling on metal with a decided plink, then I don’t. Maybe the sound has been turned down. George Street is close to empty behind me, I read The Bells from the program notes and fall into something of a trance, until a ghostly echo of the church choir and organ music is softly relayed into the room, like voices called up by a medium’s Ouija-board in a tale of mystery. The audience is focussed and patient, the players move into position on the square’s two eastern corners, and as the eight unseen bell ringers start their ringing, the poem is set in its dualistic motion, the performers enter the quadrants. We are underway.
The cascade of bells and words fills the room in a sonic ballet, that bears us along with its overlaps and echoes, in a polyphonic chorale, that allows you to tune into either Fielden’s or Thomson’s voice, their asynchronistic duet, the bells’ combined compulsive, propulsive, uplifting music, or the sum of it all so you’re floating in a rhythmic sea of sound, feet just keeping time with the room’s pulse, and you feel a curious mix of being both observer and participant. At one point choristers in white smocks and a robed priest appear and pause, looking in from the walkway. Touché.
Poe would have been extraordinarily pleased with his poem’s dramatic performance, Fielden’s dynamic, the room, and those mesmeric bells.
Brava Emma Fielden, Brava Lizzie Thomson, Bravo Bell Ringers.
The next performance of Emma Fielden’s ‘The Bells’ is on 9.30am 4 July 2021 at 812B George Street, Sydney. A limited edition video of the performance will be available through Dominik Mersch Gallery who represent Fielden.
This project is supported by the NSW Government through Create NSW. The exhibition is curated by Marco Rinaldi and presented by Dominik Mersch Gallery.
Photographs: Emma Fielden, ‘The Bells’, 2021. Performed by Emma Fielden and Lizzie Thomson, with the Christ Church Ringers. Due to performance photography protocols images provided by Document Photography.