ELEGY – STONE AND LIGHT
(PLEASE NOTE - SPOILER ALERT!)
A colleague took me to the building for the first time in the autumn of 2014. For more than ten years I had driven and cycled past it without ever thinking of stopping. From outside it was a white rectangular construction held together by a grey steel grid; a modernist box like many light industrial units or warehouses scattered on the outskirts of Swiss towns.
Passing through a small door which opens automatically to the touch, one enters into a huge open space entirely drenched by colour. The skin of the building is composed of thin sheets of marble. Outside it is white and featureless, but inside, in the sunlight, the marble is full of extraordinary colour and pattern stretching unobstructed from floor to ceiling. It is a magic transformation of space that takes place the instant that the threshold is crossed.
On the outside the building is modernist but inside it seems to be Gothic in inspiration. The translucent stone plates are arranged in order, sliced from one block of stone, one above the other. This and the proportion of the steel uprights, the ratio of height to width, lead the eye forever upwards.
It was as if I was looking at film, not moving, but displayed in strips, up and down the building. The structure of the building was a thin framework, presenting four hundred and forty four frames, frozen in time in seventy-four film strips. And what did the film show? Quite literally a travel through rock, a journey back billions of years to the time the rock was formed and buried, but now displayed in thin sections like a CT scan of the human brain. In my imagination the patterns in the stone became, stormy seascape, rolling waves, falling water, rain and mist, folds of fabric, magnified jewels or distant landscapes often painted with the brushstroke of Turner or Goya.
If I didn’t think of making a film of the building in the first instant it was because the film was already unrolling in front of me. But a few days later I photographed some of the lower stones and began to see what would happen if I changed the images frame by frame. Would others see what I saw? At the beginning it was easy. But in the end it was the hardest animation that I ever made. Nothing came without endless trial and error, returning to the same pieces of stone to hunt out a pattern that disappeared the minute it began to be animated. Sequences that seemed consecutive as single frames dissolved into complex and divergent shapes when moving frame by frame.
While thinking about the film and reflecting in the building itself, I remembered a quotation from Milan Kundera’s ‘Book of Laughter and Forgetting’: ‘It takes so little, so infinitely little for someone to find himself on the other side of the border, where everything – love, conviction, faith, history – no longer has meaning. The whole mystery of human life itself is the fact that it is spent in the immediate proximity of, and even in direct contact with, that border, that it is separated from it, not by kilometres but barely a millimetre.’
For me the building was strongly symbolic. It is a church, which, from the outside discouraged approach with its cold white featureless walls. But enter through that small and heavy door which automatically opens to a single touch, and you are dazzled with warmth and colour, grand in scale and complex in detail. I saw the church as a symbol for our life of alternating faith and despair; the thin boundary of stone that separated the blank white exterior from the warm patterns was the border Kundera describes between life being meaningful and hopeless. I wondered how much this had been the intention of the architect or those that commissioned the church. Gothic churches drew the people inside by the beauty of the stone ornamentation, but this building pushed people away. It had done so to me. It was an unwelcoming façade, as if the world held nothing for an outsider, as if faith was going to be a struggle, cold and hard. But once that threshold was so easily passed the building yielded sensory riches unimaginable to those outside, seeing only its flawless blank white walls.
For a time I wanted to include the quotation in the film, but as I began to put the film sequences together, the contrast between the outside and inside of the church seemed at least as symbolic of life and death as it was of faith and despair. Symbolism in art and life is a strange and delicate form. Images are not hieroglyphs or code which work through exact equivalents between picture and its meaning. On the contrary, meaning needs to grow from the images, maybe only at a single moment in time, but then flourishing into an extraordinary efflorescence far greater than the host itself, like an enormous parasitic plant far more beautiful than the one on which it grows and feeds. This is what makes the discussion of art so hazardous. Words like inside and outside, faith and despair, life and death, have a precision which discourages the growth of meaning in the world of images.
I had the opportunity of meeting Franz Fueg, the architect of St Pius. He was happy to discuss the details of the structure, how it was built and how the stone was chosen and arranged. But he neither wanted to discuss the symbolism of the structure nor its position architecturally, poised between modernism and the Gothic. Architecture, perhaps because of its functional role, is an art form that is the most opaque to symbolism and therefore the most vulnerable to interpretation. I guessed that the architect might have suffered in the past from the consequence of his words and wanted to keep them to a minimum. It’s stone and light, he told me, just stone and light.
So if the stones and light in St Pius allow us to dream, and that dream grows in the minds of those who pass through the building into a flourishing jungle – may I use the word ‘jungle’ for once without the precision of language, for it could equally be the deep sea, or high misty mountains – then couldn’t I allow the audience to watch my film on exactly those same terms? And let them dream their dreams as I did mine when I entered the building for the first time?