The Shetland Times made the announcement: there was a new sculpture on the island of Unst. It had been erected on the bell tower of St. John’s Church that had ‘recently starred in the BBC television series Island Parish.’ Can a building ‘star’? The minister might have ‘starred.’ The work was by the local artist, Ted Harrison. The sculpture represents a fish formed out of the first letters of the Bible, and those of St. John’s Gospel. It is made out of polished, mirror-finished steel.
‘Mr Harrison said: “I have intertwined the first words of The Bible with the first words of St John’s Gospel, both starting with the words “In the beginning”. The mirror finish steel is designed to catch the rising sun on the shortest day and be fully lit from dawn to midday on St John’s Day, mid summer.” '
St. John's, Unst
Intertwined is a good description, as the words do read as somewhat of a tortured puzzle. It is not easy to interpret the first words that are fragmented into:
It is simply not a good beginning, even as the head of the fish with the lower ‘B’ blob becoming the eye; and in spite of the tail declaring that ‘it was good.’ The role of ‘GOD' is interesting in that the letters form the junction, the node point between the body and the tail. Is this symbolic?
The sculpture is an enigmatic work that seems to seek out just too much relevance in the explanation of this selective array of letters. It is the text of two sources as well as the symbolic fish of Christianity, and identifies the local fishing and aquaculture activities. All of this is mirrored ‘to catch the rising sun on the shortest day and be fully lit from dawn to midday on St John’s Day, mid summer.’ The sculpture seems to be mounted high on the wall of the bell tower, on the eastern face between two windows. It is really not very high at all: that it just fits the width of the wall gives it a certain uncomfortable tension. Was it designed for this location or did it just happen to be the same width, so it was put there?
That the mirrored letters face east might suggest that they ‘catch the rising sun’ everyday, and are likely to be ‘lit from dawn to midday’ everyday also. Yet the words of the artist appear to suggest something unique and special on certain occasions, like Maeshowe, where sunlight streams into its dark depths only on one day a year – the Winter Solstice. Nothing like that is happening here, but it is made to sound as though it is. There is a somewhat pretentious presence lingering here.
The idea of making forms out of letters is fraught with danger as it has been used commercially to promote brands, and in other circumstances, to make jokes, puns, or to shape playful gestures. Is it just a little kitsch? Even though he explains the work as having much meaning, the sculptor seems to believe the work is somewhat ephemeral, hoping that ‘the work will survive many winters here on Scotland’s most northerly island.’ He recognises that Unst does experience some harsh weather, but why was his sculpture not designed for this? Is this the only community that would accept his work? He is said to be a ‘local.’ This uncertainty on duration stands at odds with the intention – the celestial and cosmic references and religious and commercial symbolism.
The use of the fish symbol is itself tricky. The origin of the reference is not immediately a part of our everyday experience, making it more of an intellectual sign than an emotionally connected symbol like that of the lion, seen as the symbol of the sun:
Symbolic meaning. ΙΧΘΥΣ, or also ΙΧΘΥC with lunate sigma (Ichthys) is a backronym/acrostic for "Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ", (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr) contemporary Koine [ie̝ˈsus kʰrisˈtos tʰeˈu (h)yˈjos soˈte̝r], which translates into English as "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour."
The choice of the fish is not a good start for any native communication and understanding. That there is no longer a lot of commercial fishing located on Unst only further isolates the image. Presenting a profile of a fish to islanders who are interested in fishing and know their fish must beg the obvious question: what type of fish is being represented here? Indeed, what? Is it a local fish? Does it matter?
Well, yes: art that seeks to be a meaningfully integrated work, rich in resonant references with special cosmic alignments, has to be just what it intends to be or else it is always less - a pretend work; a superficial gesture that is easily dismissed as a meagre decoration that is likely to be as ephemeral as any decoration; like, for instance, its Christmas counterpart: a mere trinket to be discarded after its short life and usefulness has been played out – that is if the sculpture is not blasted off the wall before this.
The point is that we should be more rigorous and honest with our art; we should not fabricate flimsy, hopeful identities for it and hope that this explanation will become the ‘meaningful’ experience of the ad hoc reading that can be seen to mock identity, meaning and substance, although perhaps playfully.
New sculpture unveiled on Unst’s ‘Island Parish’ church
Ted Harrison’s sculpture shows the first words of the Bible and the first words of St John’s Gospel
17/09/2016 by The Shetland Times
A new sculpture which incorporates the Christian symbol of the fish and the first words of the Bible has been unveiled in Unst.
Unst based artist Ted Harrison revealed the sculpture yesterday, on the bell tower of St John’s Church, which recently starred in the BBC television series Island Parish.
The sculpture is made from cut steel which has been mounted on drift wood.
Mr Harrison said: “I have intertwined the first words of The Bible with the first words of St John’s Gospel, both starting with the words “In the beginning”. The mirror finish steel is designed to catch the rising sun on the shortest day and be fully lit from dawn to midday on St John’s Day, mid summer.”
He added: “The idea was both to create a new version of the ancient Christian symbol of the fish and celebrate the modern-day fishing and aquaculture industries of Shetland. I hope the work will survive many winters here on Scotland’s most northerly island.”
Ted Harrison’s previous large scale works include the focus of Remembrance under the dome of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and a wall sculpture honouring organ donors at Guy’s Hospital, London, unveiled last year by Alan Titchmarsh.
Not as high as the image of the sculpture suggests
It is interesting to note that the church was once much larger than it is at present:
The garden wall can be seen in the image above.
Interior of St. John's Church, Unst