The terrible, senseless tragedy of MH 17, the ending so quickly and so suddenly of so many innocent lives, reminded me of a very moving experience I underwent almost 13 years ago…
It is November 2001, the start of another long London winter and I am at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the East End.
On a screen on a wall in a darkened room a video plays on rotation to the beautifully hypnotic chants of Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus‘.
I stand quietly and watch.
The video recording is of a drab airport arrivals hall, shot in super slow motion.
A dark shape appears behind the glass, then the automatic doors swing slowly open. A woman in a long black coat strides through, holding a red bag in her hand, She is poised, dignified and moves with great purpose. Behind her, a pony-tailed man in a blue coat appears holding a cup of coffee and walks slowly across the screen, seeming to not notice her presence, as if she were a ghost. The woman walks out of the frame and disappears.
The harmonic chanting of Miserere continues.
The doors open again. Three more people enter as a security guard stares ahead from behind his counter: they are a businessman smartly dressed in suit and tie, a tall, casually attired man holding a green bag and a young, attractive woman running her fingers through her long hair.
Other people make their slow entrance while the uplifting, haunting music plays on. Three short, elderly ladies, friends perhaps of many years, gently embrace one another after a long absence.
Later, a man pushes a trolley through the automatic doors. He stops, looks around, confused, examines a scrap of paper perhaps looking for instructions or a phone number and continues on.
I watch this all – mesmerised – with 9/11 as my point of reference: It was only two months prior when I walked back to work in Soho and watched with disbelief as jet planes crashed into the World Trade Centre towers in New York, bursting into balls of red and orange flame, obliterating lives in an instant.
At the time I watched the video art installation , I could not help but think of all the doomed passengers on those hijacked flights that never reached their destinations and of their friends and families waiting in vain (or without knowledge of their deaths) in drab, impersonal airport arrivals hall.
This brilliant piece of video art work entitled “Threshold to the Kingdom” was by the acclaimed British artist Mark Wallinger, intended as a play on the idea of arriving into the United ‘Kingdom’ and the arrival into some heavenly ‘kingdom’ where an industrial airport hall is transformed via super-slow motion and a Renaissance chant - in the words of Daily Telegraph art critic Martin Gayford – into something “ordinary, yet marvellous”.
I managed to find a three-minute excerpt of the original video installation:
It fails to capture the full experience of the ‘Threshold to the Kingdom’, but did remind me of how I stood and watched the screen in the dark, entranced by the haunting 500 year old chant and the slow opening and closing of the automatic gates as passengers step over the “threshold”.
Thirteen years later, having recently experienced my own sudden loss – my son Rafferty died two weeks before he was due to be born in February this year – I reflected on all the families and friends of the passengers of flight MH 17 dealing with their overwhelming, unbargained for grief and thought about this piece of artwork which moved me so profoundly back then.
In ‘Threshold to the Kingdom’ the arrival of ordinary, unremarkable people into a sparse airport terminal are transmuted by their graceful, slow movements and the soaring chanting hymn into ghosts or perhaps angels arriving into a heaven of some kind.
Perhaps that, in the end, is all we can hope for the victims of MH 17 and those of other terrible tragedies.
The full, haunting version of Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus: