In November 2001 I visited the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the East End of London.
In a darkened room I watched a video art installation called “Threshold to the Kingdom” by the acclaimed British artist Mark Wallinger
It showed the gates at an airport arrivals hall opening and closing in super slow motion as passengers emerged and made their way home after a long overseas flight.
In the background, rang out the 500-year-old chant of Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus‘ – a psalm about a man asking for God’s forgiveness written to be sung in the Sistine Chapel.
Their slow movements and the haunting music transformed the arriving passengers into poised, graceful dancers, as if each movement of arm and leg were in perfect rhythm.
(A 3 min excerpt of the 13 minute art work)
I remember being completely mesmerised, in a state of Zen-like contemplation: I saw the passengers coming through the automatic gates as angels arriving into some earthly heaven, not one full of puffy white clouds and cherubs playing harps.
This interpretation may sound strange, but it was only two months earlier that I had walked back to work in the West End and watched with sheer 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.
In that darkened art gallery room, I thought of people that never arrived and those they left behind in airport arrival halls.
The recent shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH 17 brought the memory of that London afternoon vividly back in my mind.
As I did back in 2001, I think now of all those bright, happy people, returning from family holidays or on their way to an exciting destination- and then gone in an instant, never to arrive at their final point of disembarkation.
Perhaps they have not disappeared, but have arrived someplace else. It is that feeling which “Threshold to the Kingdom” instilled in me so powerfully.
Daily Telegraph art critic Martin Gayford wrote of the effect of the artwork:
It gets its strange power from the conflation of Allegri’s soaringly spiritual music with the banal, anonymous setting of an international airport. Yes, the gates of heaven might be like this – ordinary, yet marvellous.
Reflecting on all the families and friends of the passengers of flight MH 17 dealing with their overwhelming, unbargained for grief, I remember “Threshold to the Kingdom” with ever greater poignancy.
It seems a fitting memorial to the victims of MH 17 as it was back then – in my mind – to the victims of 9/11.
The full, haunting version of Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus: