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Revisiting 'People We Love', one year on

Maya Bewley takes a look at the recently updated art installation, housed in York Minster.

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Image Credit: Maya Bewley

On an early Thursday morning, York Minster is cold but welcoming. Its huge arches haven’t ushered in the rush of school trips yet. Instead, a few eager tourists gently potter around the empty wooden chairs, reaching for their phone every-now-and-again to capture a piece of stained glass. There’s the gentle murmur of background conversation, but for now the Minster is cloaked in a sense of stillness.

It’s this peacefulness that cradles the art installation 'People We Love', which I had the chance to visit that morning. Underneath the sweeping curves of the Minster’s knave lies five screens. Each screen contains a short film of a person who is looking at a photo of someone that they love. We never see what that photo is, but we are left instead to contemplate the shifting waves of emotion on their face. Some faces give a tender smile, while others slowly crumple under the weight of affection. Each person stares intently into the camera, forcing you to recognise whatever it is that they are feeling at that moment in time. It’s a startlingly intimate experience to share with a stranger, but one that makes you think about what it means to feel something.

Created by artist Kit Monkman, the piece was originally made in collaboration with arts festival York Mediale. However, due to the national lockdown in November, it only opened for around three days. Our very own previous Muse editor Jenna Luxon visited during that period, and you can read her thoughts about it here. Now returning nearly a year on, the work feels slightly different this time. It’s as though the meaning has evolved alongside all the grief and guilty relief in the past confusion of a year. We’re back in person, but what about the ones who can’t be with us? 'People We Love' feels like a memorial to those loved ones, a coming together to pause and reflect on our most intimate memories. When you look at someone in those screens, you are woven into a wider community of remembering.

I spoke to the director of York Minster, Neil Sanderson, about these feelings of reflection. I asked what it felt like seeing the artwork return to the historic building after such a long absence. He responded; "It fits well for us at this time of year, as we’re going into our season for remembering; All Saints’ day, All Souls’ day, and then Remembrance Sunday. This image of people thinking of somebody that they love fits really beautifully into that setting".

"On these days people can come in and light candles, and have a quiet space to remember people."

What Neil’s words highlight is the inextricable connection between 'People We Love' and its colossal home. Walking into the Minster feels as though the building has been saving up this tranquillity over lockdown. It’s found in the sunlight streaming through the coloured windows, in the echoes of sound bounced across huge caves of stone, and in the unspoken agreement between visitors not to disturb this peace. I think the only thing you can feel in this environment is wonder, and then reflection. Nestled in-between the artworks are monuments of carved stone and faces leaping out of the wall, promising to tell stories of a kind of love much older than the ones in those short films. The same message at the core of 'People We Love' is reverberated throughout the Minster’s historic architecture - people choosing to remember others.

Neil Sanderson expands on the relationship between art and architecture: "There’s a millennium of prayers and songs in the atmosphere here. It was built to give people awe; you can imagine that when this was built 900 years ago, the size and scale gave people a different kind of feeling."  Explaining his thoughts on 'People We Love', he says: "You can get an appropriate artwork in a modern sense that fits that - for example, the stained glass windows all around us were the modern artwork method of their time, whereas video and media is the modern method of today. When these were built, if anybody had this technology, this would be the kind of thing they were doing".

It's fascinating to imagine, in Neil’s words, what the Minster might look like if they had video technology back then. Perhaps a statue would instead be a moving image, or short footage. But looking forward, how will the future population use technology to represent and remember people?

If you’re interested in attending, creative producer of 'People We Love', Georgie Samuels, advises the best way to interact with a film from the installation. She says, "The idea is you never know who the person is that they’re looking at. I think you make your own story about who they’re looking at and what that story is. You’re looking at a stranger so close up that you can see every little detail of their face. You just never do that in real life. You’re reading into every twitch".

And why is it that we never see who the loved one is that they’re looking at? "We wanted the filming experience to be personal. It’s difficult to let the people completely emote - when filming they listened to a guided meditation on their own. It could be a long lost lover, or someone they met last week, but it’s important that we never know who it is".

'People We Love' runs until Friday 12th November at York Minster. Student tickets are £9, and allow you to see both the beautiful installation and the building’s extraordinary architecture. To book, head to https://tickets.yorkminster.org/webstore/shop/viewItems.aspx?CG=GA&C=IND

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