Gardner & Gardner - Elizabeth Kwant
The Art of Listening:
A Meditation upon the work of artist duo Gardner & Gardner
by Elizabeth Kwant
Throughout November 2021 the city of Glasgow in Scotland played host to The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). World leaders and climate activists descended on the city to discuss climate change and call for international policy change. Amid the cacophony of voices clamouring for attention, Glasgow based artist duo Gardner & Gardner were invited by Glasgow Cathedral to respond to current events with a new site specific installation in the Cathedral, I will learn to sit with you and I will learn to listen.
Approaching through the dimly lit Cathedral, one might be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled upon a storage facility, as the soot stained medieval columns give way to the light filled lime-washed Blackadder aisle. Viewed from the threshold (which, due to a barrier, is as far as you can venture into the space) the viewer is forced to pause and peer down a steep flight of stairs across a sea of chairs. The seeming web of chaos - a collection of precariously balanced liturgical chairs crafted from wood and rush - create a simplicity of form which is pleasingly sculptural. Upon further reflection, the viewer may begin to discern interrelated forms, as in fact the chairs are grouped in pairs that aren’t facing one another. For the Artists these pairings “symbolise unequal power relationships among individuals, communities and nations, highlighting our communal failure to listen to one another.”
The work echoes that of Gardner & Gardner’s previous work Peacemakers (Renfield St. Stephen’s Church, Glasgow 2014-2018). Peacemakers consisted of a 35 peg, 1.81m diameter French knitting loom designed as an interactive installation which, over the course of three years, engaged thousands of visitors in the simple act of knitting whilst acting as a place of prayer - ‘a listening post’.
In fact, the Glasgow based husband and wife team are well known for their site-specific installations across the city’s historic sacred spaces. Often utilising discarded objects and everyday materials such as wood, string, yarn, nails, paper and linen they consciously democratise their art. The choice of materials also makes the work more accessible to the ordinary person, particularly within a church context where religious art is traditionally crafted from expensive art materials and requires a pre-informed knowledge of the biblical narrative. Gardner & Gardner’s work strips away those hierarchies (power & knowledge) inviting gentle, thoughtful participation by all. Peacemakers’ loom exemplifies this vision, inviting members of the public to contribute materials (yarn) and create alongside the artists. It’s interesting to note the circular movement activated by the loom, as participant and artist move alongside one another - on equal footing - sharing stories. It’s the facilitation of this quiet, generative ‘holding space’ that characterises Gardner & Gardner’s work.
These redemptive qualities are no less visible at Glasgow Cathedral, where during the course of COP26 the artists re-wove three pairs of chairs in an alternative material and re-positioned them to face one another. Thus “enabling a conversation of equals and inviting a renewed commitment to listen to the voices of others in order to bring about change that will enable climate justice and social justice to be realised.” This poignant action, a performative transformation of the everyday liturgical chair rewoven in bright yellow twine, is metaphorically loaded. The choice to retain the original wooden form but re-weave the seat with carefully chosen twine, echoes the original but is visually distinct from it, embodying a biblical perspective on creation care and redemption. The chair has metamorphosed, but the integrity of the original remains. Within the discussion on climate change the artists comment: "There’s a sense in which if things need to be changed there still has to be the integrity, which is within creation anyway. But if we have to somehow be the ones that help restore the chaos that we as humans have created, then we’re going to have to do it with our own hands and with our own heads.”
As COP26 delegates debated over 2 weeks, each day the artists worked on the chairs. This durational element characterises much of their work as it evolves during the course of the exhibition. Indeed, the choice of materials traditionally associated with handmade ‘craft’ demands a huge investment of time. In their words, “Part of our practice is about creating and holding a space… enabling people to spend long enough in the space to allow the work to speak into their lives, to read their lives, rather than the other way around.”
This investment into the process is further reflected in the artists' personal invigilation of all their shows, being present is something that is really important to them, as they explain; “There is a discipline to listening… we try to put ourselves aside, to wait and listen, stop ourselves talking and telling and just be attentive to people as they share their stories.”
Initially, at Glasgow Cathedral, the artists weren’t sure how the audience would engage with the work. Due to the inclusion of a barrier by the commissioners the artists were forced to stand at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs during invigilation with the viewer peering down on them across the installation. Unexpectedly, the artists found this lower physical positioning facilitated a freedom of conversation. In much the same way that the unequal power relationships embodied by the chaotic chairs needed to be re-configured, so the relationship between artist and audience also needed re-positioning. Peter comments; “I stand lower, in a completely non-threatening position, while listening to the viewer, accepting the position of humility in order to listen.”
Henri Nouwen notes, “To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept… Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even dare to be silent with you.” 1
This commitment to cultivate the art of listening is evident in the life and work of Gardner & Gardner, from the gentle patience demanded to craft large scale site specific works to the time taken to create alongside participants and listen to those who come through the exhibition doors. It’s noteworthy, that at WASPS studio in the Briggait, Glasgow, Gardner & Gardner practice an open-door policy. This generosity emanates throughout their work, from the gentle everyday materials to the considered approach to historic sites to the creation of safe contemplative spaces. In his book Life Together under the title 'The Ministry of Listening’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer cautions us:
“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either.”2
Peter Gardner comments, “I believe that God is in conversation with everyone, every single creature in the world constantly. In the listening sometimes you’re privileged enough to hear that conversation, to hear (in their words) God speaking to them through what they’re saying. If the artworks hold a space (in a way that art can be open-ended) to create a space for conversation to happen, for inner dialogue, I think that’s a sacred space, a shoes-off burning bush space.”
In a world jostling to be heard could the ancient art of listening hold the transformative power for real and lasting change?
Gardner & Gardner are a husband-and-wife artist duo based in Wasps Studios Glasgow, Scotland. With backgrounds in History of Art and Theology, they combine their art practice with Peter’s position as the ordained Church of Scotland minister to the visual arts communities of Glasgow. Over the past 20 years they have created numerous interventions and installations in sacred spaces across the city of Glasgow and Scotland.
For further information: www.gardnerandgardner.co.uk Instagram @gardnerandgardner
Elizabeth Kwant is an artist, filmmaker and curator based in Manchester, UK. Her work engages with social justice issues such as migration, immigration detention, gender based violence and slavery, often working collaboratively with communities. She has exhibited locally, nationally and internationally.
For further information: www.elizabethkwant.com / Instagram: @elizabethkwantstudio
 Henri Nouwen Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (1985). Passages taken from March 11th “Listening as spiritual hospitality”.