From Purgatory to Paradise: an indulgence – Ali Kayley and Dan Glaister March 2013

‘for stupid people love tales that are old’ 16mm film still, 2013

It started with a word on a map. One of those places you hear of but never visit: Purgatory. We’d read about it, seen it in pictures, in art galleries, in the movies, though it had never been real. But there it was, just up the hill from our studio, marked on the OS map in that fine roman script. We don’t know why it is there, and we don’t want to know. We prefer to make up our own story, to imagine the stories that lie behind it. It’s a creepy place, although that might just be because of its name. It’s always windy up on the top of the hill, inside the copse that is Purgatory. And you can hear the cattle moaning, and sometimes the farm dogs howling, and the trees creaking. And it seems to have had some sort of devastation wrought upon it: it really is a place of gnarled trunks and fallen boughs, of tangles and thickets and marshy ground. And like all the best depictions of Purgatory, it is circular.

So there was Purgatory. And then some time later we noticed the other place: Paradise. It’s not far, a few miles, easy to walk to, but there it is. Why this coincidence? Which one came first? Do they always go around in pairs like this? So then we thought maybe there are lots of them, all over the country, Purgatories, maybe there should be an inventory of Purgatories. But there aren’t. We found one, in Cumbria, and a Purgatory Pool near Wolverhampton, which sounded fairly grisly, but that was it. So this was unique? A unique occurrence? Probably not, but it felt good, the sort of stuff artists thrive on.

Our previous project, Conquistador (2011) was about immigration and death in California and Mexico. It had taken us to fruit farms in California’s Central Valley and to depopulated villages in southern Mexico where death is a way of life. Not the narco death we hear so much about but the waiting for the dead, the ushering past of the newly departed, the easing of their journey. And now here we were, on the other side of this world, with Purgatory. The dead play such a vivid part in life in Mexico and Mexican culture, it was easy to exoticize it. But what happened here? Why would there be a place called Purgatory here?

‘Indulgence I’, Charcoal and ink on paper, 2013

Indulgences. Google indulgence and it will tell you about chocolate and celebrity perfume. But there was a more sane, more rational time: it was called the Middle Ages, a time of fervent belief, of doubt, of uncertainty, and, it seems, of a desperate attempt to cater for all eventualities in the great unknown. Fire and brimstone? Probably, literally, true. Hell and damnation? Ditto. Purgatory and the cleansing of sin by fire? A certainty. Escape? Almost impossible, although….

There was an answer. For while a literal belief in Purgatory was the norm in medieval Britain. That widespread belief spawned a relief: the Indulgence, or pardon, sold or exchanged for goods or money, promises or piety. The money went to the church’s coffers, to good works, to finance the building of hospitals, harbours, all sorts. Think of the National Lottery with a particularly nasty consequence should you not buy a ticket. These pardons were, in the early Middle Ages, hand-written, sometimes sold by travelling pardoners – Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale (written in the late 14th century) is the best-known literary example – and sometimes available at churches. They promised remission, relief from time in Purgatory in very specific ways: perform a particular penance or religious duty – from killing Turks on a crusade to going to church and saying prayers – and you could earn tens, hundreds or thousands of years off your time in Purgatory. This was managed by the church, but gradually it was farmed out to sellers, pardoners, who might be religiously endorsed, or might have obtained a seal from the Pope, or might be sporting a religious artefact, possibly an old leg of lamb, or possibly the leg of the lamb of God. You could never be too sure.

Pardons were initially hand-written by scriveners, but when moveable type and the first printing presses arrived in England they began to be made using the new technology. Caxton and other early printers produced pardons on a scale previously unimaginable, helping to both fuel the business of indulgence production, and to propel the nascent business of printing. Arguably, Caxton was able to print Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of the first books printed in English, thanks to the trade in pardons.

Purgatory (diptych, work in progress), 2013

For this project we have made a series of indulgences, borrowing in spirit from the indulgences of the Middle Ages, as well as working with letterpress printing, in the spirit of Caxton. We have printed our indulgences over charcoal drawings of Purgatory: in these indulgences the reality of Purgatory is plain to see; the metaphysical is given physical form.

Untitled (16mm film still), 2013

For our film work, we propose to film the flight from Purgatory: a figure treading a path that is well-worn and ancient yet elusive, a path that is both mythical and material, leaving a trace in the landscape, a trace that is there but momentarily, persisting even after the film has moved on, a retinal memory. We like working with the transient medium of film, its unpredictability and its instability absorb and reflect the ethereal nature of the subjects that we are drawn to. The title of one section, ‘for stupid people love tales that are old’, is spoken by Chaucer’s Pardoner in Sheila Fisher’s translation of The Canterbury Tales.

A third element of the work is to walk from Purgatory to Paradise. In the same way that the film and the drawing reference and give flesh to myth and superstition, so the walk takes this handed-down notion and does it for real. We may even find out if it has any meaning.

From Purgatory to Paradise: an indulgence in 16mm film, drawing and print will be developed at Meantime, Cheltenham (, with work to date shown on 21-23 March. The final film will be shown at the end of May at the Site festival in Stroud. The walk from Purgatory to Paradise will take place on June 1.

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