There was a point last year, early enough in the pandemic news cycle that we were all still unsure how seriously to take things, when the same handful of lockdown memes were circulating our newsfeeds. There were the hordes of toilet roll and dried pasta, the banana bread and the sourdough. But for me, the most memorable images of the early-Covid era were those photos of priests performing baptisms with water pistols. Google it if you don’t believe me, it happened more than once.
It’s a moment of divine communion upended by the practicalities of the pandemic. There’s a kitsch humanity to the DIY adaptation of a fluorescent plastic super soaker taking the place of a holy relic. The juxtaposition of antiquity and modernity, ritual and play, religion and science. It’s easy to dig into such a silly image if you’re trying to find meaning, and ascribing meaning to actions is the essence of ritual.
Running as part of Brighton Festival, Abigail Conway’s The Candle Project is an attempt at addressing our need for new rituals, for communal experiences that confront the mundanities and tragedies of the past year with something with the import of ceremony. New rituals are difficult to get right. So much of the power of the ceremonial comes from the weight of tradition, and trying to create something with that weight from whole cloth can feel forced or insincere; as frivolous as a water pistol baptism.
Conway’s work mixes music, performance, theatre, and other crafts to create immersive and participatory experiences. The heart of her methodology is her own commitment to each piece, as she immerses herself in learning a new skill and then teaching it to others so that they can contribute to the project. In this case Conway became a candle-maker, and over the course of a week she hosted classes in which attendees created their own candles, and encased messages within them: messages of hope for the future and reflections on the past.
The burning of the candles was used to mark the public reopening of The Spire, a church-turned-arts-space. As time goes on, more and more public re-openings are sure to follow, bringing a sense of cathartic release. The emotions at play here are complicated, as waves of advertisements welcome us back to restaurants and venues with smiles and open arms. Should we be feeling guilty about this? Are we just going to return to normal?
The Candle Project negotiates these emotions through combing the familiar motifs of ceremony and tradition with modern and inclusive touches. By making the community part of the project at every stage, Conway avoids the stifling feeling that institutional worship can impose. She isn’t calling her flock to observe, but inviting them to participate.
The week of preparation culminated on Saturday night with a group burning, candles spread across the old church floor at evenly spaced intervals reminiscent of enforced social distancing. The focus of the evening was in the burning rather than the lighting of the candles, as you might expect in an opening ceremony; the display invited viewers to consider not just new beginnings but also quiet endings, and carrying on.
The atmosphere was solemn yet hopeful, neither a funeral nor a jubilee but somewhere in between. The burning was accompanied by an evocative soundscape that included stripped-back renditions of pop songs performed by local choirs, a more contemporary sort of hymn service. The choice to open with The Smiths’ “The Is a Light That Never Goes Out” did feel a little on the nose, and given the songwriter’s notorious decline into far-right irrelevance it was somewhat jarring in a community-focused event. The rest of the set list leaned more towards the feel-good and familiar; “Three Little Birds”, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” — classics of the overplayed middle of the road.
That’s not to be taken as a negative, there’s something appropriate about the elevation of the accessible and unpretentious that hits the right tone when the occasion being marked is a return to supposed normalcy. As we re-enter the world, we can’t know how long it will take for every once-normal thing to stop feeling like an occasion to be marked. The Candle Project serves as a curated space for considering what of the past year we want to carry with us, and what we want to let burn away.
The Candle Project ran at The Spire, as part of Brighton Festival between 24-30 May. More info here.