What on earth is that?

The Keepers - Vickie Fear © Roser Diaz

‘What on earth is that?’ one might ask upon visiting the Bearpit during its inaugural event in a new programme of commissioned artworks aimed at rejuvenating the spot at the centre of Bristol. ‘Well…quite.’ The Bearpit played home to a host of intriguing and undeniably attractive figures on the inaugural weekend of its programme. Plymouth-based artist Vickie Fear has led her cast of figures, each draped in her carefully sewn and woven fabric costumes, down to the Bearpit where her volunteers stood, shrouded in her creations. Vickie’s work plays with the ideas and boundaries surrounding stillness and movement, the hidden and the visible, and comfort and discomfort. These themes that run through all her work, it transpires, made for a perfect opening.

“They offer a rather beautiful metaphor for what the Bearpit had become with its permanent denizens one might rather not see.”

These works and the Art in Bearpit programme as a whole hope to play a part in revitalizing the Bearpit which has long had a rather unwelcoming air. Given the themes of Vickie’s work, they offer some suitable points of reflection considering the strong presence the homeless community still has. On this opening weekend a number of the permanent residents of the Bearpit showed up to lend a hand to volunteers in preparing the area and to interact with Vickie’s live artworks. Fittingly, attention was drawn to what is seen and not seen as well as to discomfort – these costumes are quite weighty outfits and undoubtedly tire the stoic volunteers, especially as the costumes grow wet and heavy with rain. In doing so they offer a rather beautiful metaphor for what the Bearpit had become with its permanent denizens one might rather not see.

An interesting and happy effect of the work was to draw these previously ignored homeless men and women into conversation with the public. I was personally able to discuss the work with a number of locals who frequently slept in the Bearpit and they unanimously agreed upon the positive nature of the work, sharing their experiences to open up a dialogue. With works like this, the taking over of the Bearpit feels less like a reclamation that it does a celebration of all the functions the Bearpit serves while making it more inviting to commuters and a curious public alike.

Beyond the Bearpit ‘regulars’, though, a whole host of other visitors showed up to see the work. What could come across as a poignant metaphor for the more serious issues of the area were completely lost on a younger audience who took something far different from Vickie’s work. Curious children poked around Vickie’s characters, tentatively asking if they can touch the fabric and trying to communicate with the silent volunteers hidden inside. Small patches of mesh offer glimpses inside, allowing both a sense of seeing what might have been ignored, but also offering a fun point of intrigue to children interested to see and learn about public performance art, perhaps, for the first time. Children made their assessments of what they were seeing, likening the foreign characters to kids fantasy TV characters or mythical beings. It is so much to the credit of the artist that her work was able to address to vastly different groups so deftly, leaving neither on the outside.

David Evans was a Live Guide for Art in Bearpit.