Arts Editor, Rose Crees interviews David Shearing, an award winning Leeds-based artist and lecturer in the University of Leeds’ School of Performance and Cultural Industries. His immersive piece, Christmas With Us, is being revived this December as part of the #ChristmasInLeeds initiative.
In December 2016 an unassuming, plywood box appeared in Central Square. Adorned with sets of over-ear headphones this simple structure told no secrets and shouting nothing about what it contained. This box was David Shearing’s Christmas With Us, an immersive artwork that invites people inside, past its modest exterior, to what David describes as ‘this sort of little haven, this kind of world inside where people just take a moment out to stop and listen to people’s stories in Leeds about how they feel about Christmas’. Returning this December, this time to Leeds Station, I interviewed David on his installation, its meaning and its importance to Leeds.
‘It’s quite a sensitive piece,’ David told me, ‘it plays with all the different challenges that people face at Christmas.’ This seems a much needed step away from the intense and orchestrated joy of the Christmas period, a decided and unanimous mood of happiness that is emphasised by role of retail: David explained ‘people are kind of nervous about the idea of something that’s free, quite often people were kind of sceptical like “what do I have to do here?”’ because ‘we’re so conditioned in that, that we have to pay into something to get something out but for this you don’t, you can just stop. And it is an artwork, it is an experience and I think art like that can cut across some level, that opulence and indulgence that is literally surrounding it’. He jokes that ‘there’s a dead Christmas tree inside so we’re not playing up to it, it’s almost like Christmas has passed or Christmas has gone which is playing with all these other narratives that aren’t just all “buy me” and glittery’. Most importantly this a piece that presents Christmas for people who can’t or don’t indulge this side of Christmas. David emphasised that ‘despite the fact that we want to celebrate Christmas and mark it, it is a difficult time for people and I kind of wanted to be honest about what it actually means from a whole range of different perspectives’.
These perspectives have been opened up to wider reception with the move to the busier location of Leeds Station; ‘having a busy pass through and a moment of stillness somewhere where it’s busy might create an interesting dialogue’ expressed David. Rather than the soup that was offered last year, hot, spiced drinks are given to those who take part – ‘warmth is an important part of it because it’s feeling that way, especially as December is cold and the station is quite cold’. This feeling of warmth seems to become an emotional experience too Christmas With Us ‘takes you out of yourself and out of the world you’re in, and gives you an isolated moment to listen to other people that we don’t often do […] the more we understand other people, the more compassion we might get, the more we realise that the people rushing past us or banging into us on the bus or not paying attention all have their own narratives.’ The hustle and bustle of the train station, particularly during the end-of-day rush, seems an apt place to create such a dialogue: ‘each one of those could be going through a problem in the day, or it’s not all just problems, but it’s just being sensitive, trying to wake people up, we’re not just isolated, that we all have different and similar issues’.
David’s piece is part of the #ChristmasInLeeds campaign run by LeedsBID (Leeds Business Improvement District) and he claims ‘I was a bit nervous the first time I did it and was wondering if they’d go for it as it’s saying Christmas is complex and problematic and it is wonderful for some people and it changes and each year it changes for different people and you go through different moods and it cuts across that. It’s not selling anything’. This sense of benefitting Leeds overlaps in both LeedsBID’s and David’s work: ‘they came to different artists in the city and wanted to work with artists in the city, which I thought was actually a really important thing for me being here is that actually Leeds doesn’t have to buy in outside spectacle that we can celebrate and that we’ve got enough artists in the city that we can give a platform for.’ David too believes in giving Leeds’ voices an opportunity to be expressed as ‘Leeds has got a lot to share, these littler narratives, and they’re quite honest, I think that’s what maybe Leeds has, people are really quite honest and frank and they don’t hold back, and this is how it is and I think that makes the stories quite rich’. But this does not necessarily mean they are always heard, as he explained, ‘Leeds is quite a humble city. I think its smallness gives the impression that it’s quite community but I think that people are still isolated in the city’.
After attending the #ChristmasInLeeds press conference in early November I felt as though LeedsBID’s attempt at inclusion had somewhat overlooked on of Leeds’ largest communities: students. ‘There’s always students kind of involved, maybe more than any other group in terms of direct involvement’ explains David – as well as using their recordings as part of the installation, students have and continue to work on his project. ‘I lecture at the University of Leeds and there are two or three students who I worked with last year as volunteers and are now being paid to help redesign and work with me on the project’ – it feels refreshing that community is represented in its most whole sense.
David’s work seems to encapsulate the community and togetherness of Christmas by demystifying its façade and pointing out its failures in bringing people together. In simplifying a time of year we all have in common, we as a city and as people should feel more whole than before we entered that wooden box.
Christmas With Us will be in Leeds Station from 1st to 17th December and will be open from 12pm to 8pm everyday. To read more about David’s current work, take a look at our review of Black Rock.
LeedsBID fund projects that celebrate and showcase culture, arts, food, music and more in Leeds and they promote Leeds on a national scale. They are behind Leeds International Festival (April-May) which is back for its second year next Spring and features the likes of Live at Leeds within its roster of events that span culture, film, talks, tech and fashion. They also contribute towards Leeds Indie Food (May) and Eat Leeds Restaurant Week (August) amongst other things. They have also brought events such as the MOBOs (next week) and the Radio Awards (October) to Leeds this year as well as creating the Leeds Winter Moments #ChristmasInLeeds campaign.
(Image courtesy of David Shearing)