Light in the darkness

Who is York vendor Vasile gazing at lovingly in a new installation at the city’s Minster?

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A Big Issue North vendor in York has taken part in an art project that will be on show at the city’s Minster from November. 

Thirty-five-year old Vasile was filmed for a project called People We Love, an art installation created by the collective KMA. The work, due to be installed in the nave of York Minster, consists of five large screens showing a series of silent video portraits of people looking at an unseen picture of someone they love.

“You don’t know who they are looking at,” explains producer Georgie Samuels. “So you are creating meaning by looking at their faces and their reactions.”

The lead artist on the project, Kit Monkman, who lives in York, suggested approaching Vasile to take part in the initial round of filming for the installation. The vendor is known for singing and dancing on his pitch outside Marks and Spencer in the city. “He’s such a character,” says Samuels. “The people of York will instantly recognise him. 

Although conceived before the outbreak of the coronavirus, Samuels recognises the relevance to the current situation, when we are all spending a lot more time looking at other people on screen and trying to “read people’s meanings and reactions in their body language and in their facial movements”.

He says: “During the filming we play the participants a sort of meditation while they are gazing at a picture of someone they love and it’s just really beautiful, really moving. Especially coming at a time when all we’ve done is look at one another on screens through Zoom, it weirdly makes it even more moving.”

Vasile is one of 70 people initially filmed for People We Love, but visitors will be able to add to the project by bringing along a photo of someone they love and being filmed in a booth inside the Minster. The installation will “grow and grow”, says Samuels, who is involved in talks to tour the installation around the UK and possibly beyond. 

The idea for the artwork was inspired by the 19th century novel Tristram Shandy. “In it there’s a page which the author has left blank,” says Samuels. “One of the characters in the book is in love with a woman and carries her picture around with him. In a ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ kind of way the writer invites the reader to ‘paint her with your own mind.’” 

The installation also examines how we read meaning into art. “Think about the Mona Lisa,” says Samuels. “We are obsessed by what she is looking at, what she’s thinking, what she’s feeling.” 

Vasile is excited about taking part, which he says he did “for Big Issue North and for my customers”. He can’t wait to bring his wife Elena to see it, but he’s sworn to secrecy about what picture he was looking at while taking part.

It was a bright moment in an otherwise difficult year for Vasile, who like all other Big Issue North vendors had to endure the lockdown, meaning weeks without being able to earn any money, relying instead on our hardship fund. 

“This is my job,” Vasile says. “It’s how I make money to live and if I do not sell I have no money for my home.” 

People We Love is part of the York Mediale, an arts event that takes place in various venues across the city (yorkmediale.com)

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