Screening salvation: the National Gallery and YouTube


Along with the last two blog posts, I’ve found myself following a focus on digital technologies for engaging with art: Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds at Lacock Abbey, the Alight app for Chichester and its Cathedral, and today the seven-part YouTube series The Audacity of Christian Art by Dr. Chloë Reddaway for the National Gallery, London. The National Gallery’s landmark exhibition Seeing Salvation in 2000 was also accompanied by a screening, on that occasion with the then director Neil MacGregor presenting four episodes for the BBC. Both then and now, with YouTube’s more bite-sized packaging of reflections on art with biblical subject-matter, the National Gallery have gently prompted the theological discourse behind so much of their collection to emerge centre-stage. More precisely, one third of the artworks in the collection have this Christian ‘agenda’, and it is indeed a mark of renewed interpretative urgency that Reddaway’s position as the Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Curator in Art and Religion assumes this online platform for its extended discussion.

But there are characteristics of this twenty-first century ‘screening of salvation’ that would benefit from more critical understandings. Visual culture’s tendencies of highly packaged information for quick and immediate consumption tends to erode the possibilities for the ‘slow burn’ effect of images viewed over long periods of time, in person. Photographic technology in the films that cuts between head shots of Reddaway, and manifold variation of zoomed, zooming, cropped, angled, wide-angled, out-of-focus and distanced framings of the images employs a language of hybridity and mobility – the better to engage our interest in a two-dimensional object, but which also effects a kind of perceptual distraction and distance. Also, from an art historical perspective, The National Gallery trades on its formal framework of institutional repository for Art. Its remit for engagement is constituted by the rational and cognitive discourses of intellectual enquiry, in which unfortunately the relation of image to theology is treated more-often-than-not as thematically reducible, immersively sterile, and quaintly historical. Despite Reddaway’s best efforts (and elsewhere, she has written on the importance of precisely countering such art historical treatment with a revitalising of contemporary theological situation), her iconographic focus puts biblical meaning in the past, and theology becomes a relic, because that’s where its recovery is concentrated. At times, it is occasionally enlivened with delightful intrigue and questions which resonate with our looking today – of snails on the edge of a painting and shadows on the sky behind a bower of fruit (The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian, 1491, from Episode 3; and The Vision of the Blessed Gabriele, c.1489, from Episode 7; both paintings by Carlo Crivelli) – but the dialogue of hermeneutical exchange nevertheless retains its overall ‘pastness’.

Now here’s the thing: these visual culture / art history platforms aren’t necessarily negative for theology and the arts, but it depends where you put the theology. It would be ungenerous of me to suggest that the National Gallery is operating to consciously exclude contemporary theological horizon by a focus on its symbolic construction in the past. Neil MacGregor continues to broadcast about religious culture precisely to enliven our sense of the enduring and ‘relevant’ human quest for meaning (in his BBC Radio 4 series recently on the British Museum’s Living with Gods exhibition). And it would also be a red herring to critique contemporary technological engagement for its erosion of certain contemplative practices and contexts for theology in such art, however much such engagement has and is undoubtedly changing the field. Let’s say, for the moment, that theology might be better situated in the socially-minded, relational and hermeneutical spaces of viewer interaction and interpretation today. Instead of its recovery, let’s talk about about its return. With those across visual culture studies and art history now discussing it in such terms, I find theology now to be an increasingly ‘live’ issue. In post-9/11 culture, it may well be fragmented, international, diffused, but it is no less potent in its migrating forms – when Bibles and pilgrimages are apps, when Stations of the Cross are city-wide and trans-religious, when churches are art galleries, when vicars are cultural commentators, and above all, when art practitioners are referencing religion, we need theology’s resurrected vocabulary to percolate image criticism with the decentered, deconstructed sympathies it already has. More on that, another time…

Landing in Lacock

Lacock Abbey 2003 and 2015
Lacock Abbey 2003 and 2015

As I write my 100th blog post, it seems a fitting time to pause for reflection on my directions past, present and future. This summer I moved with my husband and two children to the village of Lacock, Wiltshire. I leave behind 20 years of living in Bristol, of which nearly 15 have been spent with part-time artistic practice. In the great migrations of my life, this is the third, and feels far more a move towards settlement and consolidation, since the first period (in Africa) was largely shaped by the missionary appointments of my parents, and the second period included my university placements in Canterbury and Nottingham. In biblical terms, I’ve moved from ancestral home to slavery at the hands of empire to… is it the promised land?

In the spring of 2003, I visited Lacock Abbey with Adam, 2 years before we married and a few months before I decided on further masters study in Visual Culture at Nottingham. I like this earlier photograph, I stand on the cusp of something, my hopes of intellectual stance forming a kind of waiting. I am resolutely facing east, with the famous abbey behind me and its primordial window. At the time, I was certainly aware of Talbot’s photographic legacy in this place but could have had no sense of its spiritual and geographical centering that has now come home to me. It does feel like a ‘coming home’ to something. As if the efforts of horizontal achievement in exhibitions, competitions, residencies has somehow to stop, and stay still, and be grounded for some serious vertical development. I am asking questions about what this entails, about my position here, and my husband’s related call to Christian ministry in this place.

Among other things, the promised land demanded reliance and trust in God’s provision of rain and pasture for the Israelites’ settlement. Yes it was to flow with milk and honey, and was deeply rich in goodness, but it was no site for empire-building projects, self-irrigation, impregnable city fortifications and monarchical authoritarianism. Israel remained small either side of Egyptian and Assyrian/Babylonian might, and her constitution ensured a community-wide model of dependence. Isaiah calls Israel God’s ‘heritage’ (19:25) – and the concept is deeply woven with the history of God’s tending and care of his vine/bride. Egypt and Assyria are called God’s people and the work of his hands respectively. There’s a backward and a forward glance in these terms, looking west and east, which at the very least suggests Israel’s orientation is locked into both vertical and horizontal dimensions.

What do I mean in the here and now? Something like going-to-ground, being geographically single and observing photography’s roots here and in me. My blogging will be less frequent, and my practice is working out the theme of Sabbath rest, as am I.

Let the pulpit meet the pews

Methodist pulpit and pew
Methodist pulpit and pew

Back in February, I found myself applying for the gift of a Methodist pulpit, which was being offered to an artist(s) by The Fishermen’s Chapel in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. My proposal met was met with enthusiasm, and follows below. Since then, with thanks to Trinity College, I have also been given two Methodist pews from the recently closed Wesley College in Bristol, who will happily join forces with the pulpit to form an even more exciting art work and installation. Once they’ve arrived at my studio over the summer, they will undergo a period of hibernation before the ideas below start to emerge…

This pulpit is a powerful and striking symbol of God’s word. To me, the clean design and structure of the object (as compared to, for example, the ornate stone ‘thrones’ of many a parish church) is something that needs to be celebrated. It bears in its image the specific focus of Wesley’s pioneering preaching of the word, which kept things simple. It also has fantastic resonance with Wesley’s peripatetic ministry, for being mobile. These two aspects of simplicity and mobility are what I would like to concentrate on with my proposal.

I would like to install in the pointed architraves (and possibly the lectern top area) a sequence of photographs or lenticular prints, so that it becomes a pulpit with photographic panels. I am keen to keep the look clean and clear, maintaining the integrity of the existing shapes and outlines.

The content of these photographs will have a starting point in one of my existing pieces of work, The New Passage, 2012, which is formed from the composite arrangement of photographs taken of the Severn Estuary, from the point at which the Wesley brothers crossed to Wales (as commemorated by a plaque at the site). Linking the New Passage with the pulpit from the New Road Methodist Church is the incredible geographical correspondence for having a near equal latitude, and for both being sea-facing sites. An east/west dimension is complemented by a north-facing/south-facing estuary view. In this respect, I would plan to create a photographic record of the tide at Leigh-on-Sea from the Fishermen’s Chapel itself at the end of September, when the autumn equinox brings the complementary highest tide to spring’s equinox (which is when my Severn Estuary pictures were taken).

I would later work with these two bodies of images to create a story of transition which could be ‘read’ across the face of the pulpit. The unique feature of lenticulars, if funding permits the use of this medium again, is the ability to engender a movement from the viewer, and therefore an engagement, which seems to me to reflect the intended effect of preaching itself. Extending this idea, and that of Wesley’s travels, I would want the finished pulpit to complete its own journey from New Passage to New Road, finding suitable stopping points on the way for display and engagement with the public. One such point would surely include the New Room in Bristol (where I have shown work before), and I would hope that others could include outdoor venues.

I am extremely excited by the opportunity to work with and on this pulpit, not least because it is a real gift and expression of faith in creative endeavour.

Will artists have patrons in heaven?

'Lenten Spring' (2012) at Trinity College Bristol
‘Lenten Spring’ (2012) at Trinity College Bristol

Maundy Thursday in Trinity College sees the finishing of my Lenten installation in the dining room – a progressive installation where I’ve daily been putting up photographs of bulbs growing, both day and night. As always with Lent, it’s symbolic of a journey, and in this case it’s been a journey that has led through challenge and reflection with regard to the wider support for artists in their practice today. It’s fitting that I’m suggesting parallels with Lent and Maundy Thursday in particular, because most artists are sole practitioners, ploughing an individual, singular and sometimes lonely furrow; and most artists maintain a kind of interior spirituality that stays hidden.

Before I get where I’m going, I do want to emphasise that this is a good thing, and normal, and true. The spiritual landscape of prayer and connection to God that Jesus practised was often done in solitude, and was often ‘slow’ time. By which I mean that he resisted the world’s values of being ‘on it’ the whole time, of being always visible in his doing, of needing to build in justification for his singular life. Artists can be examples of this resistance too, which, although it opens us up to misunderstanding of all sorts, remains a positive and VERY culturally necessary thing.

The problems that can arise, as I’ve found them, are to do with a lack of trust that this is ok – a kind of self-destructive, victim mentality can change how we feel about our invisibility. ‘What’s the point? – No-one wants to buy/champion/visit my work.’ When I had to move this Lenten installation, a third of the way through, from its original starting place in a corridor (because some other work of mine had been allocated the space, in a very wobbly exchange relating to miscommunication and unsaid expectations), I really struggled with the motivation to put it up anywhere else at all. I went from feeling the wind behind me, to feeling like everything involved battling the wind. Not just this work in this situation, but I started to question all my aims with my work, all my ability in keeping a project together, and finally took on the assumption that in order to avoid future hurt/failure I had better exert my singularity with a programmatic self-control: lists, deadlines, working harder. At this point, and only very recently, I realised that (good) solitude had turned into (bad) isolation.

Now a logical answer to this situation, if you asked the artist, would probably be patronage. The answer is support – practical, financial, emotional, verbal. And ABSOLUTELY artists can’t and don’t live in a vacuum, we make work for the showing/telling/engaging/living. There is a massive crashing together of idealism with realism here, often uncomfortably so, and it is certainly the case that artists find themselves having to educate their friends/buyers/employers with respect to their needs. Even here at Trinity, where in one light I’m the beneficiary of patronage on a plate for a limited time (studio space and an engaging community), in truth there are deeper cultural gaps in understanding and it’s not the simple answer you might think.

Ultimately, I have to go back to practising trust. Ultimately, when Jesus reached his crunch moment of isolation and misunderstanding on Maundy Thursday, ‘knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, he loved to the end’ (John 13:1-3ish). All things into our hands? Yes, ALL things into our hands. The patronage from heaven is already here.

A visual theology of the Kingdom

'Kingdom Series', 2015
‘Kingdom Series’, 2015
When I gave out 25 disposable cameras to the Trinity College community in the autumn of 2014, I had every thought that I’d need to work a pronounced visual transformation in the results. But the messy, humorous, half-in-half-out, blurred faces and limbs in fact turned out to be the corporeal truth of this place. There is certainly a spirituality here that is rarefied and abstract (in music, conversation or essays), but these pictures reveal an embodied spirituality that is shared in food, in play, in the overlapping of life and space. I like the symbolism too of the underexposed images – approximately half of all the photographs look like a dark fog, where the camera flash was either not used, or was ineffective. ‘Through a glass darkly’ is quite literal here at Trinity! See YouTube for a slideshow I’ve put together of some of the unmodified images.

As I spent time looking through the images, four themes emerged: the Kingdom is backwards, unseen, hungry and little.

The Kingdom is Hungry is a collage from the multitude of eating and drinking photographs that were taken – there were more of these than anything else. The Kingdom as a feast is a key image in the Gospels, and the party at Trinity College happens over every meal and every communion and every cup of tea. Even as the circular form suggests togetherness, the spiral moves outward and upside-down to include honoured guests. Needing physical sustenance is a key focus for spiritual life here. See here for more on the process of making this piece.

The Kingdom is Unseen shows the negative space of figures cut out from photographs. There are 5 groups of people whose ‘unseenness’ in the community was incredibly visible to me, who are found out in the Kingdom: (from left to right) The unborn who will come after us (there were 11 pregnancies amongst the community at the time), the quiet administrators, the leaders who have gone before us, those who didn’t want their photographs taken for this project, and the noisy caretakers. Jesus’ Kingdom made a big deal of those on the edges of society, and those who shrink from physical sight are nevertheless seen where they are.

The Kingdom is Little captures 4 children from Trinity College Day Nursery from above. In their littleness, ‘The Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ – they are central to a Kingdom community. To notice them, we need to physically look down and the perspective change of a view in plan (rather than a view in profile) is a reminder not of adult aloofness and control but of childish absorption and delight. Littleness can be everything.

The Kingdom is Backwards highlights the physical viewpoint of those photographs where people sit in lectures, in chapel or in churches on placement. When people listened to Jesus speaking, there must have been a similar view facing the backs of others. As much as Trinity is training leaders to be at the front, it is this view that remains unique to the Kingdom’s focus: to positions of humility with each other and to the Old Testament echoes of the back of God. It’s not the place where you can’t see. It’s the place where you can see.

Each theme in this Kingdom series includes a cut-out style (to bring single colour themes to prominence) and a small visual icon as a point of focus. There is a glass of wine, a crozier, toy fish and an altar cross. These icons are directional in that each piece stresses the physicality of looking – we move beyond the contemplation of symbol into the embodiment of symbol. These are symbols which move, are lifted up, are consumed or carried or played with. ‘Living like the Kingdom is near’ (Trinity’s new logo) has that abundance and holistic embrace of life.