Reading between the Bible lines in Tacita Dean’s desert

Tacita Dean, ‘Quarantania’, photogravure, 2018

It’s a commonplace to find photography and the Bible linked through particularly simple illustration: if you pick up any modern guide to the Bible, you’ll invariably find a book or website with photographs of the landscape of Palestine and Syria, or of its flora & fauna, or of archaeological remains. Occasionally an image might zone in on an object given particularly rich symbolic significance in the text, like a vine or a dove. Invariably, the context of the illustration delimits the use of the image, ‘this is what it says’ becomes a closed line of reference, each in collusion with the other. To me, there’s a redundancy and a poverty, linguistically, in this arrangement. Ok to establish some concretion of the Bible and world, but it doesn’t reflect the elasticity of the text itself very well. MUCH more interesting to me is the impetus of an artist for whom the linking of photographs and biblical text is a chance to change the game, to ask questions that make the relation a more open question of reference.

This piece, Quarantania, by Tacita Dean is one such exploration. It’s by far my favourite in her London take-over this summer at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Academy. She has been given a landmark triptych of shows, all of which I visited in order to write a review for the forthcoming autumn issue of Art & Christianity. There’s a lot of work, and a lot of film, this being the medium for which she is most celebrated. She is at her best, in my opinion, when the landscape and the still life (two of the gallery themes) present opportunity to engage more widely across other media, other time-frames, other ideologically separate concepts (than that of self-conferring artist portraits). And one of these is the Bible. We find it as a premise for her film Antigone, an opening reference to the sojourn of the Israelites in the desert. We find it in the curated arrangements that include a painting of John the Baptist’s head, or a communion plate. We find it in some of her chalk drawings of the natural world. And we find it in Quarantania.

    

Mount Quarantania is found in the desert between Jericho and Jerusalem, and is also referred to as the Mount of Temptation. It is notionally the site where Jesus was tempted by the devil before he began his three-year ministry as recorded at the start of the synoptic gospels, in most detail in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Dean’s seven-panel work, each comprising 3 photo-mechanically printed sections, has a filmmaker’s sense of framing, even spooling, across what is a panoramic capturing of rockface and desert expanse. The lurid sky and seeping distant terrain have an apocalyptic oppression, and the only release of air seems to come from the dust of the chalk writing which scallops across parts of the scene. This breath, these whispers, are fragments of reading from/around the Bible. There are identifiers, ‘place of temptation’, ‘Satan’s Step’, ‘Judaen desert’. There are questions, ‘where are you JC?’, ‘alone?’. There are emphasised statements, ‘bread or SATISFACTION’, ‘hedonism, egoism and materialism, WEALTH’. Clustered around a scattering of pots in the fifth panel are the numbers 1 to 40, and the words ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’. Unlike a book illustration, where the texts pedagogically read the image, here the image seems to practise a reading of the text. And its ‘reading’ is like breathing, an organic reaction emerging from the cracks and fissures in the rock, not scripted around gridded lines of text. Conversation not proclamation. Hybridity not homogeneity. Imaged not written. In this sensitivity, something of an exploration is going on, in which Dean reaches for mythical/Scriptural attachment to place and uses it to inhabit her own engagement with the landscape and its representation. It is a theology of place no less, an interweaving/interleaving of Bible and world with self.

The perspective of pilgrimage at the Sony World Photography Awards

From Alys Tomlinson’s ‘Ex Voto’ series, at Somerset House, London, 2018
Overall winner and Photographer of the Year at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards is Alys Tomlinson for her series Ex-Voto. A British winner for the first time in ten years, Tomlinson presents a series of black and white photographs across the genres of portrait, landscape, and still life exploring the geography and legacies of particular European pilgrimage sites. In Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland), and Grabarka (Poland), a distillation of details with carved crosses in rocks, suspended animation in forest clearings, and quietly direct faces form a study in contemplation that reaches for depth in faith and history.

It is a superlative achievement, rendered with a poise and sincerity that seemed to eclipse the noisy exuberance of other entries. Tomlinson entered in the category for professional photographers called ‘Discovery’, new this year to the competition. It appears to tap a vein of invested story-telling, something that goes beyond the documentary, externalised interest of other places and people. Also shortlisted in this category was the series Els Enfarinat by Antonio Gibotta, in which scenes of ‘the Floured’s War’ are shown taking place in Ibi, Spain every December – a flamboyant festival of smoke, fireworks, and enacted combat with reverberations in the biblical festival of the Day of the Innocents. Both Gibotta’s work and Tomlinson’s reveal ‘discoveries’ that suggest an internalised interest, a connection of world with something soulfully and historically meaningful. In this case, perhaps surprisingly, it is also Christian. Here an observant photography, far from being blind to cultural politicisation of the visual field, or blind to the global, diversifying, colour of the contemporary environment can also see the Bible, the horizon of Christian faith, and the sincerely held habits of belief in European traditions. Further, it can do so without suspicion, without irony, and with a lens porous to the visual meaningfulness of spiritual observance.

Nun, 1921 by August Sander.
Tomlinson herself feels the attraction of simple faith, though she does not share it. Her time at the pilgrimage sites grew out of a residency at Lourdes at the Marie Saint-Frai in 2014. Her long-term project there had spanned her studies for an MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism, and Pilgrimage (SOAS), during which time she continued in documentary and editorial photography. But it was the contrary impetus of a world defined by ‘the peace and the space that people carve out to just sit and think’, as she has said in interview, that drew her attention. In this sense, Tomlinson’s recognition of faith is registered in images that seem to concentrate slowed time and intentionality. Her own perspective shifts in what is immersive sympathy with, and not simply conceptual accommodation of an ‘other’ community. The views in the photographs imply her own viewing directness, the near-tactility of objects, and the self-positioning of her gaze – not to mention the aesthetic of black-and-white across different focal zones. There’s a hum to the series as a whole that resists any suggestion of artful distance, instead resonating with the personal effects of a certain kind of reflective action. The portrait above bears comparison, for example, to an August Sander portrait from 1921. The frontal pose and the framing of the figure against a blurred background give the same nominal setting for the same subject, but Sander keeps the societal difference and the signs of his classification in view (as evidenced in his 1929 publication Face of Our Time), whereas Tomlinson renders at life-size an immediacy and vulnerability of person. Across her series indeed, we find this attentive and searching gaze, reflected and held in a vision that is at once photographic and spiritual.

Julia Margaret Cameron’s island outpost

Dimbola Lodge on the Isle of Wight

2 weeks’ holiday on Hayling Island in April afforded me the first opportunity to go and visit Julia Margaret Cameron’s home on the Isle of Wight. Named Dimbola Lodge after Dimbula in Sri Lanka, where her husband’s business in tea and coffee plantations had taken her in the 1840s, Dimbola was her family home from 1860-1875. By all accounts, the home became her abundantly creative domain for family and photography, and it was here that she turned her chicken house into a studio for her wet plate processing (not preserved today at the site) – a time-consuming and dextrous version of photography, in which the tasks of arranging and sitting her subjects for portraiture were further extended by glass plate developing and then positive print production. In the 1860s especially, she devoted herself to this work, saying to a would-be reviewer,

I work with more zeal and rapidity than can be supposed, and this I can illustrate to you when I tell you that I took last week 35 life-sized Portraits and printed 62 in 5 days time and I work without any assistance printing my own prints – varnishing my own glasses – continuing till 2am & recommencing at 7am.
[“A letter by Julia Margaret Cameron”, Graham Smith and Mike Weaver, History of Photography 27:1 (2003), p.66]

Display of the ‘Freshwater Circle’
Visiting it today, and indeed with the label ‘museum’, I found it hard to recover the vitality and energy of her story in this place. The building is somewhat tired in places, accommodating enough for tourist pilgrims needing a tea-room stop but somehow missing the dynamism of, say, Lacock Abbey as Fox Talbot’s home. Of course it is much smaller – a gentleman with a country seat (and the National Trust’s later patronage) is not the same as a society lady married into a shrinking colonial business. I found myself asking whether this effect of geographical and historical ‘outposting’ is something to do with the way UK heritage is set up to receive and commend the efforts of patriarchal success, but not matriarchal success. The museum has some wonderful prints to show, but it also gives us Cameron’s bedroom in a flurry of Victorianised domesticity with inordinate attention to furnishings (which are also proudly announced as speculative), while in the same breath elevating a roll call of those more esteemed figures with whom she was associated.

It is the creep again of the fine art vaunting of Cameron, to which I am giving more attention elsewhere, that relocates her work within a high modernist intellectual tradition – something that isolates her vision in black and white austerity and certain emulative acceptability (usually to do with male subjects as themselves, and female subjects as models). In a way, this develops reasonably enough on a body of work that doesn’t lend itself to mundane identifications of place and situation – her studio photographs (which form ninety-nine percent of her output) deliberately play to her ideals of truth and beauty, with minimised background setting, close-up framing, and painterly compositions. The strands of this more serious discourse around her tend to eclipse the possibility of finding something different about her at Dimbola. I would love to see a family tableaux vivant recreated, or her effusive letters (written at about the same pace as her print production), but the museum would rather show cabinets of old cameras. I would love to get a sense of her church life, her neighbourly interaction, whether she went to ‘take the air’ down on the beach, but instead we get a ponderous voiceover that retells what every photo-history resource repeats about her (the amateurism of her soft focus and its reception). My kids loved the dressing up room, and I wonder if they too were reaching for a recreation of JMC’s spirit here – her dressing up went beyond play, into the sincerity of assuming Christian identification with figures such as Mary and the angel at the tomb. There must be other ways to highlight this, to bring a rich, resonant, feminine, spiritual credibility to light. I think the floor is open for something new here, but it remains to be seen at Dimbola.

Dreaming of the resurrection

Natal, 2018

I almost don’t know how to write. It’s Holy Week (or Still Week, as in Denmark; or Suffering Week, Germany). This year, more than most, I find myself small in the face of Christendom’s elegiac, centuries’ old commemoration of Jesus’ last hours. I’m feeling it partly because of my husband’s seried, close attention to the preparation of church services, one on every day until Easter Sunday. I’m feeling it too because I’ve been following the Lenten journey as presented in Biola University’s online series of reflections: a frankly outstanding and deeply sensitive collective of images/music/texts coordinated in commentary and Bible reading. But I’m also acutely aware of a sense of timing in the publication of my new work, Natal, for an exhibition which opens on Maundy Thursday. Selected for the Chaiya Art Awards, the piece became my answer to the exhibition’s posed question, ‘Where is God in our Twenty-First Century World?’ Here I explore some of the ideas behind the piece.

The figures stand in a poised relation, on the left a semi-naked man we might recognise as Jesus, and on the right, a full-term naked pregnant woman. This is my friend Helen, who posed for me when I embarked on a series of work about motherhood and iconography. My writing and photographs, as well as my appearance on One Born Every Minute in 2014, all drove the creation of work about the rite of passage that is giving birth. Born Again has become the project title, for which Natal is the first in production. But Helen didn’t meet her companion until I thought about the exhibition question. I’d had in mind to show her with an effigy from a cadaver tomb, those unusual forms of church monument where the body of the deceased is carved in stone as the likeness of a skeleton – her life and the life she carried were to be contrasted with their opposite. But then I stumbled across the portrait of Jesus here, by Fred Holland Day, in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Taken 120 years ago in Boston, USA, Day posed himself as the dead Jesus for The Entombment in 1898. His austere pose, and the controlled identification with such a statue of stiffness, were a catalyst for a whole host of connections.

In the first place, I thought that the subject of the dead Christ has become archetypal of a certain strain of Christian doctrine – his death is central to the gospel stories of course, but why and how others have said it matters has tended, traditionally, to focus on the death’s substitutionary power (he died so that we don’t have to). It follows a neat logic, but its doctrine is necessarily fixated on something quite closed, on endings, on the mortal. Even those outside believing doctrine, such as Nietzsche, capitulate to the final (human) ideology of death, when he pronounced ‘God is dead’ in the same decade as Day’s picture. It was Hannah Arendt who I first read for a theology that reframed this for me with the concept of the natal. Isn’t that what Holy Week leads to? Isn’t the resurrection where the money is? And isn’t that about the exploding horizon of a humanity now defined by new life, new birth, and what Jesus said he came for – life to the full? I’ve since read others around this subject (Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope, and W. H. Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting among others), but I also increasingly want to raise the question of a woman’s perspective here. Like what has been said of the film Mary Magdalene, released in the UK last week, can we recover a ‘position of feminine difference from the misogynistic, patriarchal disciples’ (Michele Roberts on Front Row, 14th March). If we can, what might it look like?

A ‘Tribe’ of photography & childhood

Heidi Kirkpatrick’s Garments of Light, 2015

Tribe is a photography exhibition currently on display at the Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock (3rd February – 20th May 2018). A group exhibition of 7 US women artists, the impetus behind the work is given its manifesto in the words of curator Lori Vrba:

We are earnest American Women of Photography walking in the footsteps of the greats who have come before us. Dorothea Lange, Imogene Cunningham, Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, Margaret Bourke White, and Sally Mann… we honour the path you have paved and feel called to excellence because of your life’s work.

We, as women, have shared our lives intimately throughout history in the cycle of nourishment. We have instinctively supported the greater good as mothers and daughters and sisters in childbearing and caregiving. We nurse the world together. We are Tribe.

Our work is feminine without apology. We are drawn to that romantic notion of story-telling, memory, nostalgia, the natural world and family. As artists, we come together within our medium for inspiration, collaboration, postulation, and celebration. This connection provides a deep well of power that we as makers are strengthened and sustained by. It is our commitment to Tribe that not only elevates the work itself but keeps us moving to the lunar rhythms of a passionate and sensitive creative life.

It’s a strong statement, echoing the current climate of female voices in self-assertion and collective affirmation. It finds some of its resurgent energy in what is a year of remembering women’s suffrage, and in particular at the Fox Talbot Museum, a year of celebrating the work of women photographers. The group is vividly and dynamically articulating something unusually singular in what is habitually a profession of atomised, individual, art practices. It does so, unembarrassed, with a kind of lived-in (lived-through) ideology, not one dreamed in idealism and words. To my mind, this is the new stature of the feminine in the twenty-first century – less about feminist politicisation, more about feminine vocalisation. It has a greater degree of expressed reflexivity, the inherent values of womanhood (though their inherency may itself be a matter of fluidity). It touches on the ‘lunar rhythms’ that I described in my previous post.

In the exhibition, it is the value of childhood that I noticed weaving through the 40 or so works on display. Heidi Kirkpatrick’s vintage child dresses (above), with their cyanotype photographic detail, imbue cloth with an immersive, organic experience of the world – ‘Faith’ and ‘Hope’ alongside ‘Willow’ and ‘Fern’. Like the photographs on the small tiles of mahjong and dominoes, the objects themselves speak of absorption and connectivity, and the photographic is a tangible extension of this. In Heather Evans Smith’s series, works from Seen Not Heard include her daughter in portraiture whose surroundings compete with relational expression. Furnishings, bushes, and their interactions with legs and arms, are chameleon-like situations of domesticity and play. Childhood emerges enmeshed. Kirsten Hoving and Emma Powell, in contrast, are a mother and daughter whose scripting of scene turns on the abandon and adventure of a grown protagonist, Svala. This mythical heroine is at the centre of a ‘photographic fairy tale’, in which Icelandic landscape ricochets with ‘magic and metaphor’. The reverberations invoke the childish connotations of story, where purpose and self-discovery are a voice for our own stories.

Childhood through the lenses of these artists has its own way of being seen. Its qualities are not particularly soft or diffuse, but they are poetic. Photography, then, reveals its latent visionary capacity, a view of coopted, relational, even tribal, world. In such constructive hands, photographs reveal perhaps some of their more feminine traits.