Visual Theology I: Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine

Sara Mark’s Lavant at The Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester

Visual Theology Conference Report
19th-20th October 2018
The Bishop’s Palace, Chichester; The Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester; in association with the Diocese of Chichester

Our two-day conference explored ‘Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine (1850-Now)’. Together with Madeleine Emerald Thiele, we put on a programme of 17 papers from open submission, 2 keynotes, 1 roundtable, and 2 installations/performances of art work. Our presenters delivered to an extremely high standard, reflecting the high calibre of their specialist knowledge and insight, amongst whom were represented leading academics in Art History and Theology, church leaders from the Anglican, Baptist, and Catholic traditions, and award-winning artists. The presentations and panels covered a range of subjects, including (for the full programme, see here):

• The Visually Discursive Bible
• A Theology of Installation with Maciej Urbanek
• Contemporary Visual Theology in Performance and Participation (including an artist-in-residence programme at St James’ Weybridge, sound/dance performance at St Paul’s Cathedral, and the community engagement through Beyond in Brighton)
• Institutional and European Commissioning
• Transformative Listening to the Biblical Image (keynote 1, Professor John Harvey)
• Sacred Symbolism as Discursive Theology
• Inherited Visual Theologies and Cultural Cross-Currents
• Pre-Raphaelite Theologies and the Victorian Imagination
• Contemporary Art in Dialogue with Medieval Cathedrals (keynote 2, Revd Dr Ayla Lepine)

Hosted at the Bishop’s Palace, with a conference dinner at the Chapel of the Ascension (Bishop Otter Campus, University of Chichester), and including a tour of Chichester Cathedral’s artworks, we put considerable thought and planning into a level of ‘added value’ to the event. This included the performance of Sara Mark’s piece ‘LAVANT’ with Compline after the conference dinner, the invitation to Prof Gill Clarke to talk about the Otter Collection in situ, the recognition of the Alight app for Chichester Cathedral, and the installation of my own work Scriptorium in the Bishop’s Chapel (which also hosted Sara’s shroud by the end of the conference). The visually rich, printed programme also served to highlight the range and multi-disciplinarity of the conference (available to buy here), as well as our significant online presence both through our website (www.visualtheology.org.uk) and on Twitter (@Visual_Theology).

We feel these two aspects of the conference – the strength of the paper presentations (which communicated across their panels, as well as being individually outstanding), and the specific engagement with the settings – were key in contributing to an extremely successful event. Included in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have had were a number of comments that convey the sense of grace and generosity felt by those attending. This has been truly humbling, and beyond what we expected. Also on this level, 5 local hosts put up some of our long-distance guests (including a very generous response from St Pancras, Chichester), which was deeply appreciated. We had a total of 70 people attending, with a fair mix of clergy, artists, and academics. Of these, 61 attended the first day, 45 the second day, with 37 attending the conference dinner. We also had an equal proportion of women/men (both presenting and attending), and a range of ages from students to those in retirement.

We remain extremely grateful to the Bishop Otter Trust for underwriting what has been an intellectually, spiritually, and socially engaged event. Visual Theology will go on to deepen and develop these relationships with future events, as a formal entity between myself and Madeleine. We have a vision for that which we felt blossoming at Chichester, for the generosity of collective conversations that can happen between church leaders, academic researchers, and artists. It is in no small part down to the original vision of Bishop Otter himself that we have felt able to take this step.

September to school and sibling photographs

First days at school, 2015 (right), and 2018.

At this time of year, first-day-at-school photographs are all over social media. I can’t help but join in, the narrative of my children’s lives weaving into my own. But I’m also consciously reflecting on the way I choose to represent them to myself: the photographs, the albums, the poetry, the birth narratives that began 5 and 7 years ago. That’s all part of a long-term project, Born Again, in which I’m exploring something profoundly formative about the journey of early motherhood – and in particular, the forms of self-representation that I choose to work with (including among other things, taking part in One Born Every Minute).

For me, the pairing of my kids, brother and sister, with their own experiences of ‘firsts’ invites the obvious time-travelling comparison between then and now. I see a proportion shift in their limbs, I see older, more intuitively formalised body postures. And in their relationship I see my daughter’s hand on her brother’s shoulder in the younger picture, and I see his toe-pointing shoes in the older. But I also see me: in the reflection in the glass, where my husband takes the earlier photo, and my hovering, which then assumes the photo-taking position in the later image. The kids’ differences, and the different horizons of their ‘firsts’, has my sameness in the background. There I am, 3 years apart, doing the same thing, attentive even to the fact of sameness when I took the later photo, wanting to recreate the scene. That effort, paradoxically, was based on sameness, but intended to render change visible – a change that I am part of, and feel part of. I don’t think it worked, because I can’t foreground my feeling about it other than by writing here. Though perhaps indeed, that’s why I’m doing it. Some insightful people writing about photography have put their fingers on this:

The legibility of a presumed relationship in time was the backbone of a system of visual representation underwriting some of society’s most fundamental beliefs about itself. These beliefs are registered not only in the temporal realm but also in the photographic image’s fraught referential relationship to the ‘real’ object or event it depicts. This linkage has always been a cornerstone of photographic theory, oscillating across an evidentiary spectrum, from a positivist view of a transparent connection between the two to a thorough skepticism of the medium’s ability to tell any kind of truth. Before-and-after pairs disrupt each end of this belief spectrum, paradoxically, by embracing both of them. They depend as much upon the evidentiary aspects of visible temporal bookends as they do upon acknowledging that the more powerful way of articulating the central event is to leave it unseen. The before-and-after pair relies on the imaginative participation of the viewer, thereby diverting attention from the ‘proof’ of the photographs toward the viewers’ own – necessarily subjective – interpretation.

Kate Palmer Albers and Jordan Bear, in Before-and-After Photography: Histories and Contexts (Bloomsbury 2017), pp.4-5.

Siblings 20 years apart
My imagination in these images ends up taking a bit of a detour – since I feel thwarted by the evidentiary primacy of comparison invited between my kids, I mentally superimpose another effort of comparison with which I do have a deeper pictorial association – a posed recreation of another brother-and-sister shot, this time of me with my brother. In one I’m about 8 years old, in the other about 28. Yet now I’m thwarted by too much reality, the bookending is a rather blunt tool. It turns out that I’m consistently trying to turn my attention to writing ‘in between’, to the the invisible spaces that we occupy around and between photographs. If my practice is indeed a book, perhaps the image-making is only ever the cover, the boards, or the book-ends. It’s the exercise of writing and research whose pages fill out the story, that invite imagination in the reading.

Female Photographers Al Fresco in France

Photograph by Yagazie Emezi, Festival Pil’Ours, La Chaize Giraud

A brief holiday review here, with the chance discovery of the Festival Pil’Ours in France: an outdoor, multi-site exhibition of work by ten female documentary photographers across the region of St Gilles Croix de Vie. It’s a fitting reflection of the holiday mode that sometimes we encounter photography incidentally, without seeming to connect with its directive in normally prescribed ways. Here, at three sites on our family’s travels, a windmill at St Révérend, the coastal promenade of St Gilles Croix de Vie, and visiting a church at La Chaize Giraud, we found the work of Sanja Knezevic, Maan Youssouf Ahmed and Yagazie Emezi (above) respectively.
What I noticed wasn’t so much the depth and strength of the artist’s portfolios, but the impact of the surrounding setting and the kind of detached engagement which this al fresco photography seems to encourage. At no point did the information provided at the sites mention any competition website, artist website, social media, or even email, in order to find out more. The global Pil’Ours logo communicates an international reach, and so do the subjects of photographers based in Nigeria, Serbia, and elsewhere; yet frustratingly they seemed unreachable. This absence of physical and digital linking, both outwards and between subjects, is a telling one for revealing a hermeneutic premised on one-way dissemination of information – there is no connectivity to the experience of viewing these works. One artist’s work in St Gilles (Alexia Webster) was vandalised, her portraits of South Africans scratched over with gouges and swastikas, which, aside from the politics involved, suggests that a hermeneutics of information at some level denies conversation. When an interpretation may be defiantly expressed in a negative way, it is perhaps the absence of a more positive one that has failed in the context of international promotion. In terms of local promotion however, the sense of a three-dimensional frame for each image I found quite exciting – the visual dynamic of 2-dimensional work changes when the background is a space one occupies and walks in. It gives the setting a new prominence, even agency, because we are in it and we become foregrounded. Perhaps that too is an invitation to interaction, to a more communal, conversational form of engagement with photography – seen perhaps most promisingly in the collective spirit of Shutterhub’s contribution to the show, a series of contact-sheet style images from over 70 female photographers. Here indeed, partly in the group’s theme of female empowerment, and partly in its celebration on social media, there was a sense of activating the subject-matter for new audiences and within new places.

Feminist photo lines at the Pallant House Gallery

Room 10 at the Pallant House Gallery’s ‘Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Artworks’.

The Pallant House Gallery is showing the touring exhibition Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Artworks, until 16th September (previously at the Tate St Ives, and continuing to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2nd October – 9th December). The display of over 80 female artists, from 1854 to the present day, nominally explores the inspiration of Woolf’s writings through artists who work across a variety of media, from film to photography, from painting to collage, from installation to sculpture. The mix presents a record of ‘the vast scope of the female experience’ and a scoping of ‘alternative ways for women to be’ (from the press release). Let’s own a bit of my own limited female experience here, by acknowledging from the outset that I know nothing about Virginia Woolf and have never read her work. I will be blogging again about her later this year, in a spirit of reckoning with those texts as they might relate to her family’s positioning on the Bible, especially in the light of her sister Vanessa Bell’s involvement with the Berwick Church murals in Sussex (and her photography for the same). That presents a more specific opportunity to relate the artistic-literary impulses of the Bloomsbury set to Christianity and the Bible, which does not run in the currents of this exhibition. Instead here, I found myself sifting lines of feminist art practice not from Woolf outwards, but across modernism and across photography and across the exhibition’s four themes of landscape, still life/the home, the self in public, and the self in private.

I confess myself disappointed in the shrinking of ‘the vast scope of the female experience’ to these themes. Where are the rooms themed ‘God’, ‘war’, or ‘technology’? When the exhibition does introduce a perspective of engagement that steps outside the framed exhibits, as with France-lise McGurn’s multi-coloured meandering lines painted across the walls of Room 10 (above), or with Eleanor Smith’s Shrimp Shell wallpaper-like embellishments for Room 13, these remain confined by a decorative, essentially harmless, tone for what is the more serious business of a serious story. And that in turn is failed by dislocated glimpses into whole lives of intentionality reduced to labelled observations of female bodies, vases, or fields. It is perhaps unfair to expect deeper, more rigorous, explorations of the female mind in such an eclectic and ranging collection of works, but the effect for me was to suggest that female experience aligns with precisely these qualities of eclecticism and reductive scatter-brained attention.

Eileen Agar, ‘Ladybird’, 1936; gelatine silver print and guache
Penny Slinger, ‘Perspective’, 1970-7; photo collage

I did think, however, that photography was well-represented. In that sense, an ownership of medium presented itself through particular female artists where I hadn’t seen it before – to me, the ownership of the camera/photograph, as opposed to the ownership of painting still-life, or the ownership of minimalist sculpture practices, or the ownership of the pen, is already a very different feminist exercise. The 1920s and 1930s saw Claude Cahun pre-date Cindy Sherman with self-portraiture as a constructed get-up of identity, while Eileen Agar and Edith Rimmington take the collaged image into surrealism and the unconscious. They hustle themselves through younger conventions of the medium’s transparency, a transparency hitched to self-representation and the document and less to the objecthood of the subject. I like Agar’s dancing ‘feminine type of imagination’ (her words), and Cahun’s Judith or Salomé (not in the exhibition) become a biblical look-in before Sherman’s series of the same. A later cluster of 1970s work introduced me to Penny Slinger, Hannah Wilke, and Birgit Jürgenssen. Slinger’s series of collages over seven years, titled ‘An Exorcism’, evoke a force of emancipation that can only be expressed through pseudo-spiritual terms of release from ‘spirits of the past and other people’s ideas of them’.

Is it a mark of the museum/gallery curator practices (or funding directives) that the threads of emphasised significance, the statements about this or that art work, have to express historic value over and above other values? I felt a tension in the exhibition between historic female artists held up as exemplary for their positions in a story of emancipation, and between the contemporary female artists held up as exemplary by association with that story. The former are somehow confirmed, the latter remain unconfirmed by history, yet are pressed into that line. The former includes the small self-portrait by Louise Jopling (1877, in the gold frame, top image), a founder of a painting school for women in the nineteenth century, while the latter includes Zanele Muholi’s photographic self-portrait Bona, Charlottesville (2015, top image, right). It’s not that I think contemporary work can’t be important for history – of course it can and will be. Rather, to stress the activist, political thread here in these stridently progressive terms (Muholi brings her South African identity to questions of gender, racism, and homicide) is actually a limiting operation for what I think is the present-tense meaning of art made now, particularly photography. Recent photography categorically resists historical significance: it is life in front of us. And there is an ‘us’, into which its mode of meaning plays – not the ‘them’ of history. To speak to, or with, an ‘us’ is ideologically miles apart from the posture of ‘them’. For every expanding photographic gaze on different corners and perspectives of our world, the inscribing frame is one of collective and continuity (even if speaking of difference within it, as with Muholi). The viewing implications are of responsibility rather than influence, of a horizontal relation of humanity rather than a vertical one of intellectual patterning. As I said of another collective exhibition ‘Tribe’ earlier this year, 21st-century feminism is, I think, ‘less about feminist politicisation, more about feminine vocalisation’. We need to recognise this interactivity in the viewing and making of art in this space, and photography puts us there, centre frame.

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.