Steiner’s light

Floating III, Sheona Beaumont, 2010

I’m in endurance mode with George Steiner’s Real Presences (1989). What pitted, articulate, ranging, poetic depth he brings to present-day understandings of the arts. At my sense of it, he says we need a reckoning with the undisputed ‘life of meaning in the text, in music, in art’ (p.50) because our world is doing away with having to face mystery, immediacy (even ‘the wholly personal hospitality we owe our own death’, p.50) in what is a society in thrall to positivist accounting for the humanities or cheap journalistic thrill. We’d rather write about the arts, and screen their effects, than face their ‘implosive powers within the echo chambers of the self’ (p.10).

Everything about the journalistic-academic burgeoning of commentary and reflection and endless publications about the arts, the tsunami of talking, the preoccupation with inflated argument is ‘bustling pretence’ (p.48), ‘caring mediocrity’ (p.23), a ‘narcotic’ against interpretation as lived and felt (p.49), articulating ‘an epistemology and ethics of spurious temporality’ and ‘novelty’ (p.26,27). When some interpretative mode-du-jour fails, ‘when the zero-point of trust and of felt meaning is reached’ it’s more a sign of general decay and overinflation in ‘the mushrooming of semantic-critical jargon’, not of reckoning with ‘real presence’ and the humane (p.49). Rather than shooting down such malaise (as Baudrillard would), Steiner asks ‘how can personal sensibility go upstream, to the living springs of ‘first being’?’ (p.40), and proceeds to elaborate what is a declaration for hermeneutics as imaginative, transforming, event; hermeneutics as ‘defining the enactment of answerable understanding, of active apprehension’ (p.7); hermeneutics as ‘a shaping reciprocity between ourselves and that which the heart knows’ (p.9). Actual encounter with the arts precipitate this – for Steiner, especially music.

Amongst the hermeneutic approaches he discusses is the Jewish midrashic circling, retelling, and reimagining tradition towards Scripture. It deliberately brings the text into ‘palpable presentness’ (p.42), being ‘indeterminately synchronic with all individual and communal life’ (p.44). Not so the Christian (‘Catholic’) tradition, which works to extract fixity over and through the specific testimonies of Jesus and the disciples (so ‘dogma can be defined as hermeneutic punctuation, as the promulgation of semantic arrest’, p.44). It is these more legislative and systematic programmes of Christian theological interpretation which the humanities largely inherit today, combined with positivism and carried in the US by a wider non-canonical (‘democratic’), ahistorical ‘egalitarian ideal’ (p.32). But over and against each of these which might notionally stand for or accommodate theological-metaphysical interpretation, Steiner spends the bulk of the book (the 2nd of 3 chapters) elaborating on why modernism radically counters and annihilates such theological possibility.

Since the 1870s, Western consciousness has ‘moved house’ (p.94), effecting a fundamental break between word and world such that the ‘covenant of reference’ (p.96), or the ‘mystery of consonance’ (p.105) which supposes meaningfulness in representation/discourse is gone. Meaningfulness in language (or the linguistic, understood to describe all art) is, according to deconstructionism, a delusion, a ‘lazy dream’ (p.124) exhibiting ‘sclerotic remnants of religion, of metaphysics, of gross positivism’ (p.125). So the death of God, of the author, of intentionality, of logocentrism, etc. ‘Deconstruction dances in front of the ancient Ark. This dance is at once playful, …and instinct with sadness. For the dancers know that the Ark is empty’ (p.122). It feels like a devastating indictment, like Steiner himself accepts nihilism, from which there is no recovery. And yet, because the project is about the living, ever-returning, responsibility-inducing experience in front of art (where we feel ‘the talismanic quickening of our being’ p.63,64), in the final instance Steiner says the reckoning with deconstruction is limited by its theory, its dependence on logic to refute logic.

The full, indisputable freight of deconstructionism is not to be denied or denounced as untrue (within its own postulates, it is true), but it stands apart from the fact of the creative effort, and the fact of interpretative encounter with art. Steiner says he has never met an artist who is a deconstructionist. So with the serious encounter with art, to which everyone can testify at a kind of universally experienced level, even if not articulated through the privileged educational setting of high art. Both describe the human ‘wager on transcendence’ (p.214), the looking to meaning expressed and received beyond or above the immanent, manifest plane of our world. Whether the meaning is there or not, whatever the ‘style of designation’ for the otherness of encounter (p.211, which Steiner himself posits as the reception of an unknown guest knocking at the door), whether it exhibits confirmation or challenge or disruption to our sense of knowing, we enter into it. And it needs theological language, however foolish or embarrassing that is felt to be, to describe it. Steiner stands by this, though ends finally, melancholically, with uncertainty in the face of cultural rejection of the transcendent (which he says is understandable politically, morally, and linguistically) – will art, he wonders, become an archaeology when ‘the verticalities of reference to ‘higher things’… drain from speech’? Will general sentiment follow, or will it ‘aspire to religious fundamentalism and kitsch ideologies’? (p.230) It’s a supremely timely question.

Good News : David LaChapelle’s photo-gospel

‘Anointing’, 2003, from the series Jesus is my Homeboy, by David LaChapelle

Catching the last days of this exhibition at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, I went to see David LaChapelle’s Good News for Modern Man in October this year. Not quite a retrospective for the photographer, the show concentrates on his fine art photography with oversized tableaux prints produced in bold, searing, colours and drawing on his earlier career’s attention to celebrity and fashion icons. Produced more or less since the turn of the twenty-first century, these works catapult what might otherwise have been jaded or cynical comment on the overblown and hedonistic art-commercial scene in which he was involved into something extraordinarily vibrant. Into, indeed, ‘Good news’. For LaChapelle, the optimism underpinning his detailed attention to pictorial construction, to the art of making meaning, is one couched in the Christian language of redemption and salvation. Overtly, and with intent, LaChapelle is one of a number of photographic artists today bringing biblical reference, of which the show’s title is just one example, centre-stage.

Deluge, Room 7 at the Groninger Museum
I was, I admit, overwhelmed by the work. Over 60 pieces illuminated the colour-blocked walls with stage-lit drama and cinematic immersion: each room of 10 had its own mood of theatre, from the sun-blanched yellow of the Land Scape series, to the submerged aquamarine backdrop for the largest room Deluge. It’s no exaggeration to say that the ‘show-ness’ of the show was part of its attraction – viewers were invited to inhabit worlds in which the people represented were companionably life-size, yet also pitched at the extremes of human reckoning such as drowning, or found in Edenic forest, or at the height of societal fame (with the Kardashians). The un-peopled environments presented were just as seductive. The room Earth Laughs in Flowers contained a series of large-format chromogenic prints whose apparently traditional still-life arrangement of flowers in vases disguised more contemporary visual abundance in artful combination: tins of pop, mobile phones, plastic packaging. The series title comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, one work from which includes the line ‘God is Not the Author of Confusion’ in the kaleidoscopic presentation of a Late Summer bouquet.

Over-abundance, kaleidoscopic colours, and an unflinching embrace of Western society’s more decadent preoccupations are yet compatible with LaChapelle’s Catholic faith. Inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, his 2006 work The Deluge includes a saving Jesus figure reaching from a cruciform telegraph pole, forming the apex of a flooded and chaotic urban recreation of the Genesis story. In his Awakened series (2007), single submerged figures in contemporary dress, named after biblical characters such as Abram, Ruth, and Deborah, are suspended in life or death, light blazing from behind them. And he has said of his series about Jesus, pictured above:

If you really want to shock people in the art world, talk about Jesus or God. You could take a dump on a gallery floor and they won’t care. That’s art … when I wanted to do Jesus Is My Homeboy, I wanted to ask who Jesus would hang with, if he was back. And it wouldn’t be the aristocrats or the rich people, but the disfranchised. I was making this point to the editor of i-D and I heard the phone go dead. Eastern religions like Buddhism are cool – anything foreign or exotic like that is acceptable, but Christianity has a horrible reputation because of fundamentalists and evangelicals.

(quoted by Nosheen Iqbal in the Guardian, 21/11/17). LaChapelle’s is a reading of simultaneity across Bible subject, art subject, and contemporary human experience. It is not particularly loaded with moral freight or intellectual depth, lacking the dimensionality of either backwards- or forward-facing temporality, and its present is an imaginative realm rather than the social or geographical field of photographic topos. In this sense, LaChapelle’s work orchestrates biblical reference for unironic symbolic value, to reclaim from the extremes of fundamentalist religious interpretation or art-world dismissal a lively middle way in which it is possible, as he put it, to ‘live dimensionally [in the modern world] and still have faith’ (interview on The Art Newspaper, October 2008). I like the intent here, and the sense of ownership. From a white gay former studio assistant to Andy Warhol, it’s an ownership that confronts prejudice on so many levels. Here’s to the recognition of that, especially when it’s in danger of being lost in the stream of celebrity-association that LaChapelle is more often known for.

detail from ‘The Deluge’, 2006, David LaChapelle

Lacock Remembers


Remembrance Sunday 2018 sees commemorations across the world, remembering the end of the First World War 100 years ago. I’ve been involved in a community project at St Cyriac’s Lacock, ‘In Remembrance and Hope: Lacock Remembers’. The project saw local leaders Rachael McHenry and Jane Wheeler (Wiltshire Scrapstore) coordinate and cajole hundreds of contributors into making poppies, over 4,000 of them. Each and every member of our parish was invited to create a poppy using recycled/reusable materials. Some chose to create poppies from foam, felt, or wool – whether sewing, sticking, crochet, knitting and more. The poppies were used to create a number of installations around the village and can be seen as a cascade from the bell tower in the church, withy arches weaved with poppies along the church aisle, wreathes and a string of poppies around the market cross, a large cross of poppies at the war memorial and wreathes of poppies on Lacock Abbey’s gates. More poppy installations are also to be found in the form of wreathes on the pew ends at Lacock parish’s sister church St Anne’s Bowden Hill.

The groups involved have, for me, shown the face of community here in Lacock. Under the umbrella of the church’s hospitality and spirit, those joining in include the Lacock History group, pre-schoolers’ Little Lambs and Wise Owls, Lacock Primary School, The Evergreens and WI, Green Cafe, Wiltshire Scrapstore, The Open Blue Bus, Knit and Natter, the over 50’s group, Lacock Cubs and Beavers, and the Junior Church group. Local businesses and the National Trust held coincident poppy trails around the village too. Apart from joining in the poppy-making, my personal project was originally intended as another installation, one for the transept in St Cyriac’s, where I planned a photographic wall-mounted artwork. I had wanted to bring to life the stories of those individuals and families who had memories of the war, those names on our memorial church plaque and elsewhere. But the amount of material I received, and the interviews I’d been able to do, soon gathered pace and generated ideas for a piece that outgrew the available time. Above all, the sense of history has percolated in my thinking and feeling about Lacock, such that the project now demands a deeper reflection from me, a deeper wrestling with what community here means.

For the church’s vision is ‘Loving Lacock, besotted with Bowden Hill, weak at the knees for the world who visits us – just as Jesus loved us first’. It’s extraordinary how much reach this place has, from the depth of history with the Abbey (and its indefatigable Abbess Ela 1239-1257), with William Henry Fox Talbot and his profoundly transforming invention of the first paper photographic process, to the international attraction of the village to tourists and Harry Potter/period-drama fans. Somehow that dimension reverberates in the personal stories of people here, catching us all up in celebration and purpose. We’ve got a bigger story to tell, and in my planned work, I hope to bring it together with the church’s focus on love. I wrote once about what Remembrance meant to me in terms of engaging with it through art (and Paul Cummins’ poppy) – something along the lines of truth and beauty, rather more than facts and sentimentality. There’s a qualitative difference, and somehow I’ve now got to work to create more than another local history guide – which in fact our group has done to outstanding depth already. So I’m sitting with it for now, still collating material, turning it over. And planning an exhibition at some point in 2019, thanks to the gracious generosity and enthusiasm of the PCC. Watch this space…

Remembrance Sunday Service, Lacock War Memorial

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.