Pastiche Mass with Mark Dean

Credo, film by Mark Dean, 2008/16

On a Thursday in Lent, I found myself at Chelsea College of Art, in their Banqueting Hall, for an evening performance/service by Mark Dean, Pastiche Mass. Supported in his position as Chaplain at the College, Mark presided over a service that included the invitation to receive communion, as well as the traditionally sung elements such as the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Sanctus’. In each case instead of communal singing at these points, Mark played 5 videos with sound whose references to tradition were reflected in some way through the choice of appropriated and manipulated footage – of music performances and their dissected visualisations. Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, The Human League, The Revolutionaries, and the singer Ade Bamgboye (seen above) were all part of the liturgical mash-up. As such, Dean was leading a service with a nod to the mixed-repertoire concert performance of the mass, as much as to its congregational setting in worship.

It’s a moot point as to what kind of balancing act was achieved with this pastiche. In print, the form of the order of service gave structure and rhythm to the event: in front of me I had a sheet of paper taking me through what was happening, coordinating call and response within the familiar enough format of the Church of England’s Common Worship for this service (even down to the colour coding and typeface), interjected with images of stills at the relevant moments. I rather like the illumination here, the idea of a breakaway flash of revelation that is yet included in the programme. Dean has referred to the ‘pre-existing form as a discipline’, within which other ties to religious expectation fall away, such that author-controlled or viewer-controlled inferences are disbanded through something received as a given. The best liturgy has that liberating effect, the knowing of its pattern by rote and the repeating of its cyclic themes through the church calendar becomes a trigger for a bigger expanding experience, connected to the consecration of our human experience of time. I’ve no doubt that Dean’s ideas for his work grew from this feeling for liturgical performance, partly because it is itself pastiche – creative reshaping and returning to sources that is far more than interpretative commentary. Partly too of course because he is a priest by training.

In fact the wealth of the Christian tradition within which Dean practices derives from re-interpretation understood via imagination as much as via intellect. The Bible’s New Testament reimagines the Old in various ways, in Jesus as prophet, a new Adam, a light to the Gentiles, etc. Metaphor and imagery ricochet off the pages, and its pastiche language becomes something used to bring ‘affective sense’ to the fore – a deepening of human knowing through a kind of intuitive connecting (cf. Richard Dyer, Pastiche, 2007; and Michelle Fletcher, Reading Revelation as Pastiche, 2017). Readings during the service could have been part of this homage to image-text spiritual connection, but were instead, as read by invited others, an interruption of slightly awkward relational ‘live action’ to the otherwise more scripted performance. In fact, the delicate suggestiveness of word play, image, and sonic concept as a whole was undermined by moments of jarring reality happening outside the linguistic frame (or ‘discipline’): adjustments of the microphone, Dean standing in the projector’s light, apologetic accompaniment to the starting and stopping of the films, the moving across/between readers. I also felt the incongruity of the Banqueting Hall rather strongly, to something I had come to as a service first, performance second. To others I spoke to who had come with performance in mind first, it was the service element that was incongruous, a perpetuation of odd ritual to be viewed askance in the name of art.

Unusually perhaps, this inside/outside discomfit was telling of genuine middle ground. An out-of-place awkwardness in a church building, while felt by many today who find themselves there for a baptism or wedding, is usually set against the ‘known’ ground of the congregational faithful. Similarly, the out-of-place awkwardness of religion in a gallery is increasingly set against the ‘known’ ground of art world intellectual engagement. A no-man’s land lies between – except perhaps for what Dean has stumbled upon in his church-supported context for art and art-supported context for church (Dean was engaged by the Arts Chaplaincy Project and Art+Christianity). Where I think he succeeds in exploring this space is in the film Credo, the only one incorporating Dean’s own direction in its making. Here, Bamgboye sings the apostolic creed, singly at first, then at interval with himself a second and third time. The setting is, to all appearances, a church, and the performance is in the physical place of congregation: a doubling and tripling of sound from a reality in which we are implicit. This surely seems the closest to liturgical resonance, to something demanding affective response, in Dean’s piece as a whole.

Lent and soul patience

South windows at St Anne’s Bowden Hill, Wiltshire (1856)

Lent started on the 6th March. I went to an Ash Wednesday service at St Anne’s Bowden Hill (Wilts), got the cross marked on my head and remembered that I am dust. This Lent, I’m putting my foreground research in the background, and committing my time to a church project for Lacock and Bowden Hill. At St. Cyriac’s, Lacock, we’ve taken down all the signs and most of the devotional material – a version of the Lenten practice to cover up all the visual prompts for worship. It’s a way of doing visual theology ‘aniconically’. It’s not that there’s no visual stuff, it’s that the visuality of emptiness or absence is part of the symbolic prompt to self-reflection and penitence. In these windows at St Anne’s, there’s no dominant iconographic programme, and the effect is of slow luminescence, meandering looking, piecemeal symbolic identification, and also reading (above the windows are engraved inscriptions, here ‘Let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap if we faint not’). I see it as an invitation to slow down.

The giving of yourself to a new project, to people, to an idea, to a place – is a commitment, a yes to something you have chosen, over other no’s. That involves the path of fidelity, the dying to other options – and it’s a VERY different posture of the heart to the yes-to-everything distracted/rebounding focus of our culture’s invitations to connect and invest. We don’t really move forward by saying yes to everything because we have endless options – we move forward because we said yes to something more singular, and because we said no to other things. The saying no, the stalling/stepping sideways into life’s viscosity looks like hanging backwards, feels like hanging backwards, but it isn’t. In the grace of what time is and of who we are, there is space to recognise that fullness doesn’t need to be hinged to fixation or frenetic activity. The story of history, of wisdom, is always the story of a couple of steps forward, a couple of steps back; it’s always the story of a glimpse of what you could be, and then you head off in that direction, and there are setbacks and you have dark nights of the soul and you wander around the woods and you get lost and then friends become enemies and enemies become friends, because that’s how it works (with thanks to Rob Bell…).

In a previous post, I identified constellations in/with which I work, rather than programmes. Which has the similar sense of allowable ‘drift’ in practice and attention. D’you know what though? It’s really hard. It’s hard in the pressure of our world’s emphasis on efficiency. It’s hard in the self-doubt about wasted time, about ‘indulgence’ when there are ‘better’ things to do, about who cares anyway. If it were a flight from the real, then perhaps these pressures would stick, but actually the point is to distill to a deeper reality. Lent affords the explicit naming of something we instinctively resist: namely that our natural end-point is dust. We don’t ultimately achieve things in our own self-effort, except in Christ’s promise of new life, except in love from without, except in flinging ourselves on God’s meaning and mercy beyond death. Everything we do can become a patient weaving of our heart, body, mind, and soul into this pattern we don’t yet fully see. We don’t see, that’s the point – and we can re-situate our ‘not seeing’ in the promises of Easter’s ‘being seen’. I hope what I’m doing gives itself to that possibility, to a direction of being seen by God, in amidst all the looking and reading that our parish churches (not to mention research in the humanities) invite.

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