A Ruskinian conversation: conference report

St Michael and All Angels Chapel, Marlborough College

Visual Theology‘s second two-day conference took place this month at Marlborough College, and in what follows I draw on the report penned by Madeleine Emerald Thiele. Madeleine and I have envisaged new places where art and theology might intersect, very much in a plane of contemporary relevance and interest. I was delighted that this weekend offered new ways to bring John Ruskin into conversation with worship, art history, and contemporary art practice. His words continue to inspire, and I’m prompted again to draw on what feels like a wisdom tradition of sorts that he started – one for modernism and arts in particular.

Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites: Sacre Conversazioni’ was part of the international John Ruskin bicentenary celebrations. The event was held in Marlborough College’s Chapel, overlooked by a series of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by the artist, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, and beneath an Edward Burne-Jones stained glass window. Amidst a tightly choreographed programme of 15 papers (from open submission and by select invitation), there were 2 keynotes, 1 ‘special conversation’, 1 installation of video art, 1 church service, 1 exhibition, and 1 musical concert. 

Our presenters delivered to an extremely high standard, thus reflecting the high calibre of their specialist knowledge and insight, and our carefully considered shaping and design of the event. The voices who contributed to our conversations represented leading academics in Art History, Literature, and Theology, church leaders from the Anglican tradition, curators, and an award-winning artist. Our speakers were international, with five being based Stateside, and the rest either Europe or UK based. 

The presentations and panels covered a range of subjects, including (for the full programme, see here) visions of church reflected in Edward Burne-Jones, the visual theology of angels in Pre-Raphaelite art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti in colour and sound, the sacred in social contexts for William Morris or Mary Watts, Ruskin’s reception on the continent, and theological reflection on icongraphies of leaves and dirt. We were delighted also to hear from Professor George P. Landow and Professor Colin Cruise as keynote presenters, and through a special conversation between curator Christopher Newall and the Bishop of Salisbury: all four brought questions about aesthetics to bear on responses of faith.

Day Two saw an intimate reimagining of the original 1886 Service of Dedication, with a video installation by Reverend Mark Dean. Visual Theology had commissioned Dean, and we were delighted with his impressive angelic themed visual and musical pieces which were in response to the opening theme of the original service: ‘This is a dreadful place’, and the Stanhope cycle. Dean had brought ideas about both worship and the practising or making of art into close contact with liturgical expression, in this case through a sensitive reflection of the building’s dedication and subsequent history.

Hosted here at Marlborough College, with a conference dinner at the town’s well-known Polly Tea Rooms, and including a private view of the Richard Sheridan exhibition for our delegates, we put considerable thought and planning into a level of ‘added value’ to the event. Our delegates had the opportunity to access a display of Marlborough College’s rare books with Dr. Simon McKeown. These included architectural books on Pugin, Millais etchings, and most significantly, a copy of William Morris’ Aeneid translation, signed by Morris himself and given as a gift to Burne-Jones’ son, Philip. We also invited three talented young musicians from Wiltshire, who played in the Chapel for our delegates prior to the Sheridan exhibition visit. Significantly for us, the holistic reach of the event was felt further afield, through well-received engagement online with our live Twitter feed #VTRuskin. Increasingly these expanding spheres of engagement are reflective of our hope that Visual Theology finds footing and connections with communities beyond church and academia.

We had a total of just over 50 people register across the event, with a heavier mix of academics than clergy or artists than we have had previously. We had a slightly greater number of women than men (both presenting and attending), but we achieved a broad range of ages from students to those in retirement. We continue to believe this is vital to both our own events, and to academia generally. We remain grateful to Marlborough College for underwriting some of the event: without their financial support we would not have been able to achieve what we did, nor allow our delegates to present in such an impressive and special venue.

We feel two aspects of the conference – the quality of the research in the paper presentations (which communicated across their panels, as well as being individually outstanding), and the specific engagement with the Chapel setting – were key in making this a successful event. Inevitably, as with any event, there were some difficulties – such as a power cut in the town and some audio issues. However, included in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have now received were a number of comments that welcomed our sense of ambition, our shaping of a new style of academic event, our interdisciplinary conversations, and our overall achievement without institutional backing. We have received much generosity post the event both from those that attended and also those who were unable to. This event has been a complex one to organise, and we are grateful for such feedback and encouragement. 

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.

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

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.