Sounds of a summer visual theology

Painting by Millet, The Angelus
Millet’s ‘The Angelus’, 1857-59

On holiday in France this year, I am staying with my family in an old 3-storied house in the Loire.  It is full of beams, right next door to a church. The village is quiet, the houses silent, the shop fronts closed.  The summer air hangs over the place, people aren’t around.

But the bells.  The bells ring out on the hour and every quarter between 7am and 8pm.  And, quite differently, ring out the Angelus at 7am, 12pm, and 7pm.  It is rhapsodic, an astonishing compound, reverberating sound like Millet’s liquid light spreading over the furrows.  I must have heard this call before, I must have been near bells when they’re rung, but somehow this feels new, magnifying, overwhelming.  And this was the angel come to Mary, the angel touching earth with providence and grace and blessing.  It connects the touch of God with the ripple effect into human lives and souls, and I truly felt it.  As if the church tower were a lightning rod.  It was specifically the swinging pendulum in the rocking bell, its ratcheted momentum releasing a pealing, repeat, and reflection on downswing and upswing, and caught irregularly at the pitch of both.  Not the sharp hard sound of a striking hammer marking the triple invocations ‘Hail Mary’.

I hear and see this in Millet’s painting.  The two figures who have stopped to pray mark the moment (that’s where the villagers are!). The reverence is not token, is of a piece with the land, the soil, the light, the church – and it is all held together in sound.  But it is also embodied differently, felt differently, seen differently.  The man is nearly full frontal to us, and bears the facing directionality with our frame, our personhood.  The woman is in profile, and faces the sun, her frame is her creaturehood in the landscape.  He has the vertical, darkly-outlined thrust of the fork; she has the horizontal, illuminated load of the barrow. This reminds me of last month’s reach for a description of difference. For now, it’s enough to perceive a complementarity, if not harmony, pervaded by a context of sunshine and prayerfulness.

I do like to be beside the seaside

Clevedon Pier yesterday at 7.30am and 2.30pm.
Clevedon Pier yesterday at 7.30am and 2.30pm.

In contrast to last week, this week’s focus on my practice involved the opposite of deadline/brief close working at a computer screen: yesterday was the highest tide of the year (the spring perigean) at the Severn Estuary which sees the second-highest tidal difference in the world. I had to spend a day in Clevedon, thanks in part to my involvement on a college-organised quiet day, and so a seaside watch was in the diary a long time earlier. The weekend’s eclipse, supermoon and high tide are all the sort of ancient cataclysmic events that would normally be marked with deep reverence and ascribed symbolism. Here was my small equivalent armed with a camera and a thermos.

The best day of photographing I have ever had was something similar – in 2010, I settled myself at the point on the English side of the Severn Estuary called the New Passage, and photographed the tide going out every half-an-hour between 8am and 3pm. Yesterday, at Clevedon Pier, I followed the same rule, but increased to every 15 minutes. The experience is both systematically measured and exponentially felt. I think it appeals to my right and left brain simultaneously – on the one hand, I’m constantly clock-watching and horizon-watching and focus-point watching; on the other hand, the constraints against doing anything else allow your mind to relax and tread water. More than that, I found myself exploring a spiritual exercise of retreat: even as the tide pulled out, I was imagining a real perspective on my life in which events, children, emails, jobs weren’t all piling in a big wave, and were in fact ‘going out’ on the tide.

I have yet to decide how these images are going to go together for a finished piece – possibly an animated lenticular which plays on the vertical change, rather than the horizontal change in The New Passage. But I will be trying to hold onto the verse ringing in my ears, the verse I passed on to those 7 photographers who joined me for a different perspective in their day, Psalm 18:15. To me, this verse shakes the self-absorption out the equation, because the tidal perspective is not ultimately about me.

Then the channels of the sea were seen,
and the foundations of the world were laid bare
at your rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.

The lenticular, the RA and me

2014-06-02 12.33.51
My second excursion from maternity leave finds me celebrating inclusion in this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. I submitted my two lenticulars from Elemental in 2012. Genesis didn’t make the final cut, though May saw me carrying both pieces up to London on the train. The New Passage was created from 12 photographs taken at half-hour intervals from this spot on the Severn Estuary. The images are interlaced by a computer programme which creates a file for printing and mounting behind a Perspex lens. In this piece, the effect of animation occurs when the viewer walks past the image. The tidal difference is at its highest in the year and marks the point where John and Charles Wesley crossed from England to Wales in the early founding of Methodism. The parting of the sea evokes a sacramental theology, and bears obvious reference to the biblical account of the exodus of the Israelites.

At last week’s Varnishing Day for the artists, the exhibition was opened after we had had the Service for Artists at St James’s Piccadilly. A typical service in every respect, with hymns, prayers, liturgy, a sermon and a blessing. Yet I found it profoundly affirming, and resonant with everything I try to do in my work. I’ll be writing about this experience for an article in the next issue of Art & Christianity Enquiry, and asking who or what is served, even transformed, by this commemorative act.

Perspectives on the Severn

tower

Highest tide of the year today. And possibly the highest workmen in the South West. Out at Aust, the pylon in the Severn Estuary is having a make-over, thanks to Ivan and his dare-devil team of four. Something mesmerizing about the air, space-clean, superhigh and white, with tiny figures and water at 14m. The bracket of day included a trip to the mouth of the Trym – the difference between 9am and 4pm. A miracle swell that hides a water-chasm of life and mud and disappeared boats. Some perspective gained on practice today – in the words of Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels: there are no small jobs, there are only small people.

Trym-mouth

Garry Fabian Miller in Edinburgh

No. 5, The Sea Horizon (Series 2), 1976
No. 5, The Sea Horizon (Series 2), 1976

Garry Fabian Miller first showed Series 1 of the Sea Horizon series in 1977, and 2 years later, at the Arnolfini in Bristol. These 40 photographs were then published in 1997, and exhibited again at the Arnolfini (also in London), which is where I first saw them, aged 16. My visual diary entry that day:

27th April. Down at the Arnolfini. Blue gets me every time. There were about 20 1ft square of these photos round the walls of one room. This idea of looking at the same thing in different lights is like Monet. I would have got the catalogue – only it was £75. There is a serene consistency in a set like these. They’re wonderful.

16 years later, another set (Series 2) of the same sequence has been printed for exhibition, which I caught just before it closed at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh. For me, the conjunction of my birth year and place, at the cusp of higher education into Fine Art, and now as a practising photographer and researcher, marks Fabian Miller’s work with my own interests in a particularly personal way. Not to mention the repetitive looking at the Severn Estuary, and the later inspiration from Dartmoor. I struggle to write thoughts about his work without being spiritually reflective, preferring something more poetic than descriptive – a foreword from Fabian Miller’s early book quotes Hilaire Belloc on the sea as “the common sacrament of this world”. So at this show, on a hot summer’s day and in an empty gallery, I wrote the following:

The wavering edge of perception and cognition. A thin line or a seam between an up and a down that are held together in some sort of suspension. The down has the most mass or gravity when you can see the frill of the waves, the implacability of a sea surface and a slight perspective shift when you sense your space above it. But it has the least when it’s merely a graded shade of darker plane, either colour-blocked and solidified or a sliding angle inward. None of this edge feels outward to me, maybe it’s the scale (40cm), maybe it’s the square shape – both a tendency to abstraction contained. The clouds and the light are mostly an upwards activity, a shifting screen of billow or streak, sun or rain, pregnant cloud or dissipating veil of haze. Metal grey, azure blue, Monet pink, ricocheted sunset light in gleam or gloom – it’s like a phantasmagoria where you don’t hold the transitions, rather they hold you.