Art’s generous interface on screen

Grayson Perry at Salisbury Cathedral, experienced virtually

Last month I considered some problems around theology on screen. I was drawn in to media discussions about the effects of worshipping differently, in lockdown – and on the communication of theological ideas when such worshipping happens primarily online, via Zoom or Facebook. For a time, I was wholly absorbed with the intellectual grappling of something problematic, and I tried to articulate a frustration, an impatience, with what I perceived as a tendency to overclaim for screen-as-surrogate-presence. I felt that something obvious was being overlooked: the technology, its consumer- and use-value, and the extent to which it is carved in our own Enlightened image of design and functionality.

But as time has passed, the importance of idea-wrestling has faded. The closed-in-ness of the discussion feels alienating, even as I re-read my own position. Here I want to consider the possibility of a more optimistic interface for our dealings with the screen, the thoughtfulness we bring to considerations of art and creativity and interactivity. I’ve been buoyed by various UK programmes on ‘culture in quarantine’: the BBC producing shorter performances of poetry, Jools Holland presenting an introduction to blues on his piano at home, and Grayson Perry’s wonderful Art Club on Channel 4. The undemanding, unaffected, reach of art into our lives and living rooms, into mental states of disconnection and isolation, is quiet but somehow true. The power of the creative gift has the language of a physical gift, a generous and unconditional giving of something crafted, worked, wrestled with, spent on. It is almost alarmingly hierarchy-free: mediated, certainly, but intrinsically without claims of subjugating dominance. It is like a question, rather than an answer. It comes alongside us laterally, rather than meeting us on the perpendicular.

It has been my own experience in lockdown that there is no ‘meeting of minds’ in the virtual sphere, that the space for two-way (or group) communication is strangely anechoic. I’ve joined a few Zoomed seminars for photography, and watched artists talk about their work. But what is said has minimal return, reflections are absorbed, and energy is dissipated. There is no congregation. What is different in the receipt of art itself is the possibility of the work’s (as opposed to the people’s) connection held more loosely. Certainly art’s open-ended-ness has more room here. Perhaps it could be the first foot forward when it comes to thinking about Zoom. It will be a legacy of lockdown, to me, that our lives are made up of so much more than relationships with people, and that when these are minimised, other relationships fill and swell our vision and our hearts. The arts give voice to these, to the relationships we have with our self, the land around us and underneath us, the sky above us, the words we haven’t spoken, the songs we’re still composing, the food we consume, the tools we use in activities, the materials that make up our homes, the humanity of others we don’t know, the enormity of the planet. We are so rich in relationships, it’s just that most of them are silenced by the continual ego exchange with our more immediate fellow man.

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.

New art for two Catholic schools in Bristol

'Transpire' by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva

As published in the current issue of Art & Christianity (No.70, Summer 2012, p.16):

Bristol City Council has recently commissioned two contemporary art works for St Bede’s Catholic College and St Bernadette’s Catholic Secondary School. Respectively, Transpire by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva and Intersection by Michael Pinsky (both 2011), have transformed two public spaces where the footfall of staff and students enact the threading and crossing of ideas that created these pieces. From the outset, these art works were created alongside major building projects for the schools, as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme – indeed, they were a conditional part of these projects. As such, the integrated nature of the results speaks for the depth of encounter and consideration given to the commissions.

Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva’s piece, Transpire, is an installation of winding, stretching tree branches/roots which spill across the stairwell linking St Bede’s art and technology faculties. Traditionally-applied stucco and gold-leaf form a tracery along the walls and ceiling, with etched detail continuing the pattern across two windows. The windows, in fact, seem to be the site of the source of this spreading energy: a site of in-between, where the idea of the liminal space offers a particular resonance for the concepts of the work. The artist has identified the piece as representing ‘a search for something deep within us’, where ‘what lies beneath reflects above’ (the subtitle for the work); the Vice Principal Patrick McDermott has reflected on the course of knowledge passing from inside to outside and vice-versa.

What could remain as something of a Gnostic homage becomes richer for the setting of the school itself as a place of faith – it is as a tree of life, with its organic, tangled lattice and gleaming veins of flowing sap that the work is enlivened. Here is the acknowledged reference to St Bede’s interest in the natural world and to the biblical idea of a tree (or vine) that represents lineage and rootedness in God. Here too is the reference in the materials used to the highly decorated interior facades of Byzantine churches, where preciousness (both in the care taken and in the monetary value) is a fitting acknowledgement of the sacred.

In this regard, it is revealing that the commissions were organised by Art and Sacred Places, who seek to connect artists and their work with places of worship or similar sites. The commissioning process necessarily entails interaction and discussion as to the matching of ideas, faiths and hopes. For both schools, this was a lengthy process, taking several months alongside the inevitable questions about material suitability and safety. It might be a pertinent question to ask how successfully the sacred emerges from such conversations, there being a danger perhaps of dilution-by-democracy. Happily, it is to the credit of the contributing decision-makers that here the resulting art works embody something of a map of faith.

'Intersection' by Michael Pinsky

With Michael Pinsky’s work Intersection, this seems both the implied and the literal result of the commission. A pulsating, illuminated grid appears to glow at one end of the main school passageway, alternating between a negative and positive image. It is a composite image featuring the digitally-transcribed hand-drawn crosses of all 750 pupils at the school, whose individual post-it-sized drawings have been incorporated into one larger pattern. Formed from glass layers within a steel frame, the LEDs which contour the pattern create the rhythm of a light-house’s sweeping beam – a rhythm markedly different from the school bell – where the measure of place and situation is slowed and deepened.

Intersection works by opening up routes for the sacred. It makes sense both of an individual’s singular description of a cross, and of the interconnectedness which such descriptions suggest for a whole community. It is also a sign for a literal journey of faith through secondary education. More than the simple use of an abstracted symbol, it prompts the static form to become spiritually meaningful in its (and because of its) context. Like Hadzi-Vasileva’s work, it brings dynamism to the appropriation of religious symbol, neither sealing it tightly with doctrinal declaration nor allowing it to disintegrate in irony, cynicism or pluralism.

Perhaps this is a strength of the particularly conceptual approach of both artists. In numerous successful exhibitions, internationally as well as locally, both Pinsky and Hadzi-Vasileva have produced work which facilitates other people’s worldviews – from the green cross understood to signify religious divide in Mas d’azil, France to the tree as representative of our living systems in the New Forest. In the schools, to the surprise of the management groups, concepts can and have become the malleable carriers of meaning through a style of art that is not readily celebrated by such institutions. While this may still seem to be a ‘strange place of religion in contemporary art’, it nevertheless champions the sacred in deeper and richer forms.

Photographs by Sheona Beaumont
www.michaelpinsky.com
www.elpihv.co.uk

Manifesto for the arts

My summary points from a talk given to the spouses of vicars-in-training earlier this week:

  • Art is not just decoration for the more serious business of the Word – background visual element to church life. Art is part of the Word. Incarnational, material. Christ is the image of God, holding everything that is created together. (Colossians 1:15-17).
  • Art is not visual propaganda for mission. Too much naff, and poor quality work from Christian artists which, in assuming that representation in art works like language, ignores the whole of the twentieth century history of art: abstraction, conceptual, nuanced, allusive.
  • Art is the explosive stuff that churches often say ‘shouldn’t the money have been better spent on the chairs?’ (cf. disciples and perfume). God wanted the temple to be Decked Out (Haggai 1). Bring intelligence to a celebration of imagery in the Bible, not suspicion of idolatrous power.
  • Art is the cultural expression of our society’s worldview. Galleries are described by the media as ‘today’s cathedrals’, Hockney and Hirst both have angles on theology, so do Eastenders and Emmerdale. We ignore these undercurrents at our peril!

I want to say yes to the wider application of artistic practice – everyone has creative talent.
This understanding makes art person-centred, and deeply reflective of creative ways of thinking, which is God-given. BUT, yes also to narrower application for artists with specific gifts. Art as a profession – Bezalel example. Cultural commentators who produce work for others – artists need appreciators!

Os Guinness in Fit Bodies Fat Minds:
Christian artists are ‘the least understood and most alienated single group of people in evangelical churches’.

A Monet tribute – happy birthday Steve!

The original image
Starting point (as commissioned by my brother): A reflection piece, has to be portrait format, incorporating ‘upside-down-ness’ and water’s reflections. This photograph was taken at Monet’s waterlily pond at Giverny, in 2008 on a family holiday. The day was sunny with a few clouds, my camera was a Nikon D50. We had some fun trying to recreate a family photograph taken in 1989 (?) of my dad, my brother and I standing with the pond and a bit of willow tree in the background. This is important because it’s like our shadow on the scene, and also like the one existing photograph of Monet’s shadow on the pond’s surface: time’s slippage becomes a surface slippage.

First attempt
This is a segment of the original photograph cropped and turned upside-down. I used feathered selections to highlight an over-sharpening of the lower section of willow reflection, and a surface-blurring of the lily area. This section also upped the cyan/blue balance, which had the effect of ‘dissolving’ both the edges and colour of the lilies – notice the white flower is completely camouflaged.

Changing horizons
I wasn’t happy with the proportion of horizons in the previous image, nor the gradient of space suggested by sky/lily/willow. So here I’ve extended the segment of the original photograph, to get a greater profile of dark to light on a vertical axis. The lilies weren’t working to produce the effect of surface ambiguity that I was after either, so I attempted a small visual trick in cloning the flower and turning it the right way up. It’s a small, interesting interruption to the plane of view, but hasn’t enough resonance to carry the whole piece.

Enter another image
On paper, I thought the previous image was finished, and took it to the printers. However, I got it back, and realised the surface blur in the central section had taken out too much detail in the lilypads, and left a strangely unreal matt effect with the odd black grain. It’s a lesson I always forget to learn – filters in Photoshop usually aren’t a good thing. Thankfully, the printers had made a mistake in the format, so I had the chance for a reprint, and took this as a second start. How to salvage a not-quite-popping middle ground? Get another image in. This one is another upside-down segment from Monet’s pond – this time with lily pads in sharp relief and some detail in the depth of the water, with nice trails of grass, bubbles and weed.

Image merger
Having added a vignette effect to the previous image, and upping the cyan/blue balance, I carried it into the original segment and overlaid it with a slight transparency. This time, the surface blur filter on the second layer worked a bit better, working to effect the sense of something seen blurred by water – much more subtle and working only on the details. I also flipped the original segment to fit the pattern of lilies in the second layer, adding another ‘tier’ of willow to raise the proportion of colour, since the lilies had become much more invisible. The metallic glint in the bottom right was a happy effect, though the transition from willow to lily above this hasn’t quite worked.

Tenom I
The final image – here I’ve flipped the whole image again, feeling that the proportions suited a heavier left edge. I also increased the visibility of the lilies in the top half of the image by soft-erasing the layer of the second image. Doing this with a sharp-edged brush on the lower-section lilies that have a striking shadow or underside was also effective. I hadn’t wanted to lose these dark-looking saucer shapes, as they add to the abstraction, and the erasing also helped to pick out a green tint that balances the movement from blue to yellow. I particularly like these, and also the sparkle of the floating details, which I brightened. From a distance, they look like they could be stars in the sky.

This is the start of a new series of pieces using photographs from Monet’s garden. His waterlily paintings are justly famous – he knew about mesmerising worlds, about shimmering colour spectrums, about serene consistency and abstract intangibility. I wish he had taken more photographs.