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.

David Mach ‘Precious Light’ review

Noah and the Ark II

David Mach’s exhibition (30 July – 16 October 2011, City Art Centre, Edinburgh) brings together a multitude of work on biblical themes, timed as it is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James translation. There are over 40 pieces, of which 5 are sculptures and the remainder are predominantly large-scale photographic collages. The former occupy perhaps a more prescribed space for Christian reference, in the crucifixions and caricatures of Jesus and the devil, even though the materials (coat-hangers and matches) may diverge from familiar forms. The latter are infinitely more interesting for representing biblical scenes with more reference to contemporary idiom than traditional painting type.

It’s true to say that textual knowledge of Bible stories is not a commonplace, and Mach deliberately ploughs his way into the mythical status occupied by such stories. For him, the fact that what people (including himself) know of the references is often half-known, as if a memory or association, is important for being contemporary. It’s part of the practice of being an artist today; the only way to sing in tune, as Jean Cocteau would say, is to sing from one’s own genealogical tree. So the approach that might assume sincerity as the only credible alternative to an ironic, cynical or critical use of biblical imagery in contemporary art is proved false by Mach. He isn’t detached from the stories, but neither is he a faith-filled believer using the stories to express his religion.

This middle ground is what Richard Holloway, in his introduction to the catalogue, equates with the ancient Greek’s use of ‘muthos’ to describe another way of understanding texts. It’s something like empathy and something like a relationship to meaning which asks not ‘true or false?’ but ‘dead or alive?’ It may not offer the didactic, reasoned lesson of much theological doctrine, but it does offer a way to connect with human religious thinking and feeling. In fact, it’s precisely this feeling that Mach wants to get at: ‘As this project has unfolded I have found my belief in spirit – in the human spirit – reinforced. I’m interested in people – I like them. My work is inhabited by thousands of them going about that very thing – being human.’ (p.15)

The humanity is what dominates in the collages – figures are part of multitudes featuring every age, colour, expression and dress imaginable, from the crowds around Noah’s ark (in all of the 5 versions) to ‘The Money Lenders’ outside the temple (Sagrada Familia). Even where the scene is more limited, for example ‘Jesus Walking on Water’ or ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’ such is the scale from a purely physical point of view (not far off life-size) that the viewer relates even more immediately to what is unfolding in front of them.

The question of engagement is an interesting one, since the ‘spectacle’ of the event might preserve or encourage a remote viewer, as if it were reportage or objective documentary – Mach has himself commented on this media-led view. However, he has also said that the Bible ‘supercharges’ the scenes, which leads to a heightening of the experience of drama. ‘The Last Judgement’ is a particularly engaging triptych, for reflecting a central view in the irises of two eyes shown on either side – even to the extent of suggesting, by allocating left portions of the image in the right eye and vice versa, that we the viewer stand in the same position of what the eyes are seeing. There’s a deliberate encouragement of identification, which perhaps asks too, where might you end up at The Last Judgement – in the chaos and fire, or pillow-fighting in white at the edges?

Also a predominant feature of the collages is the cornucopia effect of multitude and scale, where not just humanity, but the natural and the man-made world overflow like the detritus of materiality. ‘Adam and Eve’ are surrounded by a National Geographic collage which has all the lusciousness of a Damien Hirst spin painting, there are plagues of frogs and locusts, or towers of architecture and storms of confetti-like smoke or paint – in fact in ‘The Last Supper’, created by Mach and his studio team during the show, the pattern on the tablecloth takes off and swirls around the room, adding to the effect of the literally-peeling paint/paper. Mach has in the past worked sculpturally with this information-overload quality of printed media, and here uses it to almost painterly effect. It is like a visual reference to Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreal explosion of representation, and it raises interesting questions for Mach’s biblical subjects – could the hyperreal be read as the supernatural? Does the collapse of material things lead to a revelation of the unseen and the spiritual?

‘Precious Light’ is in the end a fitting title for the show, as are the references to revealed light (Luke 12:2-3 and Matthew 5:14-16) which open the exhibition’s catalogue: there is an uncovering here of biblical subjects and themes which normally hover in the shadows of churches or books rather than art galleries. What has become private isn’t deemed cool enough to be public (or perhaps commercial), and Mach initially found a reluctance on the part of gallery managers to host such work. ‘Cool is for w——‘, as Mach has said, preferring to underline the credibility of pathos in Christian stories and rituals rather than pandering to the approval of arts’ institutions. How refreshing.

David Mach ‘Precious Light’, London: Revolution Editions, 2011.
Jasper Rees ‘David Mach: Why I turned the Crucifixion into Coat Hangers’,
The Telegraph online, 11/01/11.
Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin ‘Not all religious art is made by believers’,
The Guardian online, 23/09/11.