A visual theology of the Kingdom

'Kingdom Series', 2015
‘Kingdom Series’, 2015

When I gave out 25 disposable cameras to the Trinity College community in the autumn of 2014, I had every thought that I’d need to work a pronounced visual transformation in the results. But the messy, humorous, half-in-half-out, blurred faces and limbs in fact turned out to be the corporeal truth of this place. There is certainly a spirituality here that is rarefied and abstract (in music, conversation or essays), but these pictures reveal an embodied spirituality that is shared in food, in play, in the overlapping of life and space. I like the symbolism too of the underexposed images – approximately half of all the photographs look like a dark fog, where the camera flash was either not used, or was ineffective. ‘Through a glass darkly’ is quite literal here at Trinity! See YouTube for a slideshow I’ve put together of some of the unmodified images.

As I spent time looking through the images, four themes emerged: the Kingdom is backwards, unseen, hungry and little.

The Kingdom is Hungry is a collage from the multitude of eating and drinking photographs that were taken – there were more of these than anything else. The Kingdom as a feast is a key image in the Gospels, and the party at Trinity College happens over every meal and every communion and every cup of tea. Even as the circular form suggests togetherness, the spiral moves outward and upside-down to include honoured guests. Needing physical sustenance is a key focus for spiritual life here. See here for more on the process of making this piece.

The Kingdom is Unseen shows the negative space of figures cut out from photographs. There are 5 groups of people whose ‘unseenness’ in the community was incredibly visible to me, who are found out in the Kingdom: (from left to right) The unborn who will come after us (there were 11 pregnancies amongst the community at the time), the quiet administrators, the leaders who have gone before us, those who didn’t want their photographs taken for this project, and the noisy caretakers. Jesus’ Kingdom made a big deal of those on the edges of society, and those who shrink from physical sight are nevertheless seen where they are.

The Kingdom is Little captures 4 children from Trinity College Day Nursery from above. In their littleness, ‘The Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ – they are central to a Kingdom community. To notice them, we need to physically look down and the perspective change of a view in plan (rather than a view in profile) is a reminder not of adult aloofness and control but of childish absorption and delight. Littleness can be everything.

The Kingdom is Backwards highlights the physical viewpoint of those photographs where people sit in lectures, in chapel or in churches on placement. When people listened to Jesus speaking, there must have been a similar view facing the backs of others. As much as Trinity is training leaders to be at the front, it is this view that remains unique to the Kingdom’s focus: to positions of humility with each other and to the Old Testament echoes of the back of God. It’s not the place where you can’t see. It’s the place where you can see.

Each theme in this Kingdom series includes a cut-out style (to bring single colour themes to prominence) and a small visual icon as a point of focus. There is a glass of wine, a crozier, toy fish and an altar cross. These icons are directional in that each piece stresses the physicality of looking – we move beyond the contemplation of symbol into the embodiment of symbol. These are symbols which move, are lifted up, are consumed or carried or played with. ‘Living like the Kingdom is near’ (Trinity’s new logo) has that abundance and holistic embrace of life.

In the belly of the whale


I like the moment when Jonah goes ‘off-grid’ in the belly of the whale – a sort of drowning that actually ends up being a complete transformation, because, of all places, God shows up. It’s a vivid story, which I’ve always loved because Jonah decided to go off-grid on his own terms in the first place. God didn’t teleport him back to land, but trounced his effort to remove himself with an even deeper dimension.

The piece shown here, Storm, was originally made in 2007, and was a commission for a naval officer. I’ve incorporated photographs of the sea in Cornwall, as well as screenshots from the TV series The Blue Planet (about to be shown on the BBC again – see here), and sketched details of snowflakes, spirographs and echoes of Hiroshige’s The Great Wave. Last year, a version of the piece was also used on the cover of Paul Hedley Jones’ book Job’s Way Through Pain: Karma, Cliches and Questions. Jonah, importantly, isn’t visible, but his journey is – from tempest to depth. Blue almost becomes the subject, and I mean to cloud its traditional meaning in Christian art as heaven, with something that’s about a kind of washing and sinking before any sense of cleansing and rising.

The laundry room here at Trinity is a fitting place for this piece. Why not find Jonah at the bottom of the building, submerged in water, spinning next to the washing machines? In College, as in spiritual life, so much happens that’s off-centre, away from the spotlight, where things are still dirty. If that’s where God shows up, I want my work to be there too.

Everyone’s in my camera club

Through the lens at Trinity College
Through the lens at Trinity College

Today I launched my residential project here at Trinity College. In the tradition of Kodak’s ‘You Press the Button, We Do the Rest!’, I have invited people to press some buttons, and in the spirit of Dave Gorman’s ‘Modern Life is Goodish’, I will later attempt to recover the found film and bring some kind of picture out of it.

This picture will, I hope, be reflective of what happens here at Trinity. I have distributed 25 disposable film cameras around the community, some in the hands of individuals and groups, others to be found in various places on site (the library, the dining room, the games room, the chapel). It’s a free-for-all invitation to join my camera club, so that people see them and don’t just think ‘Oh, that’s the crazy artist’s project’, but ‘This is my art project’. I want to pile-up the visual evidence of life here – the only rule is that pictures have to have people in them – and from that, perhaps to see where the word ‘kingdom’ starts to define this place, rather than ‘club’.

What, after all, does the kingdom of God look like? Jesus told parables when people asked him that question, and there’s a sense in which photographic collage tells a story in a similarly oblique but down-to-earth way, rather than idealising or spiritualising the real. I don’t know what will be parable-like about these photographs, but I do plan something collage-like at the end of it. And if this seems to be showing only an inward-facing College, I’ve also started a parallel project for a companion piece exploring the external-facing aspect: I have asked people to identify particular churches in their life, and along more conceptual lines, I’ll start working on a kind of map that explores a global spiritual topography linked to this community.

Here’s to happy snapping!

Artwork has entered the building

Narthex triptych in the reception of Trinity College
Narthex triptych in the reception of Trinity College

I’m thinking about the phrase ‘making an entrance’ – I think my artwork here in Trinity College’s reception is introducing itself quite quietly, but hopefully so as to point out the process and the means, rather than as a showy full-stop.

Trinity itself is, after all, about the process and the means. The showy full-stop is God, and I don’t think anyone here has the visual, doctrinal or textual monopoly on describing who He is. I do, however, want to raise the curtain on what happens to people here, to their perceptions and to the reframing nature of faith.

These pieces were made in 2011, and were included in a Bristol exhibition called ‘Walking Through the Veil’. They are about transition – visually, from negative image to positive image, from forest as flattened pattern to 3D space. But also mystically, from self-involved relating to the world to spacious inter-relating. It’s the resonance of a entrance-way, which in a church’s structure is called the narthex, where you turn round to find yourself in a different type of space. A space that reframes you, rather more than you do it.

Artist-in-Residence comes home

Trinity College 1977, with thanks to May Cropley
Trinity College 1977, with thanks to May Cropley

My first week as Artist-in-Residence at Trinity College, Bristol has passed in a flurry of grant applications, delivering books and studio, and finding the teaspoons. Getting to the post on time, clocking in with my PhD supervisor in Cheltenham, remembering that my long summer loans have expired on my books, talking to the tax-woman and forgetting to bring in that all-important accessory, the Church of England wall-calendar has left me dizzy. But all of that is circling the right space.

I’m looking at the Trinity College photo of 1977, in which I find my parents, Tom Gledhill and Serena Holroyd. In their late ’30s, they met here, and a year after this photo was taken, they married. Another year later and I was born in Bristol, which had become their UK base in the midst of inter-continental travels including Uganda, Nigeria, India, Malawi and Kenya. The hairs go up on the back of my neck with this photo. Initially because of the invisible relation happening between my parents, stretched across the space (which I’ve talked about before – in this case, mistakenly identifying them in the 1978 photo): my Dad is in the centre at the back, as if his is the crest on the lintel behind him, and my Mum is second from the far left, standing.

But there is more to this now that I’m here too, working. As I look, I see a geometry with my own personal triangulation of father, mother and me; and also now a geometry with people, building and environment. Though this is more a sedimentary layering than a triangulation: the people are the front line, the presenting face, the uniformity of purpose; the building is the constructed stage, the bearer of history and inscription; the environment is the wavering shimmering reflection in the windows of surrounding trees and sky. The picture turns a collective portrait scene into abstract strata – there is no side or back. But if the lack of depth or conversation is frustrating, it’s also the perfect backdrop for a new adventure. A new adventure into pictures and place. I like to think I might be a little bit like one of the group, a young man towards the top left, who resolutely turns his head to the side, avoiding the common gaze.