Following shoals to Birmingham

Gillian Wearing's 'A Real Birmingham Family' (2014) in front of the Library of Birmingham
Gillian Wearing’s ‘A Real Birmingham Family’ (2014) in front of the Library of Birmingham

After last week’s post on local events in Bristol, this week I went to the Library of Birmingham for GRAIN’s ‘The State of Photography’ Symposium. In marked contrast to last week, this event was, for me, a dip into the larger sphere of photography in this country and abroad – specifically photography as fine art. Neither photography as commercial business nor photography as hobby is, ultimately, the field for me. In some ways, I’m only just realising which hand I’ve been holding onto all this time, and it’s very much a sense of a bigger picture, which I now need to scope.

At this symposium, scoping involved listening to some extremely proficient experts in the fields of photography festivals, photography agency, photography critique as well as photography fine art practice. Respectively, this was Louise Clements, David Birkitt, Tim Clark and Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. I suppose I take interest in these fields in increasing order of enthusiasm: festivals are all well and good for those who can easily travel (thanks to time and cost availability) but are by no means a circuit open to me at the present time; agency is a bit of a photographer’s dream, but in this case involves a commitment to production and to a certain kind of commercial brief-fulfilling capability (which is a second-stage possibility); critique is definitely high on my agenda as a first-stage aim, since the communication and engagement it involves is such as to place my work centre-stage; which is ultimately afforded by the fine art practice platform of Broomberg and Chanarin.

Without this symposium, I might never have discovered their work – and suddenly the trajectory of this event takes a turn towards me that really sings. Because it boils down to the fact that my practice sits alongside my research – and THAT, really, is the job in hand. The PhD into photography and the Bible has just found another chapter’s focus in Broomberg & Chanarin’s ‘Holy Bible’, which reproduces a KJV with photographs and underlining. I await my signed copy, on order, and in the meantime, keep the percolating practice considerations at bay…

Seeing red with Paul Cummins

A Paul Cummins' poppy hits the dirt
A Paul Cummins’ poppy hits the dirt

It’s 2015. We’re thinking about the New Year. But this is my stake in the ground for the old year, for memory, for something inscribed in the winter ground of dirt and decay. Arriving in the post a couple of days ago, my poppy from Paul Cummins’ installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’.

Its simple singleness in my garden is somehow equivalent to my inadequate comprehension of 1st World War – I didn’t see the installation in the flesh, I don’t come anywhere close to understanding the trenches in the flesh, but I do know that, for me, this single poppy (a rose, in my daughter’s eyes) is both a point of connection to my great-Uncle’s death in the Second World War on the HMS Gloucester, and a symbol of the flourishing beauty embedded in the world.

In some ways, it’s only family that connects us to the past – through their heritage, their stories, their relationships. I’ve recently published my mother’s memoirs (Family: A Bridge For One World), and experienced the unexpected hostility from family for whom the memories did not reflect reality. I’ve felt at a loss over this. For my Mum, the truth and beauty embedded in the world as she has seen it and lived it is something to which she testifies. This is not the same as the facts and the sentimentality. In the same way, the 1st World War doesn’t connect through facts and sentimentality – though often that’s the ‘mediatized’ language – but through truth and beauty. This is the kind of art work I like, and remains the biggest challenge for the kind of photography I like. I’m so grateful to my Mum for being so full of integrity as to show me a glimpse of it. In many ways, the garden in which I’m planting my poppy, is hers.

Saying Christmas louder than words

Colour Nativity, by Sebastian Bergne, 2011
Colour Nativity, by Sebastian Bergne, 2011

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last month analysing the iconographic language of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron. Her photographs of Mary are undoubtedly tied to the realism of a posed, dressed up model who is trying to look like a biblical Mary. But the question I keep coming back to is how the ‘type’ continually resurfaces?

Photography makes the most of a real scene, real skin, real cloth, real symbols in front of the lens. And critics have said Cameron’s Marys are demonstrative of feminine domestic assertion within the constraints of Victorian society’s norms: her Mary lives in the 1800s. But I think there’s something more obvious than this which gets overlooked. Even with all that dressed up reality, her Mary is still iconographically pointing to the original Mary. Rather than an empowering of modern domestic woman, the pointing action of Cameron’s photography seems to look the other way: her model empowers and reveals the biblical figure of Mary.

There’s something irreducible about the iconography of Mary. Something that can be captured in the simple blue block of Sebastian Bergne’s Nativity above. Something that works at the level of a sign, which remains visual rather than word-based (see Emilie Voirin’s take on a nativity set). Is it the accrual of years of visual reference (conventional), or is it the way truth lives beyond language (ontological)? Is it a universal stripping down, or is it a fleshed out concept. One thing that photography generally does hang onto is a ‘fleshing out’ – that reality behind, within, around the iconography. Isn’t that an incarnational Christmas characteristic?

Seeing ‘The Heart of Things’

Paul Hobbs' 'The Gate' and (background) 'Ten Words'
Paul Hobbs’ ‘The Gate’ and (background) ‘Ten Words’

Prompted by Trinity College’s Quiet Day, on Wednesday I visited an exhibition of Paul Hobbs’ work in St John’s Northgate, Gloucester (The Heart of Things is on until 21st November). Together, the exhibition and the pilgrimage afforded a stretching of perception into something more contemplative, even passive – which is actually a significant part of the Christian tradition, and part of the training of church leaders that goes on here.

The strongest of Paul’s pieces work along conceptual lines which play with different aspects of this passivity and activity. In a work such as Ten Words (2012), consisting of wooden blocks with various colours and printed news stories, the interaction encouraged from the viewer is of direct engagement and physical involvement. One can construct or deconstruct both shapes and language (including the words of the Ten Commandments), one is relationally complicit. However, the nature of a puzzle is also one that asks the viewer to remain if not physically distant, at least mentally distant, so as to frame the purpose of the activity. In this case, the puzzle frames the question of reconciliation between God’s words and the journalists’ words, while yet excluding the viewer’s words. I am both outside and inside this piece.

Similarly, The Gate (1995) as a sculpture of a slightly-too-small garden gate, has a conceptual outside and inside which relates not to the geographical space around it but to the invitation to a passive or an active response. There is literally no fence to sit on, and the point beautifully (if uncomfortably) captures the invitation from Jesus to “enter through the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13), with all its sense of binary promise. Another striking piece, In Emergency Break Glass (1995), has a machete behind the glass frame we in the West associate with a cry for help or escape when in danger – our way out is here associated with the hand of violence and toxic fear (by way of reference to Rwandan and Kenyan conflict), which causes another uneasy relationship between passivity and activity.

Ultimately Paul’s work, as well as engaging mind and body in biblical or spiritual references (by way of allusive, creative suggestion in paintings, prints, collage and installation), has a deeper, more soulful engagement that’s something like grounding. It’s striking that the four central pieces in this exhibition (Ten Words, The Gate, Holy Ground and Attitudes) all bring attention to their place on the floor. It’s as if groundedness is the only possible starting point and ending point for the work – which turns out to be a great place for a quiet day.

The lenticular, the RA and me

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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.