Reading between the Bible lines in Tacita Dean’s desert

Tacita Dean, ‘Quarantania’, photogravure, 2018

It’s a commonplace to find photography and the Bible linked through particularly simple illustration: if you pick up any modern guide to the Bible, you’ll invariably find a book or website with photographs of the landscape of Palestine and Syria, or of its flora & fauna, or of archaeological remains. Occasionally an image might zone in on an object given particularly rich symbolic significance in the text, like a vine or a dove. Invariably, the context of the illustration delimits the use of the image, ‘this is what it says’ becomes a closed line of reference, each in collusion with the other. To me, there’s a redundancy and a poverty, linguistically, in this arrangement. Ok to establish some concretion of the Bible and world, but it doesn’t reflect the elasticity of the text itself very well. MUCH more interesting to me is the impetus of an artist for whom the linking of photographs and biblical text is a chance to change the game, to ask questions that make the relation a more open question of reference.

This piece, Quarantania, by Tacita Dean is one such exploration. It’s by far my favourite in her London take-over this summer at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Academy. She has been given a landmark triptych of shows, all of which I visited in order to write a review for the forthcoming autumn issue of Art & Christianity. There’s a lot of work, and a lot of film, this being the medium for which she is most celebrated. She is at her best, in my opinion, when the landscape and the still life (two of the gallery themes) present opportunity to engage more widely across other media, other time-frames, other ideologically separate concepts (than that of self-conferring artist portraits). And one of these is the Bible. We find it as a premise for her film Antigone, an opening reference to the sojourn of the Israelites in the desert. We find it in the curated arrangements that include a painting of John the Baptist’s head, or a communion plate. We find it in some of her chalk drawings of the natural world. And we find it in Quarantania.

    

Mount Quarantania is found in the desert between Jericho and Jerusalem, and is also referred to as the Mount of Temptation. It is notionally the site where Jesus was tempted by the devil before he began his three-year ministry as recorded at the start of the synoptic gospels, in most detail in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Dean’s seven-panel work, each comprising 3 photo-mechanically printed sections, has a filmmaker’s sense of framing, even spooling, across what is a panoramic capturing of rockface and desert expanse. The lurid sky and seeping distant terrain have an apocalyptic oppression, and the only release of air seems to come from the dust of the chalk writing which scallops across parts of the scene. This breath, these whispers, are fragments of reading from/around the Bible. There are identifiers, ‘place of temptation’, ‘Satan’s Step’, ‘Judaen desert’. There are questions, ‘where are you JC?’, ‘alone?’. There are emphasised statements, ‘bread or SATISFACTION’, ‘hedonism, egoism and materialism, WEALTH’. Clustered around a scattering of pots in the fifth panel are the numbers 1 to 40, and the words ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’. Unlike a book illustration, where the texts pedagogically read the image, here the image seems to practise a reading of the text. And its ‘reading’ is like breathing, an organic reaction emerging from the cracks and fissures in the rock, not scripted around gridded lines of text. Conversation not proclamation. Hybridity not homogeneity. Imaged not written. In this sensitivity, something of an exploration is going on, in which Dean reaches for mythical/Scriptural attachment to place and uses it to inhabit her own engagement with the landscape and its representation. It is a theology of place no less, an interweaving/interleaving of Bible and world with self.

The perspective of pilgrimage at the Sony World Photography Awards

From Alys Tomlinson’s ‘Ex Voto’ series, at Somerset House, London, 2018
Overall winner and Photographer of the Year at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards is Alys Tomlinson for her series Ex-Voto. A British winner for the first time in ten years, Tomlinson presents a series of black and white photographs across the genres of portrait, landscape, and still life exploring the geography and legacies of particular European pilgrimage sites. In Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland), and Grabarka (Poland), a distillation of details with carved crosses in rocks, suspended animation in forest clearings, and quietly direct faces form a study in contemplation that reaches for depth in faith and history.

It is a superlative achievement, rendered with a poise and sincerity that seemed to eclipse the noisy exuberance of other entries. Tomlinson entered in the category for professional photographers called ‘Discovery’, new this year to the competition. It appears to tap a vein of invested story-telling, something that goes beyond the documentary, externalised interest of other places and people. Also shortlisted in this category was the series Els Enfarinat by Antonio Gibotta, in which scenes of ‘the Floured’s War’ are shown taking place in Ibi, Spain every December – a flamboyant festival of smoke, fireworks, and enacted combat with reverberations in the biblical festival of the Day of the Innocents. Both Gibotta’s work and Tomlinson’s reveal ‘discoveries’ that suggest an internalised interest, a connection of world with something soulfully and historically meaningful. In this case, perhaps surprisingly, it is also Christian. Here an observant photography, far from being blind to cultural politicisation of the visual field, or blind to the global, diversifying, colour of the contemporary environment can also see the Bible, the horizon of Christian faith, and the sincerely held habits of belief in European traditions. Further, it can do so without suspicion, without irony, and with a lens porous to the visual meaningfulness of spiritual observance.

Nun, 1921 by August Sander.
Tomlinson herself feels the attraction of simple faith, though she does not share it. Her time at the pilgrimage sites grew out of a residency at Lourdes at the Marie Saint-Frai in 2014. Her long-term project there had spanned her studies for an MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism, and Pilgrimage (SOAS), during which time she continued in documentary and editorial photography. But it was the contrary impetus of a world defined by ‘the peace and the space that people carve out to just sit and think’, as she has said in interview, that drew her attention. In this sense, Tomlinson’s recognition of faith is registered in images that seem to concentrate slowed time and intentionality. Her own perspective shifts in what is immersive sympathy with, and not simply conceptual accommodation of an ‘other’ community. The views in the photographs imply her own viewing directness, the near-tactility of objects, and the self-positioning of her gaze – not to mention the aesthetic of black-and-white across different focal zones. There’s a hum to the series as a whole that resists any suggestion of artful distance, instead resonating with the personal effects of a certain kind of reflective action. The portrait above bears comparison, for example, to an August Sander portrait from 1921. The frontal pose and the framing of the figure against a blurred background give the same nominal setting for the same subject, but Sander keeps the societal difference and the signs of his classification in view (as evidenced in his 1929 publication Face of Our Time), whereas Tomlinson renders at life-size an immediacy and vulnerability of person. Across her series indeed, we find this attentive and searching gaze, reflected and held in a vision that is at once photographic and spiritual.

Julia Margaret Cameron’s island outpost

Dimbola Lodge on the Isle of Wight

2 weeks’ holiday on Hayling Island in April afforded me the first opportunity to go and visit Julia Margaret Cameron’s home on the Isle of Wight. Named Dimbola Lodge after Dimbula in Sri Lanka, where her husband’s business in tea and coffee plantations had taken her in the 1840s, Dimbola was her family home from 1860-1875. By all accounts, the home became her abundantly creative domain for family and photography, and it was here that she turned her chicken house into a studio for her wet plate processing (not preserved today at the site) – a time-consuming and dextrous version of photography, in which the tasks of arranging and sitting her subjects for portraiture were further extended by glass plate developing and then positive print production. In the 1860s especially, she devoted herself to this work, saying to a would-be reviewer,

I work with more zeal and rapidity than can be supposed, and this I can illustrate to you when I tell you that I took last week 35 life-sized Portraits and printed 62 in 5 days time and I work without any assistance printing my own prints – varnishing my own glasses – continuing till 2am & recommencing at 7am.
[“A letter by Julia Margaret Cameron”, Graham Smith and Mike Weaver, History of Photography 27:1 (2003), p.66]

Display of the ‘Freshwater Circle’
Visiting it today, and indeed with the label ‘museum’, I found it hard to recover the vitality and energy of her story in this place. The building is somewhat tired in places, accommodating enough for tourist pilgrims needing a tea-room stop but somehow missing the dynamism of, say, Lacock Abbey as Fox Talbot’s home. Of course it is much smaller – a gentleman with a country seat (and the National Trust’s later patronage) is not the same as a society lady married into a shrinking colonial business. I found myself asking whether this effect of geographical and historical ‘outposting’ is something to do with the way UK heritage is set up to receive and commend the efforts of patriarchal success, but not matriarchal success. The museum has some wonderful prints to show, but it also gives us Cameron’s bedroom in a flurry of Victorianised domesticity with inordinate attention to furnishings (which are also proudly announced as speculative), while in the same breath elevating a roll call of those more esteemed figures with whom she was associated.

It is the creep again of the fine art vaunting of Cameron, to which I am giving more attention elsewhere, that relocates her work within a high modernist intellectual tradition – something that isolates her vision in black and white austerity and certain emulative acceptability (usually to do with male subjects as themselves, and female subjects as models). In a way, this develops reasonably enough on a body of work that doesn’t lend itself to mundane identifications of place and situation – her studio photographs (which form ninety-nine percent of her output) deliberately play to her ideals of truth and beauty, with minimised background setting, close-up framing, and painterly compositions. The strands of this more serious discourse around her tend to eclipse the possibility of finding something different about her at Dimbola. I would love to see a family tableaux vivant recreated, or her effusive letters (written at about the same pace as her print production), but the museum would rather show cabinets of old cameras. I would love to get a sense of her church life, her neighbourly interaction, whether she went to ‘take the air’ down on the beach, but instead we get a ponderous voiceover that retells what every photo-history resource repeats about her (the amateurism of her soft focus and its reception). My kids loved the dressing up room, and I wonder if they too were reaching for a recreation of JMC’s spirit here – her dressing up went beyond play, into the sincerity of assuming Christian identification with figures such as Mary and the angel at the tomb. There must be other ways to highlight this, to bring a rich, resonant, feminine, spiritual credibility to light. I think the floor is open for something new here, but it remains to be seen at Dimbola.

Screening salvation: the National Gallery and YouTube


Along with the last two blog posts, I’ve found myself following a focus on digital technologies for engaging with art: Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds at Lacock Abbey, the Alight app for Chichester and its Cathedral, and today the seven-part YouTube series The Audacity of Christian Art by Dr. ChloĆ« Reddaway for the National Gallery, London. The National Gallery’s landmark exhibition Seeing Salvation in 2000 was also accompanied by a screening, on that occasion with the then director Neil MacGregor presenting four episodes for the BBC. Both then and now, with YouTube’s more bite-sized packaging of reflections on art with biblical subject-matter, the National Gallery have gently prompted the theological discourse behind so much of their collection to emerge centre-stage. More precisely, one third of the artworks in the collection have this Christian ‘agenda’, and it is indeed a mark of renewed interpretative urgency that Reddaway’s position as the Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Curator in Art and Religion assumes this online platform for its extended discussion.

But there are characteristics of this twenty-first century ‘screening of salvation’ that would benefit from more critical understandings. Visual culture’s tendencies of highly packaged information for quick and immediate consumption tends to erode the possibilities for the ‘slow burn’ effect of images viewed over long periods of time, in person. Photographic technology in the films that cuts between head shots of Reddaway, and manifold variation of zoomed, zooming, cropped, angled, wide-angled, out-of-focus and distanced framings of the images employs a language of hybridity and mobility – the better to engage our interest in a two-dimensional object, but which also effects a kind of perceptual distraction and distance. Also, from an art historical perspective, The National Gallery trades on its formal framework of institutional repository for Art. Its remit for engagement is constituted by the rational and cognitive discourses of intellectual enquiry, in which unfortunately the relation of image to theology is treated more-often-than-not as thematically reducible, immersively sterile, and quaintly historical. Despite Reddaway’s best efforts (and elsewhere, she has written on the importance of precisely countering such art historical treatment with a revitalising of contemporary theological situation), her iconographic focus puts biblical meaning in the past, and theology becomes a relic, because that’s where its recovery is concentrated. At times, it is occasionally enlivened with delightful intrigue and questions which resonate with our looking today – of snails on the edge of a painting and shadows on the sky behind a bower of fruit (The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian, 1491, from Episode 3; and The Vision of the Blessed Gabriele, c.1489, from Episode 7; both paintings by Carlo Crivelli) – but the dialogue of hermeneutical exchange nevertheless retains its overall ‘pastness’.

Now here’s the thing: these visual culture / art history platforms aren’t necessarily negative for theology and the arts, but it depends where you put the theology. It would be ungenerous of me to suggest that the National Gallery is operating to consciously exclude contemporary theological horizon by a focus on its symbolic construction in the past. Neil MacGregor continues to broadcast about religious culture precisely to enliven our sense of the enduring and ‘relevant’ human quest for meaning (in his BBC Radio 4 series recently on the British Museum’s Living with Gods exhibition). And it would also be a red herring to critique contemporary technological engagement for its erosion of certain contemplative practices and contexts for theology in such art, however much such engagement has and is undoubtedly changing the field. Let’s say, for the moment, that theology might be better situated in the socially-minded, relational and hermeneutical spaces of viewer interaction and interpretation today. Instead of its recovery, let’s talk about about its return. With those across visual culture studies and art history now discussing it in such terms, I find theology now to be an increasingly ‘live’ issue. In post-9/11 culture, it may well be fragmented, international, diffused, but it is no less potent in its migrating forms – when Bibles and pilgrimages are apps, when Stations of the Cross are city-wide and trans-religious, when churches are art galleries, when vicars are cultural commentators, and above all, when art practitioners are referencing religion, we need theology’s resurrected vocabulary to percolate image criticism with the decentered, deconstructed sympathies it already has. More on that, another time…

Landing in Lacock

Lacock Abbey 2003 and 2015
Lacock Abbey 2003 and 2015

As I write my 100th blog post, it seems a fitting time to pause for reflection on my directions past, present and future. This summer I moved with my husband and two children to the village of Lacock, Wiltshire. I leave behind 20 years of living in Bristol, of which nearly 15 have been spent with part-time artistic practice. In the great migrations of my life, this is the third, and feels far more a move towards settlement and consolidation, since the first period (in Africa) was largely shaped by the missionary appointments of my parents, and the second period included my university placements in Canterbury and Nottingham. In biblical terms, I’ve moved from ancestral home to slavery at the hands of empire to… is it the promised land?

In the spring of 2003, I visited Lacock Abbey with Adam, 2 years before we married and a few months before I decided on further masters study in Visual Culture at Nottingham. I like this earlier photograph, I stand on the cusp of something, my hopes of intellectual stance forming a kind of waiting. I am resolutely facing east, with the famous abbey behind me and its primordial window. At the time, I was certainly aware of Talbot’s photographic legacy in this place but could have had no sense of its spiritual and geographical centering that has now come home to me. It does feel like a ‘coming home’ to something. As if the efforts of horizontal achievement in exhibitions, competitions, residencies has somehow to stop, and stay still, and be grounded for some serious vertical development. I am asking questions about what this entails, about my position here, and my husband’s related call to Christian ministry in this place.

Among other things, the promised land demanded reliance and trust in God’s provision of rain and pasture for the Israelites’ settlement. Yes it was to flow with milk and honey, and was deeply rich in goodness, but it was no site for empire-building projects, self-irrigation, impregnable city fortifications and monarchical authoritarianism. Israel remained small either side of Egyptian and Assyrian/Babylonian might, and her constitution ensured a community-wide model of dependence. Isaiah calls Israel God’s ‘heritage’ (19:25) – and the concept is deeply woven with the history of God’s tending and care of his vine/bride. Egypt and Assyria are called God’s people and the work of his hands respectively. There’s a backward and a forward glance in these terms, looking west and east, which at the very least suggests Israel’s orientation is locked into both vertical and horizontal dimensions.

What do I mean in the here and now? Something like going-to-ground, being geographically single and observing photography’s roots here and in me. My blogging will be less frequent, and my practice is working out the theme of Sabbath rest, as am I.