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.

Visual Theology I: Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine

Sara Mark’s Lavant at The Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester

Visual Theology Conference Report
19th-20th October 2018
The Bishop’s Palace, Chichester; The Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester; in association with the Diocese of Chichester

Our two-day conference explored ‘Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine (1850-Now)’. Together with Madeleine Emerald Thiele, we put on a programme of 17 papers from open submission, 2 keynotes, 1 roundtable, and 2 installations/performances of art work. Our presenters delivered to an extremely high standard, reflecting the high calibre of their specialist knowledge and insight, amongst whom were represented leading academics in Art History and Theology, church leaders from the Anglican, Baptist, and Catholic traditions, and award-winning artists. The presentations and panels covered a range of subjects, including (for the full programme, see here):

• The Visually Discursive Bible
• A Theology of Installation with Maciej Urbanek
• Contemporary Visual Theology in Performance and Participation (including an artist-in-residence programme at St James’ Weybridge, sound/dance performance at St Paul’s Cathedral, and the community engagement through Beyond in Brighton)
• Institutional and European Commissioning
• Transformative Listening to the Biblical Image (keynote 1, Professor John Harvey)
• Sacred Symbolism as Discursive Theology
• Inherited Visual Theologies and Cultural Cross-Currents
• Pre-Raphaelite Theologies and the Victorian Imagination
• Contemporary Art in Dialogue with Medieval Cathedrals (keynote 2, Revd Dr Ayla Lepine)

Hosted at the Bishop’s Palace, with a conference dinner at the Chapel of the Ascension (Bishop Otter Campus, University of Chichester), and including a tour of Chichester Cathedral’s artworks, we put considerable thought and planning into a level of ‘added value’ to the event. This included the performance of Sara Mark’s piece ‘LAVANT’ with Compline after the conference dinner, the invitation to Prof Gill Clarke to talk about the Otter Collection in situ, the recognition of the Alight app for Chichester Cathedral, and the installation of my own work Scriptorium in the Bishop’s Chapel (which also hosted Sara’s shroud by the end of the conference). The visually rich, printed programme also served to highlight the range and multi-disciplinarity of the conference (available to buy here), as well as our significant online presence both through our website (www.visualtheology.org.uk) and on Twitter (@Visual_Theology).

We feel these two aspects of the conference – the strength of the paper presentations (which communicated across their panels, as well as being individually outstanding), and the specific engagement with the settings – were key in contributing to an extremely successful event. Included in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have had were a number of comments that convey the sense of grace and generosity felt by those attending. This has been truly humbling, and beyond what we expected. Also on this level, 5 local hosts put up some of our long-distance guests (including a very generous response from St Pancras, Chichester), which was deeply appreciated. We had a total of 70 people attending, with a fair mix of clergy, artists, and academics. Of these, 61 attended the first day, 45 the second day, with 37 attending the conference dinner. We also had an equal proportion of women/men (both presenting and attending), and a range of ages from students to those in retirement.

We remain extremely grateful to the Bishop Otter Trust for underwriting what has been an intellectually, spiritually, and socially engaged event. Visual Theology will go on to deepen and develop these relationships with future events, as a formal entity between myself and Madeleine. We have a vision for that which we felt blossoming at Chichester, for the generosity of collective conversations that can happen between church leaders, academic researchers, and artists. It is in no small part down to the original vision of Bishop Otter himself that we have felt able to take this step.

Feminist photo lines at the Pallant House Gallery

Room 10 at the Pallant House Gallery’s ‘Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Artworks’.

The Pallant House Gallery is showing the touring exhibition Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Artworks, until 16th September (previously at the Tate St Ives, and continuing to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2nd October – 9th December). The display of over 80 female artists, from 1854 to the present day, nominally explores the inspiration of Woolf’s writings through artists who work across a variety of media, from film to photography, from painting to collage, from installation to sculpture. The mix presents a record of ‘the vast scope of the female experience’ and a scoping of ‘alternative ways for women to be’ (from the press release). Let’s own a bit of my own limited female experience here, by acknowledging from the outset that I know nothing about Virginia Woolf and have never read her work. I will be blogging again about her later this year, in a spirit of reckoning with those texts as they might relate to her family’s positioning on the Bible, especially in the light of her sister Vanessa Bell’s involvement with the Berwick Church murals in Sussex (and her photography for the same). That presents a more specific opportunity to relate the artistic-literary impulses of the Bloomsbury set to Christianity and the Bible, which does not run in the currents of this exhibition. Instead here, I found myself sifting lines of feminist art practice not from Woolf outwards, but across modernism and across photography and across the exhibition’s four themes of landscape, still life/the home, the self in public, and the self in private.

I confess myself disappointed in the shrinking of ‘the vast scope of the female experience’ to these themes. Where are the rooms themed ‘God’, ‘war’, or ‘technology’? When the exhibition does introduce a perspective of engagement that steps outside the framed exhibits, as with France-lise McGurn’s multi-coloured meandering lines painted across the walls of Room 10 (above), or with Eleanor Smith’s Shrimp Shell wallpaper-like embellishments for Room 13, these remain confined by a decorative, essentially harmless, tone for what is the more serious business of a serious story. And that in turn is failed by dislocated glimpses into whole lives of intentionality reduced to labelled observations of female bodies, vases, or fields. It is perhaps unfair to expect deeper, more rigorous, explorations of the female mind in such an eclectic and ranging collection of works, but the effect for me was to suggest that female experience aligns with precisely these qualities of eclecticism and reductive scatter-brained attention.

Eileen Agar, ‘Ladybird’, 1936; gelatine silver print and guache
Penny Slinger, ‘Perspective’, 1970-7; photo collage

I did think, however, that photography was well-represented. In that sense, an ownership of medium presented itself through particular female artists where I hadn’t seen it before – to me, the ownership of the camera/photograph, as opposed to the ownership of painting still-life, or the ownership of minimalist sculpture practices, or the ownership of the pen, is already a very different feminist exercise. The 1920s and 1930s saw Claude Cahun pre-date Cindy Sherman with self-portraiture as a constructed get-up of identity, while Eileen Agar and Edith Rimmington take the collaged image into surrealism and the unconscious. They hustle themselves through younger conventions of the medium’s transparency, a transparency hitched to self-representation and the document and less to the objecthood of the subject. I like Agar’s dancing ‘feminine type of imagination’ (her words), and Cahun’s Judith or Salomé (not in the exhibition) become a biblical look-in before Sherman’s series of the same. A later cluster of 1970s work introduced me to Penny Slinger, Hannah Wilke, and Birgit Jürgenssen. Slinger’s series of collages over seven years, titled ‘An Exorcism’, evoke a force of emancipation that can only be expressed through pseudo-spiritual terms of release from ‘spirits of the past and other people’s ideas of them’.

Is it a mark of the museum/gallery curator practices (or funding directives) that the threads of emphasised significance, the statements about this or that art work, have to express historic value over and above other values? I felt a tension in the exhibition between historic female artists held up as exemplary for their positions in a story of emancipation, and between the contemporary female artists held up as exemplary by association with that story. The former are somehow confirmed, the latter remain unconfirmed by history, yet are pressed into that line. The former includes the small self-portrait by Louise Jopling (1877, in the gold frame, top image), a founder of a painting school for women in the nineteenth century, while the latter includes Zanele Muholi’s photographic self-portrait Bona, Charlottesville (2015, top image, right). It’s not that I think contemporary work can’t be important for history – of course it can and will be. Rather, to stress the activist, political thread here in these stridently progressive terms (Muholi brings her South African identity to questions of gender, racism, and homicide) is actually a limiting operation for what I think is the present-tense meaning of art made now, particularly photography. Recent photography categorically resists historical significance: it is life in front of us. And there is an ‘us’, into which its mode of meaning plays – not the ‘them’ of history. To speak to, or with, an ‘us’ is ideologically miles apart from the posture of ‘them’. For every expanding photographic gaze on different corners and perspectives of our world, the inscribing frame is one of collective and continuity (even if speaking of difference within it, as with Muholi). The viewing implications are of responsibility rather than influence, of a horizontal relation of humanity rather than a vertical one of intellectual patterning. As I said of another collective exhibition ‘Tribe’ earlier this year, 21st-century feminism is, I think, ‘less about feminist politicisation, more about feminine vocalisation’. We need to recognise this interactivity in the viewing and making of art in this space, and photography puts us there, centre frame.

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.