Bath Abbey’s Odyssey into art

Patrick Haines, 'Perennial', 2009
Patrick Haines, ‘Perennial’, 2009

On until 6th May, Bath Abbey is hosting 7 works by contemporary artists under the heading ‘Odyssey: A Long Journey in Which Many Things Happen’. 7 pieces, on paper, doesn’t quite seem to add up to an odyssey, but surprisingly, such is their thoughtful placement in and interconnection with the abbey’s spaces that it feels expansive in the flesh: an opportunity to soak up the resonances of carved or pictured forms in the multi-level languages of ancient and modern.

In fact, such close attention is paid to the siting of the works, that the dialogue between church and art becomes quite a lively one – which is unusual when the context for contemporary work is more often than not a white cube, resistant or even hostile to any community, let alone one with gargoyles and rood screens. So David Mach’s Jacob’s Ladder, 2010, has a conversation with the stained glass window above it showing the ranked descendants of Jesse (as well as the famous sculpted ladders outside at the west entrance), and Damien Hirst’s Saint Bartholomew Exquisite Pain, 2006, is in a chapel dedicated to the martyr St Alphege. If the text alongside the work were overlooked in raising such connections, visitors may well find conversation is literally generated by the vergers or other staff present, whose engagement is a delight.

What seems most rewarding of all, however, is the chance to quietly discover one’s own relation to the works and in this case, for me, the three pieces by Patrick Haines steal the show. Steal the soul might be a more apt phrase. Perennial, 2009 (above), is a 12-foot disconcertingly spindly sculpture of a giant hogweed. With its roots bracing against the bare floor, resisting earth-bound anchorage, it has all the menace of a triffid-like presence (warranted, in fact, by hogweed’s extreme toxicity in real life), until you notice the goldfinch curled and encrusted at its ground-level root ball. It has the red marking, as well as a thorn in its gold beak, a relic of and sacrifice with Christ’s death on the cross. It is so mute, so poignant, that on kneeling at the altar rail to get a closer look, one can’t help being drawn into its story, its passing. Similar smallness is felt in both Grounded, 2013 and Chapel Flight, 2013, where a dragonfly on a service book and a miniature skeletal chapel frame evoke something like an interior fragility. The poise of organic and creaturely life is given poetic and spiritual celebration in all these pieces.

The two remaining works by Koji Shiraya (After the Dream, 2013) and Tessa Farmer (Voyager, 2013) are physically more demonstrative. The former fills the Gethsemane Chapel with dented porcelain spheres, which tumble across steps and altar and the latter has installed a swan in flight in the Birde Chantry whose wing-tips fan out nearly edge-to-edge with the walls. Both have a rapidity and a flow, a sense of life briefly halted, though channelled by the space: Voyager in particular seethes with parasitic ants and other animals. Like Haines’ goldfinch however, the swan and the delicate butterfly wings impressed on its beak, stand out regardless of scale as stubborn symbols of loyalty and love – all the more so in their sacred settings.

Jacob’s Ladder – a view to look at art from

'Jacob's Ladder' by David Mach
'Jacob's Ladder' by David Mach
We all know that the image-saturated world we live in is invested with meaning – if seeing is believing, there’s a lot of faith circulating in 21st century culture, from high art to popular screen culture. But this believing is in a very obvious sense ‘religious-free’ – it’s not about the doctrine or creed of an explicit theology, but more about authentic experience and the perception of truth (small ‘t’). Spirituality is a good word for talking about it. This image is a focus for some of my ideas about the spiritual in art – David Mach’s ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ was part of his solo show in Edinburgh that I reviewed in October.

Spirituality here is found to be exaggerated in a dream state – Mach’s figures are not just sleeping, they are transported to an other-worldly state, they have a lack of grounding against the watery background. Jacob’s dream opens the door to a vertical dimension where encountering God means seeing his transcendence, and awe-inspiring ‘otherness’. The ladder or stairway becomes symbolic of the elements of religion that are about distance, the separation of man and God, of nature and the super-natural.

Art’s purpose has often been to point this out, even to volunteer itself as a medium for realizing (but not closing) this distance. So we have the long history of art that, by being self-effacing, ascribes to a morally superior mode of instruction in things religious. But the big story of modern art is that self-effacing can, ironically, only be an illusion, a pretence that covers up art’s limits and very specific materiality. The myth of this transcendent aspect of art is a bit like being showered with coins from above, and not waking up to their solid, even base, reality.

Three women in Mach’s image lie in a flurry of coins or diamonds, and a fourth in the stars peeling from the American flag on her shirt. It evokes Titian’s ‘Danaë with Eros’ (first of 5 of the same subject, 1544-46), where Zeus appears to Danae in the form of a shower of gold and seduces her. The women in Mach’s image are similarly posed – as if the transportative experience of the dream, or as I’m talking about, the spiritual in art, is ultimately about seduction and ecstasy.

The seduction is important, since the transcendent in art proved difficult to eliminate with modernism – even through the reclaiming of art for art’s sake, a greater holiness if you like, was found in the end of the image. From Kandinsky to Reinhardt, ever increasing abstraction only led to a greater sense of the mystical and the divine, increasingly removed from reality.

A rebuttal to this nihilism comes in the form of immanence, where the God who reveals himself to Jacob promises to be with him, to bless him with descendents and land. In the biblical text, the dream moves from a visionary state to an auditory promise. The Word permits a multiplication of signifiers in a horizontal plane – Jacob’s life expands with God’s presence. I take this to be the effect of the multiple figures and multiple ladders in Mach’s picture – the encounter ends up being a shared experience, and spirituality in art is peopled with others, with the everyday, with heterogeneity.

Magritte’s ‘Golconda’ (1953) exemplifies this – the wondrousness of an other-worldly encounter is still there, but by the expression of ordinary-ness taken to literally new heights. That which is mythical and transcendent is diminished to a discrete reference by the title (Golconde refers to a ruined city in India, famous for its legendary wealth) – Magritte of course being well-known for the subversive questions he brings to textual referencing.

Surrealism, of which he was part, opened the door on that which was repressed in modernism – the multiplicity of human desire, a fracturing of ideals, and the relocation of spiritual experience within the body. It’s the beginning of the post-modern story, where mystery in art is erased through the embracing of popular culture, and the linguistic appropriation of signs, from Pop Art to Brit Art.

What happens next is the big question. Does a plethora of verbal association in images allow for the spiritual in art, or is it forever to be coded in a sea of relative forms? Are Mach’s figures drowning or floating? Does the subjective state of dreaming remain locked in to the personal and individual, as suggested by the headphones and stethoscope of three of the figures? Not to mention the closed eyes.

In the Genesis account, Jacob wakes up and has an overwhelming experience of awe and humility. His life is completely reoriented on account of image and word effecting a reaction towards God. He also acts towards the material (by erecting the stone), which embodies the being-here and becoming-here of the divine. What might it mean if artists ‘wake up’ in the same way – wake up from the dream of ultimate transcendence and the dream of ultimate immanence in art? Is there the possibility of working towards God, and seeing the spiritual in the material? How can that not become just another ideal, even idolatry?

That’s what I want to explore, with my own work, some other contemporary artists (Viola, Hirst, etc.) and through the ideas of some theologians (Pattison, Begbie, etc).

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.