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.

The Kingdom behind the scenes

A before-and-after of 'The Kingdom is Hungry' for Trinity College
A before-and-after of ‘The Kingdom is Hungry’ for Trinity College

This week at Trinity I unveiled my recent work of 4 pieces reflecting the College’s theme of ‘Live like the Kingdom is near’. My Kingdom series were the result of 25 disposable cameras which I had let loose amongst community groups such as the part-time students, the support staff and the College nursery, along with individuals, and a few left around on campus. The resulting 500 photographs were extremely ‘lo-fi’ and informal: grainy, often dark, with people both unposed and full of expression for the camera (including many a selfie!).

From such a gift of material, my (self-imposed) brief was to distill the results into artwork that drew out kingdom identity in this place, as well as being sympathetic to the new colour scheme incorporated into the College’s branding. As I spent time looking through the images, four themes emerged: the Kingdom is backwards, unseen, hungry and little. The set will come online soon, but for now, I thought I’d share the before-and-after of The Kingdom is Hungry, which was by far the hardest one to come together. There is something mysterious in the outworking of concept in/with photographic material, and I find the process entirely unpredictable – sudden revelations about connections happen when you’re not thinking about it (often in the middle of the night), but sometimes a piece needs gritty persistence with Photoshop’s tools. This one needed grittiness.

Photographs of people eating and drinking made up the majority of images in the camera project. But to digitally cut out food, hands, cutlery, arms half-lifted to faces doesn’t result in an easy composition of multiple images. In my early attempt here on the left, neither the centralising table framework, nor the conceptual framework of eating the Word really work to bring coherence – and I tried this with various technical ways of cutting out, selecting and layering portions of images. To provide the much-needed context to anchor the elements in this picture-making, I ended up by cutting out according to a planned circular composition, rather than around the outline of the subjects (hands), since this included just enough of the physical setting without making identifiable people as the subject.

The Kingdom is Hungry centres on a Christmas meal, with a particular visual hinge in the upside-down/right-way-up line to disband too much circular absorption. 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, and this has particularly been the case for me when working alone in my studio and then chatting to others over lunch or a cuppa. There is certainly a spirituality at College that is rarefied and abstract (in music, conversation or essays), but the photographs reveal an embodied corporeal spirituality that is shared in food and drink. In line with an aim to include iconographic reference in each image in this series, I found the glass of wine here to be a visual key in holding it all together.

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!