Let the pulpit meet the pews

Methodist pulpit and pew
Methodist pulpit and pew

Back in February, I found myself applying for the gift of a Methodist pulpit, which was being offered to an artist(s) by The Fishermen’s Chapel in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. My proposal met was met with enthusiasm, and follows below. Since then, with thanks to Trinity College, I have also been given two Methodist pews from the recently closed Wesley College in Bristol, who will happily join forces with the pulpit to form an even more exciting art work and installation. Once they’ve arrived at my studio over the summer, they will undergo a period of hibernation before the ideas below start to emerge…

This pulpit is a powerful and striking symbol of God’s word. To me, the clean design and structure of the object (as compared to, for example, the ornate stone ‘thrones’ of many a parish church) is something that needs to be celebrated. It bears in its image the specific focus of Wesley’s pioneering preaching of the word, which kept things simple. It also has fantastic resonance with Wesley’s peripatetic ministry, for being mobile. These two aspects of simplicity and mobility are what I would like to concentrate on with my proposal.

I would like to install in the pointed architraves (and possibly the lectern top area) a sequence of photographs or lenticular prints, so that it becomes a pulpit with photographic panels. I am keen to keep the look clean and clear, maintaining the integrity of the existing shapes and outlines.

The content of these photographs will have a starting point in one of my existing pieces of work, The New Passage, 2012, which is formed from the composite arrangement of photographs taken of the Severn Estuary, from the point at which the Wesley brothers crossed to Wales (as commemorated by a plaque at the site). Linking the New Passage with the pulpit from the New Road Methodist Church is the incredible geographical correspondence for having a near equal latitude, and for both being sea-facing sites. An east/west dimension is complemented by a north-facing/south-facing estuary view. In this respect, I would plan to create a photographic record of the tide at Leigh-on-Sea from the Fishermen’s Chapel itself at the end of September, when the autumn equinox brings the complementary highest tide to spring’s equinox (which is when my Severn Estuary pictures were taken).

I would later work with these two bodies of images to create a story of transition which could be ‘read’ across the face of the pulpit. The unique feature of lenticulars, if funding permits the use of this medium again, is the ability to engender a movement from the viewer, and therefore an engagement, which seems to me to reflect the intended effect of preaching itself. Extending this idea, and that of Wesley’s travels, I would want the finished pulpit to complete its own journey from New Passage to New Road, finding suitable stopping points on the way for display and engagement with the public. One such point would surely include the New Room in Bristol (where I have shown work before), and I would hope that others could include outdoor venues.

I am extremely excited by the opportunity to work with and on this pulpit, not least because it is a real gift and expression of faith in creative endeavour.

Bible Society response

'Creation of Fish and Birds', Sue Symons.  Part of Bible Society's 2013 calendar, originals currently on show at Horizonfest, Sheffield.
‘Creation of Fish and Birds’, Sue Symons. Part of Bible Society’s 2013 calendar, originals currently on show at Horizonfest, Sheffield.

I’d like to acknowledge with thanks a reply received from Bible Society to my open letter posted a couple of weeks ago here. Matthew van Duyvenbode (Head of Campaigns, Advocacy and Media), gave considerable thought to my concerns, for which I am deeply grateful. An initial point of clarification was easily resolved with reference to the online terms and conditions – www.biblesociety.org.uk/calendar2014 – which I duly recognise as overlooked on my part.

These guidelines make it very clear that the calendar is not for purchase, but is simply as a thankyou project available for ongoing supporters of Bible Society’s work. Indeed, the project is ultimately made up of supporter’s own photographs and comments to share with one another, as a kind of community collaboration project, rather than a commissioning project and for-sale project.

I agree with you that there are a range of different ways in which people can be invited to engage with the biblical text. Indeed – there needs to be a range of entry points. I’m sure you would also recognise that a personal response to Scripture can often be deeply profound and theological. To assume that this project will result in sentimentalism is perhaps doing a disservice to the task of encouraging more and more Christians to engage with the Bible through the lens of the arts?

In addition to this point, I would also reiterate – as is mentioned in the further details – that the resulting calendar isn’t intended to stand alongside professional art in the broadest public spaces. You’re right that we do have a strong pedigree in this area – but that isn’t the intended focus of this particular project. Does this mean that we are embracing an amateurish approach? Certainly not! … For many Christians, the opportunity to think creatively about how the arts can help them think more deeply about the biblical text is a bold and exciting step. In running a competition like this, we aren’t ignoring our mission aims in the culture, but providing a stepping stone for some Christians to grow in their confidence in this area. Perhaps some might be so inspired as to begin to explore and support the arts more seriously – which, I’m sure you would agree, would be a fantastic outcome! … We believe that there is a space for laypeople to be involved in an accessible and unthreatening manner. I’m not sure I’d agree that this dilutes or cheapens the integrity of the Scriptures, but I would want to argue this fulfils our missional goal to offer ‘ways in’ to the Bible for everyone.

Open letter to Bible Society

Dear Bible Society

I’m writing this open letter to ask you to reconsider your approach to photography and the Bible, as suggested by the above poster. You ask for the public to send in photographs to enable you to produce a 2014 Scripture Calendar, with the aim of matching inspirational Bible verse to image. You offer something of a suggestion as to how this calendar will look with 3 examples, though you leave room for development with ‘actual design will vary’. You exclude any details of how the photographer will be credited, nor any terms of copyright, nor how and for how much the calendar will be distributed.

I am deeply concerned by various assumptions seemingly made by this advertisement. You are an organisation founded to promote the Bible, and your strength has always been your serious engagement with contemporary media and culture. Among other things, you spearhead pioneering work in raising the profile and quality of film-making that embraces biblical stories, you produced an outstanding calendar last year that demonstrated the skill and professionalism of textile art on the theme of creation, and you currently support myself and others with a studentship that encourages a greater and deeper engagement with education and academia (in my case, a PhD in photography and theology at the University of Gloucestershire).

Yet for this promotion, you are asking for the simplest level of media understanding, coupled with transparently personal interpretations of the Bible. Such expressions, more usually seen in powerpoint presentations in churches, or as devotional tokens in Christian bookshops, undoubtedly have their value and place – afterall, we all respond emotionally to images and text, and are all able to think creatively about such things. However, for your organisation, it demonstrates a worrying acceptance of sentimentality and amateurism in a public, media-savvy sphere which demands more from the message. Assuming the calendar is produced primarily to fit in with the mission aims of the society (and not for ‘in-house’ circulation only), this calendar will not stand up to the quality of your other work, will fail to honour the professions of photography and art, and will ultimately cheapen the integrity and depth of the Bible itself.

I would implore you to rethink your approach to this calendar, to the type of work you will look for and to the quality of its presentation. Do not assume the easy appropriation of photographs for a quick spiritual return.

Yours sincerely,
Sheona Beaumont

‘Seduced by Art’ at the National Gallery

Thomas Struth, 'National Gallery I, London 1989', 1989
Thomas Struth, ‘National Gallery I, London 1989’, 1989

On to the National Gallery’s Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, where the language of borrowed symbolism from art, or classical and biblical literature opens the door on a style which might be called iconic relating. Here, the influence of the fine art tradition is presented as the “engine for early photographic innovation, and both these precedents inspire present-day photography.”

One of the largest rooms in the genre-divided exhibition is entitled ‘Tableaux’, and features a selection of work identified by their reference to allegorical or narrative themes. Dominant on one wall is Thomas Struth’s National Gallery 1, London, 1989 (1989), which shows gallery goers scrutinizing an early 16th-century altarpiece: a painting of doubting Thomas by Cima da Conegliano, found upstairs in the gallery’s main collection. The zoned spaces of this picture-within-a-picture reveal how, as watching human figures, we invest belief in the physical inhabiting of our environment. The gallery visitors regard the scene with their backs facing us the viewers, and lean in towards it, echoing the figures of the disciples and Thomas himself. In addition, the plane of focus, seen more obviously in the print itself, is horizontal, and at the level of Jesus’ head. In a beautifully realized way, what might be a single trans-spatial line of unbroken, faith-filled sight becomes an embodied searching for the tangible body.

Such tangible bodies are found in Helen Chadwick’s work, particularly her One Flesh (1985), showing a red-cloaked visceral Madonna and Child with a collage of photocopied textures and skin. Seen in proximity to a similar subject represented by Julia Margaret Cameron (Light and Love, 1865), the capacity of photography to reflect the changing place of biblical and Christian iconography in art is apparent: on the one hand the endlessly reflexive mode of a self-conscious postmodernism borrows sign and symbol to cornucopian effect, while on the other, a Victorian sensibility claims an authoritative, if occasionally sentimental, shoring up of moral ideals. Cameron appears elsewhere in the exhibition, in the rooms dedicated to both ‘Portrait’ and ‘Figure’, yet the impact of her more conventional reference to human figure is slight in comparison – here pose and sensibility seem to be the trading cards with art of the past and photography of today (for example with G. F. Watts, and Craigie Horsfield).

Occasionally this linking and labelling of early and contemporary photography with art seems convoluted and tenuous: Jeff Wall is surely under-represented on inclusion of The Destroyed Room (1978, alongside a small copy of Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus) instead of the Tate’s A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) (1993). What does succeed overall, perhaps contrary to the lineage-thesis suggested by the curator, is an interdisciplinary examination of subject-treatment. One may well compare, for example, the digitally-constructed Arcadia of Beate Gütschow’s clean landscape LS#13 (2001), with Roger Fenton’s Paradise (1859), a view of an idyllic river scene in Lancashire. Visually, it is a subtle change that distinguishes the “stubborn lyricism” of the former, despite the inclusion of incidental printers’ marks at the edges of the image, from the “spiritual intent” of the latter. Fenton, master of multiple genres in his time (including the stereoscopic still life also seen in this exhibition), embraced a pictorial emphasis in such landscapes that reflected the ideal of the Romantic picturesque. This utopian dream cannot quite be expelled from Gütschow’s image, even as it is riddled with artificiality.

The powerful all-embracing lens of the camera, as so clearly defined in Ansel Adams’ work (see earlier post), turns out to be a distinctively imaginative image-maker. It can leave the trace of cultural turn in nuance or extraneous detail, just as much as it can wield forceful artistic rhetoric in elaborate construction and scene-setting tableaux. It is to be hoped that the spiritual and theological aspects of this capacity become more widely studied in visual culture academia, as a result of the increasing institutional platform offered by such exhibitions as these, for the enrichment of the many postmodern stories of photography.

Quotes from: Hope Kingsley, ‘Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present’ (London: National Gallery Co, 2012), p.9, 180; and Gordon Baldwin’s essay, “In Pursuit of Architecture,” in Sarah Greenough, ‘All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860’ (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2004), p.59.

Light From the Middle East

Tal Shochat ‘Pomegranate (Rimon)’, 2010

At the V&A, Light From the Middle East: New Photography is an Art Fund sponsored exhibition bringing together over 90 works from 30 artists, broadly representative of contemporary practice in the greater Middle Eastern area (including North Africa). Photographs range from black and white documentary coverage of conflict (including work from the Iran Diary series of the well-known Magnum member Abbas), to wry commentary on the incorporation of Western materialism by Islamic culture.

Less a critical engagement with familiar political and religious topics, than a conceptual arrangement of different approaches to image-making, the exhibition presents artists who “investigate the language and techniques of photography”. ‘Recording’, ‘Reframing’ and ‘Resisting’ are the titles given to the 3 rooms of the exhibition, within which artists explore such media-interventions as digital and paper collage, scratched or burned prints, and assemblage framing. The highly successful film of Jananne Al-Ani, Shadow Sites II (2011), builds a sequence of desert aerial photographs into a semblage of stealth-like movement with slow zooms and closely-aligned fades, accompanied by a soundtrack of background noise from both ground and air.

In some instances, the imagery seems too quick to connote, rather than denote, to borrow Roland Barthes’ terms. “At once invisible and active, clear and implicit,” connotation plunges the viewer into the ready assimilation of cultural codes: so we see, and immediately grasp, the visual cliché of Shadi Ghadirian’s series Qajar (1998), featuring Iranian portrait photography with traditionally-dressed sitters holding a soft-drinks can, or sitting alongside a mountain bike. Burqa-clad women show off their Louis Vuitton accessories in Hassan Hajjaj’s Jama Fna Angels (2000), and in a reference to Manet’s Olympia (1863), Raeda Saadeh’s self-portrait Who Will Make me Real? (2003) shows the artist in a similarly reclining pose, wrapped in Palestinian newspaper.

Where the photography becomes more interesting is in playing to the slow-burning strength of denotation: “the message without a code” that underwrites any rhetorical or artistic inflexion carried by the image. So the hyperreal clarity of Tal Shocat’s series of fruit tree studies (Persimmon (Afarseman), Pomegranate (Rimon) and Grapefruit (Eshkolit), 2010-11) reflect an absurdly unnatural state of perfected ripeness. Meticulously cleaned and separated against a black background, these naturally-growing trees thwart an Edenic lushness with their knowingly artificial and contrived image. Similarly subtle, Magnetism I and II by Ahmed Mater (2012) seem to depict pilgrims circling the Ka’ba in Mecca, but in fact show the close-up view of iron filings drawn to a cube-shaped magnet. Here, the technique of scale and tilt-shift effect (whether in camera or digitally produced) present an abstraction of scene that comments on the abstracted symbol of religious festival.

Noticeably, the absence of the human figure in these two examples perhaps lends photography a hand out of short-circuited documentary imagery. Depictions of a Sufi festival by Issa Touma (1995-2005) certainly bring us into the circle of Islamic practice that otherwise discourages representation of the human form, but here, as elsewhere in the exhibition, the images of crowds and worshippers remain the documented ‘other’. A more suggestive invitation to assess the incarnational and interdependent aspect of belief and faith comes in the series Light (2006) by Waheeda Malullah, who photographs herself lying next to simple white-tiled tombs in Bahrain. She comments on the Shi’i Muslim custom of seeking blessing by touching the tombs of revered people, occasionally with light-heartedness, and also more poignantly as in the image of her cruciform body with arms stretching across tombs on either side of her.

Such human presence is undoubtedly a key way in which a viewer finds in photography immediate context, if not close identification. The work of Ansel Adams (see last post), in marked contrast, is completely devoid of figures. We may well ask what type of photography may include the body, and maintain an open commentary, less attached to particular religious observance, on things felt or intuited (as well as seen), even to a spiritual degree.

Quotes from: the V&A website, accessed 21/12/12; Roland Barthes, “The Photographic Message” in Image Music Text (London: Fontana Press, 1977), p.17, 19.