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.

Because it’s all about the space, ’bout the space…

'Lenten Spring' installation begins
‘Lenten Spring’ installation begins

This week, as Lent begins, I’ve taken down my visiting See from the college chapel, along with other pictures in there, to bring our habitation of the space into the foreground. Taking things down, and presenting a ‘visual silence’ (thanks, David Baker!) is different to the tradition of veiling icons or statuary in churches during Lent. There, the symbolism stems from a contemplation of our separation from God, a re-enacting of the curtain that veiled the most holy place in the temple – in order to prepare the penitential soul before the dramatic unveiling and curtain-splitting of Easter. Here, I’m more interested in the awareness of how we move and inhabit the space holistically, rather than in the inside/outside symbolic dichotomy of space. There’s still us before God, but it’s pared down – literally flattened to a groundedness and simplicity of relating.

The intention behind this is to raise awareness of the primacy of relating to the chapel space with our bodies – over and above relating to the space with our intellectual assent and engagement. Spiritual life has this plane, and because we’re British and in an educational establishment, we often forget it. But my noticing of college life, of the outworking dimensions of worship and study, is its ‘3D-ness’ : the sensory aspects of eating, walking, talking, singing, sitting, standing. To be spiritual here is to be corporeally involved.

To highlight this, my latest work Lenten Spring, will gradually unfurl in the college corridor outside the canteen (see here for importance of corridor engagement). Currently empty, each day new growth will appear in a photographic sequence of bulbs growing, both at ground level and from above. At a later stage, 4 abstract pieces that celebrate biblical expressions of the elements will appear. Both sequence and stopping points, together with text, are hopefully catalysts for passing viewers to make their own connections and interpretations. Thinking and sense are thus paralleled over time and space to create a new experience which expands both. After the black and white, bring on the colour!

3 good reasons for hanging artwork in a corridor

The New Passage and The Parting of the Severn Sea at Trinity College
The New Passage and The Parting of the Severn Sea at Trinity College

1. Everyone’s going somewhere, so the work is given a chance to join in, and to be part of people’s journeys. This corridor is a central Trinity funnel: everyone passes through this space, from lectures to mealtimes to offices to common rooms. As such, the corridor is a special space for highlighting movement, transition, transformation, change. I’ve always felt this particular space is like a culvert – the stream of people passes in a tighter and more enclosed channel.

2. Corridors focus people’s sight lines on a horizontal plane and accentuate direction or end-points, so even though movement is emphasised, so is, paradoxically, the end of that line. At Trinity, people spend a significant amount of time asking questions about all the movement going on – about the point of the transitions and transformations. And it’s not just that there’s a metaphor in a physical corridor for spiritual change – it’s that geography really is spiritual, that people who come here and pass through here are working out their geography at bigger levels of parish placements and future directions.

3. What you lose in psychological framing and distance (‘Oh there’s an art work I’m looking at), you gain in holistic encounter (‘Something’s following me’). Here, my lenticular piece, The New Passage, does literally change as the viewer walks past – see here for the technique in its creation, when it was shown at the Royal Academy. Both my pieces show the tide changing in the Severn Estuary, and reference the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus – a life-changing crossing in so many ways. Corridors, ultimately, point up the multi-dimensional spaces in which transformation occurs by way of their limitations. That seems an apt reflection of God’s working too.

Building rockets with no fuel

maquette for '6 Days of Uncreation' (2012) with money rocket
maquette for ‘6 Days of Uncreation’ (2012) with money rocket

… and the cold water of rejection letters. In a week where I’ve heard that 5 applications for funding have met with negative responses, I have to lift the lid on this financial side of working. This year I’ve had 3 tremendous ‘successes’ in the form of a commission from Birth Rites with respect to One Born Every Minute, in inclusion in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and in my appointment as artist-in-residence here at Trinity College. Yet none has resulted in income. They remain my high points and they are in themselves hugely affirming, but they are costly.

In 6 out of the last 7 years I have declared a loss on my tax-return, because the material costs of producing art work largely outweigh any sales. There are so many factors: It’s exceptionally rare to find any job as an artist that pays for time, some will attempt to cover expenses, and often galleries will ask for a fee rather than give one. On top of the material costs, there are innumerable other time/financial aspects of my work: administration, scoping opportunities, making draft pieces, visiting exhibitions, insurance, travel, advertising, managing/updating my equipment, learning new skills. The debit column is a long one.

But then, like the calling to church ministry, this isn’t about fulfilling a specific job(s) and marking numbers in columns – it feels more like pursuing a vocation. The hand on my life impels me to make artwork even when there is no ‘job’. I can’t not do it. And I am HEART AND SOUL in it for the vision of renewed, reenchanted, resurrected photography that won’t accept poor workmanship or trite symbolism or sentimental spirituality; but that will stand up for a theology of images that is alive, and DV, holy. So if, in the pattern of God’s vocational workers, I am to be self-supporting rather than stipended, how do I actually do it? How does relentless self-promotion and the contortion of criteria-meeting applications result in any ‘success’? What about shrewdness? Expectation? Trust?

I claim benefits for childcare, and Trinity College offers a subsidised rate for their nursery – without this, I would not be able to work. So I am creating, I am employed, I am making a number of computer-based projects – but I am not making a living. And without fuel (including my own), what’s the point of building rockets?

In the belly of the whale


I like the moment when Jonah goes ‘off-grid’ in the belly of the whale – a sort of drowning that actually ends up being a complete transformation, because, of all places, God shows up. It’s a vivid story, which I’ve always loved because Jonah decided to go off-grid on his own terms in the first place. God didn’t teleport him back to land, but trounced his effort to remove himself with an even deeper dimension.

The piece shown here, Storm, was originally made in 2007, and was a commission for a naval officer. I’ve incorporated photographs of the sea in Cornwall, as well as screenshots from the TV series The Blue Planet (about to be shown on the BBC again – see here), and sketched details of snowflakes, spirographs and echoes of Hiroshige’s The Great Wave. Last year, a version of the piece was also used on the cover of Paul Hedley Jones’ book Job’s Way Through Pain: Karma, Cliches and Questions. Jonah, importantly, isn’t visible, but his journey is – from tempest to depth. Blue almost becomes the subject, and I mean to cloud its traditional meaning in Christian art as heaven, with something that’s about a kind of washing and sinking before any sense of cleansing and rising.

The laundry room here at Trinity is a fitting place for this piece. Why not find Jonah at the bottom of the building, submerged in water, spinning next to the washing machines? In College, as in spiritual life, so much happens that’s off-centre, away from the spotlight, where things are still dirty. If that’s where God shows up, I want my work to be there too.