Seeing the Light

Contemporary art and the Church of England

Nearly 1000 years ago the masons and craftsmen who created the soaring church of Southwell Minster, not far from Nottingham, included within their work representatives of a pre-Christian past. The Green Men of Southwell Minster took the form of a set of carved grotesque spirit faces exuding foliage. With a certain impertinence and perhaps even a touch of early Medieval irony, the Green Men kept watch on the church council from their hiding places among the nooks and crannies of the enormous building. Almost a millennium later, officially recognized as art, a Green Man took his place on the cover of the British Council's Sculpture in England publication of 1951.

David Mellor, in his superb survey volume A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-1955 (1987), identifies a powerful connection between the eerie, untamed Englishness of the Green Men and the church itself as a site for the frequently violent convulsions of contemporary art and culture. The linking clause in Mellor's argument is drawn from popular culture, in a bravura side-step into the paranoid world of science fiction in the mid-1950s. Citing Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Experiment, made for British television in 1953, Mellor describes the horrific transformation, in Westminster Abbey, of astronaut Caroon into a pastoralized mutant of living leaf and moss - Atomic Age man morphed into a semi-vegetable state by 'the latest refinements in military-industrial technology'. Mellor relates to mid-20th-century British art's dialogue with the church: 'As in Bacon and Sutherland, Kneale showed the human organism at the end of its tether, sacrificial, deformed beyond recognition: but only becoming this kind of spectacle within the confines of a still persistent Christian space; a vestigial space now emptied of meaning by political terror and technological subjection.'

In the 50 years since Caroon met his personal apocalypse the role of the Christian church as both venue and subject for contemporary artistic practice has been uneasy. In the immediate postwar period the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral provided a historically significant opportunity for British artists - notably neo-Romantics Graham Sutherland and John Piper - to contribute on a major scale to the creation of a new Christian space. A generation of sculptors, including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Elizabeth Frink were commissioned around the country to make new work for churches on traditional Christian themes. But since then there has been a quiet stand-off between the predominantly secular world of contemporary art and the Church of England.

With rare exceptions - Antony Gormley's partially submerged figure (Sound II, 1986) in the flooded vaults of Winchester Cathedral, for example, and Bill Viola's The Messenger (1996) installed at Durham Cathedral - there have been few instances of significant contemporary artists engaging with Christian venues. It is a situation that has perhaps suffered further from the many examples of church art that are sincere and well-intentioned, but largely formulaic and decorative, and of little or no artistic standing.

With this in mind, it is of no small significance that the Church of England's body for engaging with contemporary art, ACE (Art and Christian Enquiry), has recently appointed Paul Bayley - the former Director of Exhibitions at Cornerhouse, Manchester - as its new Loans for Churches Officer. The job title perhaps obscures the immediate relevance of the appointment: as a curator with a reputation for working with cross-disciplinary artists such as Performance guru Carolee Schneemann and visionary architectural practice Archigram, as well as for curating substantial survey shows, Bayley is being asked to enable an encounter to take place between artists, church and the public.

'Timing is fortuitous,' he says of his appointment, 'I feel the contemporary art world and artists are looking once again at profound issues, and recognize that to work within a church setting is a powerful and challenging context. Likewise, the Church has regained its nerve in responding to imagination, and is recognizing that there is common ground between the two. Art and religion share the desire and the ability to change the way we see the world; outreach and the gaining of a new audience are a shared concern, and both have a tendency to retreat inwards and talk to themselves rather than engage with a wider community.' In a recent ACE bulletin the 'Loans for Churches' directive was described as 'a practical expression of ACE's dialogue between Church and Art. Churches would be "re-enchanted" by exploring the possibilities of new art in the worship space, while artists would recover their confidence in the Church's role as a patron to the visual arts.' The term 're-enchanted' is particularly well chosen, describing a broad enough point of engagement to allow contemporary art to find a new relevance within the modern church.

Widening the choice of artists to an international selection, it is easy enough to think of works of contemporary art well suited to responding to a church or cathedral setting. You can imagine how iconic visual art, such as Dan Graham's architectural pavilions, for example, might 're-enchant' a church space while its own focus for contemplation would be freshened and sharpened through its siting in a sacred environment. Similarly, artists as different in their methods and interests as, say, Cornelia Parker, Inventory or Alva Noto, could offer new works that would be more than slick examples of contemporary art honing its aesthetic sheen in a church setting.

Within the church itself there is a growing interest in the ways in which ecclesiastical buildings might engage with contemporary art. One more militant strand holds that ancient churches could be stripped back to their original fabric, becoming the ecclesiastical equivalent of the 'white cube' of traditional gallery space. Such an act - in itself provocative, creative, questioning and strangely pure - might well be an interesting place from which to commence art's renewed relationship with one of its oldest hosts. A response, perhaps, to Dr Mellor's prophetic identification of the emptying of meaning by political terror and technological subjection.
 

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.

Issue 75

First published in Issue 75

May 2003

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