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Home arrow Religion arrow Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art
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Immersive Fields

Both Viola’s The Messenger, shown in the cathedrals of Durham (1996), St Paul’s (2004) and Sheffield (2007), and Antony Gormley’s Field for the British

Isles, appearing in the cathedrals of Salisbury (1999) and Gloucester (2004), in different ways exemplified the possibilities elicited by the condition of spatial and temporal porosity, even if the former became something of a cause celebre due to the very difficulties provoked by its problematic content. Each revealed in explicit ways a quality or condition that we are arguing applies implicitly to any and every work of contemporary art in a church or cathedral. In the cloisters of Salisbury and Gloucester, Field was a startlingly arresting sight. Around 40,000 hand-sized, unglazed clay figures, clustered together, formed a carpet of terracotta entirely filling the enclosed space that contained them. Their number seemed endless and all gazed up at the viewer from deep-set, rudimentary eyes, through the frame of the cloister’s ingress. Field provided tangible evidence of the very physical relationship that certain artworks are capable of forming with their sacred surroundings, inviting the illusion that the work was a part of the fabric of the building, as ecclesiastical sculpture so often is (even the colour of the work blended perfectly with the warm greys and browns of the stonework). Field both perpetuates and transfigures this tradition. It is true to its physical enclosure and containment within the cloisters, saturating every corner of its environment to the fullest extent. But it also invites an imaginative sense of unboundedness. Being both constrained by, and speculatively exceeding, its location within the gallery of the cloisters, Field straddled the space between its confinement and a lighter, more fluid capacity to move beyond its set boundaries as if, given a break in the wall, it would continue to spill out into the surrounding environment. Though in a sense it is site-general, able to inhabit any number of different spaces, it becomes site-specific with each incarnation, moulding itself to the contours of each new environment, such that, in Gormley’s words, ‘placeness’ becomes more significant than ‘object- ness’ (1994: 61). At Salisbury, Field was part of a larger exhibition of sculpture sited throughout the cathedral, yet seemed somehow set apart within its cloistral location, evoking what we might call a certain immersive density of visual experience. It altered one’s perception of the space, its invasive spread en masse contrasting oddly with the diminutive scale of each individual figure, unnervingly returning the viewer’s gaze.

The permeation of place that Field physically exemplified in Salisbury and Gloucester was evident in more intangible ways in Durham. What could be more porous than a work of light and sound? Yet here too we were presented with a situation of porosity and its containment, only in a more reactionary sense. As a medium of light, video seeps into the surrounding darkness, escaping the spatial limitations of its frame; as a medium of sound, it suffuses an environment with its presence. Thus, it engages with both the space and the viewer holistically, operating, as Viola describes it, as an ‘immersive field’ of light and sound (Zutter 1993: 40). The cathedral’s acoustics were a significant aspect of this immersion. In his review of The Messenger for Art Monthly, Paul Usherwood spoke of ‘the mysterious way sound weaves around the vast stony chamber’, which, he suggested, enhances ‘its solemn, sacramental character’ (1996: 26). Viola would undoubtedly concur with Usherwood’s sensitivity to

Antony Gormley, Field for the British Isles, 1993. Terracotta. Variable size

Figure 2.2 Antony Gormley, Field for the British Isles, 1993. Terracotta. Variable size: approx. 40,000 elements, each 8—26 cm tall. Installation view, Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, England. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. Photograph by Boo Beaumont. Image courtesy of Annette Ratuszniak. © The artist

the mutually conducive relationship of sound and the sacred. His own fascination for ecclesiastical spaces is, he admits, due as much to their aural as to their visual qualities, something he particularly associates with a feeling of the ineffable:

To the European mind the reverberant characteristics of the interior of the Gothic cathedral are inextricably linked with a deep sense of the sacred and tend to evoke strong associations with both the internal private space of contemplation and the larger realm of the ineffable.

(Viola 1994: 154)

Viola’s emphasis on the acoustics of the cathedral presupposes a sacred inef- fability indebted to the phenomenology of the body. Indeed, he believes that a misguided over-emphasis on the visual arts has distracted us from a notion of art as ‘a whole-body, physical experience’, in which sound plays a particularly important role, able to go round corners, through walls and even to penetrate the body (1994: 263, 241). In his efforts to visualise the intangible and immaterial, to give visible form to the spiritual, that two-dimensional visibility is frequently accompanied by a three-dimensional aural environment, an ambient background or ‘undersound’ that becomes an essential element of the perceptual foreground (Darke 1994: 27). Against the richness and mystery of sound, amplified by the resonant chambers of medieval cathedrals, visual stimuli may seem crude by comparison. In his own work, therefore, he maintains that ‘the visual is always subservient to the field, the total system of perception/cogni- tion at work’, expanding sensory experience to the realm of the whole body (Viola 1994: 268). Such a holistic vision seems very much in keeping with our argument for the immersive conditions for art produced by ecclesiastical spaces, as conceived through the categories of event, duration and porosity. As Isabelle Stengers writes in her magisterial study of Whitehead, even if we can isolate and identify the source of a particular sound, it remains irreducible within its environment to any kind of contained localisation (2011: 85). It is everywhere and nowhere in particular.

Unfortunately, in the Durham installation other forces were also at work, generated by the video’s controversial depiction of male nudity. Although the work had the official support of the clergy, it caught the scandal-mongering attention of the media and hence the police, and as a result the image itself was visually constricted by screens hastily erected to hide it from view. Charges of obscenity, however absurd their premises, prompted this unsatisfactory response to what was effectively a representation of bare life in all its humanity, simplicity and vulnerability. It was at least preferable to the results of a similar situation over concerns about male nudity that played out at Lincoln Cathedral a few years earlier. In that prior controversy, the work in question, Leonard McComb’s Portrait of Young Man Standing, a life-size nude figure in polished bronze and gold leaf, was removed altogether. At Durham, the solution chosen had unforeseen consequences. If the viewing of the work was inhibited by the screens, disrupting its conception as a work whose presence would be felt throughout the nave, at the same time it encouraged a more concentrated experience. The area behind the screens assumed the role of a chapel, a semiprivate space within a public one, the intimate touching upon the communal. Though the rest of the cathedral bustled with visitors, noise and activity, within the sanctuary of the screens, all was quiet, restrained and attentive. In this case, the screen erected to act as a barrier, confining the work to a specific location in the cathedral, also served to induce a more intense encounter with it.

Viola’s work is well known for its capacity to encourage a meditative response from the viewer, his projections readily transforming public galleries into private and introspective spaces. Furthermore, as David Jasper, a theologian closely involved with the Durham commission, has said, his work is deeply religious, informed by Western and Eastern, though not specifically Christian, mysticism (Townsend 2004: 184). Rather, it works with certain elemental archetypes, water most commonly of all, of significance for many religious traditions. So, what are we to make of the controversy and its unfortunate and unforeseen consequences? Jasper’s summation of the incident with the screens reiterates some of the arguments raised in this chapter (and hints at other arguments yet to come). However justifiable the concerns over the moral scandal constituted by the nudity of the figure, and Jasper for one has grave doubts about that justification, his overriding sense is that the use of screens meant that the church had effectively ‘imposed its authority and limits upon the artist’ and moreover upon a work created specifically for that space and within a particular contextual understanding of its role within the space:

Viola, it seemed to me, had never intended people simply to see and hear The Messenger as such. Rather, it was intended to be seen as part of and in the context of the whole cathedral: a messenger or angel (which is the same thing) from beyond time and space, never to be fully understood or its message articulated. That was the point, perhaps — that its message was a mystery, reminding us that not just Viola’s installation, but also the cathedral and the gospel for whose proclamation it was built are scandals and stumbling-blocks, as was Christ himself, according to St. Paul.

(Townsend 2004: 194)

The moral scandal ought, then, to pale into insignificance beside the theological scandal of Christian doctrine. The artistic scandal, meanwhile, stands as a reminder of what is at stake in commissions of this kind. As Jasper asks himself elsewhere, ‘what are the consequences for a society and a culture which puts screens around angels? What are we doing?’ (Hall and Jasper 2003: 9) The same might be said of the McComb debacle. Here we had not an angel, but ‘a modern Adam waiting to be called’ (Seasoltz 2005: 337), unashamedly naked and in the full flush of youth. Its removal was later described by Andrew Lambirth as a serious case of mishandling on the part of the cathedral authorities, a squeamish lack of nerve tantamount to control or censorship (1999: 25—26). Attitudes have clearly changed since then. In 2004 The Messenger reappeared in St Paul’s Cathedral free of any kind of prohibitive screening, just as some 20 years later, McComb’s golden figure was rehabilitated, included in an extensive exhibition of sculpture at Gloucester Cathedral, without appearing to rouse the least objection.

Nave 43

Bill Viola, Martyrs

Figure 2.3 Bill Viola, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014, St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Colour high-definition video polyptych on four vertical plasma displays, duration 7:15 minutes. Image courtesy of Bill Viola Studio LLC. Executive producer: Kira Perov. Performers: Norman Scott, Sarah Steben, Darrow Igus and John Hay. Photograph by Peter Mallet

The Messenger drew attention to the fact that porosity can be a problematic issue for cathedrals. In such circumstances, it becomes a kind of contaminant, a prospect that, as we will see in a later chapter, has significance for conceptions of the sacred and the legitimacy of art. During the long period of negotiations for the first permanent moving image in a British cathedral, also by Viola, finally installed in 2014, some of the concerns over Martyrs were placated when it was understood that it would not be a sound installation. Unlike monumental works like The Messenger, its visual impact is also relatively constrained within the Dean’s aisle, as is perhaps appropriate for a long-term installation. As Viola affirmed some years ago: ‘The presence of the electronic moving image, normally designed to distract, coerce and overstimulate its audience, will here be used for precisely the opposite ends’ (cited in Cork 2011). It is, he says, intended to be a traditional object of contemplation and devotion, a modern-day polytych altarpiece with few, if any, of the contentious issues that troubled the earlier work. Still, as a final corollary to this incident, it is interesting to note that one of the stipulations of the arts policy of St Paul’s Cathedral (agreed and adopted in 2007) states that ‘intangible works’ based on sound or light, or both, ‘must have identifiable boundaries’. One cannot help but wonder how such boundaries will be managed and, more pertinently, why it is felt to be imperative that they should be. At the time what was clear from the screens erected at Durham to filter out the controversial image was that their opacity was constantly compromised by the seepage of light and sound emanating from the installation’s enclosed recesses. If, then, the restraint shown by Martyrs appears to comply with that arts policy ruling, the intractability of artworks like The Messenger could be read as a provocative challenge to such prescriptions long before they were officially codified.

 
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