Artist, Context, Audience, Art

Let us bring this chapter to a close by briefly focusing on a model for the relationship between artwork, artist, audience and context by turning to the work of Stephen Willats, one of the artists promoted by Kester. Community-based social projects of the kind favoured by artists like Willats are concerned with art’s frequent failure to address an audience for art outside or beyond the institutions of art, which their practice seeks to redress. One of the issues that art has faced within expanded art practices has been the difficulties it faces when it attempts to step outside of the validating structures of the art world. As Willats notes: ‘When artists did try such a transference they were met with complete misreading, or indifference, even failing to obtain recognition from people that it was indeed a work of art which they were confronting’ (1986: unpaginated). In many respects the hostility to modern art in the mid-twentieth-century church was precisely a series of such misrecognitions. The audience for art today is considerably more visually literate (even if the corresponding ability to read religious symbolism has diminished). Nevertheless, outside the institutions of art, the work of art faces very different conditions. It cannot be assumed, for instance, that the intended audience will be equipped with the kind of visual literacy or receptiveness generally expected of an audience for art. Even though ecclesiastically sited artworks, generally speaking, are not community-based social projects of the kind in which Willats engages, they raise similar issues of contextual specificity. Just as his works attend to the specifics of their non-institutional setting, so too it cannot be forgotten that a very different relationship pertains to artworks in cathedrals than in museums or galleries, especially in terms of their reception. When this difference is ignored, the cathedral becomes simply another venue for the exhibition of art. As we become increasingly habituated to the cathedral as a site of heritage and tourism, this situation will undoubtedly worsen.

Willats employs a number of transferable strategies that may enhance our understanding of the use of art in ecclesiastical spaces in ways that encourage a faithful response. He prescribes, for example, the necessity of engaging directly with the audience’s frame of reference, with their sense of normality, not in order to reflect or describe that normality, but more often than not to challenge, perhaps change, that normality. He puts this process in an interesting way. The artwork, he says, originates from outside the audience’s reality, ‘but it is from the inside that the artwork must grow’ (1986). He also suggests strategies for enhancing audience participation in the work. Firstly, existing languages and shared references should be employed. To a great extent, early examples of modern art for the church could be said to have worked this way. Despite the rejection by many early critics of Moore’s Madonna and Child, Sutherland’s Crucifixion or Epstein’s St. Michael and the Devil, each made use of a familiar religious vernacular, something which is perhaps only evident in hindsight. Even the numerous examples of abstract stained-glass windows installed in this period continued to utilise the visual language of medieval glass, deliberately replicating the kinds of colours and light effects typical of an earlier age. Secondly, as well as actually being sited within it, the existing world of the audience is reflected by the work. The space itself becomes the subject of the work or, as Willats puts it, ‘the language of the artwork is built from the references drawn out of the audience’s own reality’ (1986). It is not that the work simply reflects in a descriptive way the familiar reality of the audience; it attempts to rework that reality through references that are already meaningful.

Torevell makes a similar point in reference to the liturgy, arguing for the accumulation of meaning around common references, affective experiences and normative values (2000: 173—4). The creation of an alternative world begins from or, better said, emerges out of the participant’s familiar reality, whether that alternative world is created by liturgy or art.

Ecclesiastical contexts are therefore inseparable from social responsibilities, something to which the artist Jaume Plensa was attentive in his winning proposal for the ill-fated Walter Hussey Memorial Commission for a permanent work of art in Chichester Cathedral. In all his public works of art he expresses a desire to give priority to their immediate relationship with the people living and working around them (Paveley 2009). His proposal for Chichester specifically worked with the social notion of togetherness, represented by the variegation of language in text that formed the shape of a hand raised in benediction.7 An effective model for this more communal approach, periodically employed by a small number of churches and cathedrals, is the artist-inresidence programme, reproducing the kind of embeddedness associated with the traditional role of the church craftsman. Residencies, by definition, lead an artist to investigate in-depth the particular location where they are based. The artist’s first-hand experience over an extended period frequently results in a form of ethnography, through their acclimatisation to the space, and sensitivity to the communities who inhabit it. More pertinently, residencies offer the potential for the artist to become a more integral member rather than a privileged outsider, able to benefit from a more sustained dialogue and interaction with the place and its people. Sometimes this results in a close collaboration between artist and audience, as in Lin Holland and Jane Poulton’s combined residency in Liverpool’s two cathedrals, where the public were responsible for transforming the familiar spaces of the two cathedrals through their interaction with the artists. As the catalogue that accompanied the residency attests, the artists were motivated by the desire to make work relevant to their contexts and sensitive to the mixed audiences that cathedrals attract. Each of their installations responded specifically to the dynamics of their site, while a joint venture for both cathedrals was effectively a community-based project, reliant upon the contribution of local people for its manufacture.

Take, as an example of the former, Two Seas:High Water, a projection onto the altar of Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the six works that resulted from Holland and Poulton’s residency.8 This is a film of the two seas that define the east and west coasts of Britain, an image with particular resonance for a port city like Liverpool. The unexceptional sight of undulating water attained a meditative, even spiritual quality when encountered in this context, and served to induce a more pronounced stillness and reflective response to the space through the signs and symbols of a familiar reality. The more integrative event, Ring of Roses/Paper Falls on Stone, took place during the opening and closing services of a week-long international youth congress, utilising hundreds of paper flowers and thousands of paper petals fabricated by the artists and participants. Unlike other collaborative projects such as Gormley’s Fields or

160 Transept

Lin Holland and Jane Poulton, Two Seas

Figure 6.4 Lin Holland and Jane Poulton, Two Seas: High Water, 2007, Liverpool

Metropolitan Cathedral. Image courtesy of the artists. Photograph by Barry Hale

Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds installation for Tate Modern, those involved in the production were equally involved in its reception, since these ephemeral works existed only for the sake of the commencement and finale of a ceremony that brought together the three participating groups.

Direct participation of this kind allows the work of art to exist as a ‘Symbolic World’ for those involved, says Willats, a heuristic process able to remodel references to everyday reality and recompose assumptions regarding social forms. Such an agenda was clearly uppermost in the mind of Gloucester Cathedral’s last resident artist, David Behar Perahia. At the beginning of his tenure in 2010, Behar Perahia stated that his prime objective for the coming year was ‘to make a community’ (2011: unpaginated). In his case this meant gathering about him a body of collaborators, local people willing to commit to a year-long project, whose principal aim would be to return to modern visibility the invisible structures undergirding the cathedral’s medieval construction. The building’s underlying geometry, the relationship of its proportions to the human body, and the practicalities of cathedral building were all explored during the period of the residency. Crucially, Behar Perahia anticipated that each person involved would form the material of the work, himself included, whilst a participatory engagement would be encouraged from members of the public coming to view the results. In an interview with the artist towards the end of his residency, one of his interlocutors proposes that he is crafting temporary, time-based, communities, constructed for the art, whose dissolution occurs with the end of

Lin Holland and Jane Poulton, Ring of Roses/Paper Falls on Stone, 2007, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

Figure 6.5 Lin Holland and Jane Poulton, Ring of Roses/Paper Falls on Stone, 2007, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. Image courtesy of the artists the project. The interviewer cites Kwon’s theories of community construction within the art domain as a conceptual precedent for such practices, but it could be argued that they owe as much to the models of participation presented in this chapter. This sense of a limited but intensive duration for a community brought into existence by the work is summed up rather well by Willats as a reconfiguration of the work of the work of art, whereby:

an artwork changes from being a contained object to a structured programme of events over a specific duration. In this sense an artwork may have a ‘beginning’ and an ‘end’, and it would be the sum total of events between the beginning and the end that is called the artwork.


The contextualising of meaning involved adds to the relevance of a work of art’s appearance in a particular location. This is especially valid for works that are installed, say, in more than one cathedral. In each case presuppositions must be abandoned for the sake of treating each location and its communities on its own terms. Here, however, I would depart somewhat from Willats. The art he favours tends to be highly socially structured, promoting a model of social art practice based upon pre-defined contexts, specific audiences and tightly specified frameworks. Willats argues that a programme of community- based artistic collaboration in which ‘the acts of making and reception [are] mutually bound’ will only succeed if ‘the audience [is] known in advance of the work’s conception, pinpointed by the artist and given the highest position in the determination of the work’s concerns’ (1986). To some extent, this is clearly true of any ecclesiastically sited project, in that certain specific groups are identifiably present within a cathedral, and indeed Plensa too stresses the importance of prior knowledge of the audience before commencing work. However, as Robin Gibbons has noted in a study of liturgical space, modern congregations are far from fixed. If there is stability to a liturgical community, its assembly is mobile and its constituent members inconstant (2006: 156). Even if a core group can be identified, there are always occasional worshippers, visitors, unexpected participants or aesthetic voyeurs entering into the occasion from a peripheral standpoint of aesthetic pleasure, but perhaps not belief. Willats too leaves out of his calculations the unknown audience, the subjects who appear in the space of appearance of the work itself. Such an incalculable factor is, of course, precisely closed to any such calculus. What remains are the known elements, if not their exact composition: artist, context, audience, art.

Willats has produced a diagrammatic model of his form of interaction, which attempts to make sense of the dynamic of these four factors. It places the work of art at the centre of a triangle whose three corners are represented by artist, context and audience. Art takes the central role around which artist, context and audience are configured, its creation dependent upon relations of cooperation, negotiation and exchange with each of the players. According to this conception, the context simply operates as the site of ‘intervention’, while the work of art is more often than not the agent for social interaction rather than having any intrinsic value in itself. In this diagram, therefore, the central place of the artwork is simply the locus for the more important interrelation of artist, audience and context. However, it could also be interpreted as descriptive of conventional artistic reception, which configures audience, artist (usually only present as the signatory to the work) and context around the central point of the artwork. In such configurations, context may be low on the agenda, as may be any considerations regarding the audience. Willats also posits a slightly different triad around the work of art: this consists of the artist’s intentions, the location and the composition of the group formed around the work. Each is said to pre-exist the work. The artist’s role is to formulate his or her intentions for the project based upon the known context and its existing communities.

An alternative configuration, one more relevant to a church, say, than to an art museum, would be to place the audience in the centre. In a church it is the people who populate the space that are fundamental (and art may be relatively absent), whereas in a gallery or museum it is the art that populates the space that is central, albeit requiring at least an occasional visitor. Where Willats’s model presupposes a consistency in the community, the figure of the audience could stand for any number of subject positions. It is true that art that enters ecclesiastical spaces necessarily engages with an on-site community (as in the tower blocks that are Willats’s favoured haunt), but it is also engaged in constituting its own community, even if temporarily or contingently so. More interesting to us is where artistic intention is not so pre-determined, or the composition of a community is unclear, and the location is unpredictable or subject to extraneous and unforeseeable intrusions. More interesting to us is where artistic intention is not so predetermined and the composition of a community is unclear or, more radically, where the subjects of the work of art cannot even be said to exist as yet. An author, says Nancy, ‘must find his own readers or, what amounts to the same thing, it is the author who creates his own readers’ (2008: 9). This is no less true of the work of art. It not only responds to an existing community, but also constitutes subjects who form around it, a very real condition of possibility that is taken up in the next chapter.

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