Tuesday, 22 November 2011

After a Discussion on James Elkins 'Strange Place..."

At the Scottish Interface event this year a few of us had a table discussion on James Elkins recent book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. We talked mostly about the introduction and a few definitions he offers for the terms 'spiritual' and 'religion'.

For any interested here are some of the ideas we bounced around.

For the purposes of his book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, Professor James Elkins defines spirituality as,

“…any system of belief that is private, subjective, largely or wholly incommunicable, often wordless, and sometimes even uncognized”

An alternative definition is presented for religion which, for the purposes of his book, is defined as,

“…a named, noncultic, major system of belief”

It may be helpful at first to analyze these two definitions before comparing them to that of a definition presented under the same terms within a biblical worldview.

1. Systems of belief

Both religion and spirituality are described as systems of belief. Elkins suggests such religious systems are, “the rituals, liturgies, catechisms, calendars, holy days, vestments, prayers, hymns and songs, homilies, obligations, sacraments, confessions and rows, mitzvahs, pilgrimages, credos and commandments, and sacred texts” . Such systems may be described as mostly liturgical and belong mainly to the traditions of Roman Catholicism .

In his introduction, Elkins includes the main corpus of western religious systems within his understanding of the “art world”. These include Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Protestantism although it his clear his central point of reference is Catholicism, perhaps reflecting his own personal experiences or those shared by students, artists and the wider communities of Chicago, U.S. and Cork, Ireland where he worked while writing the book. Other major religious systems of the eastern hemisphere such as Hinduism and Bahia are mostly ignored and not included within the book’s description of “art world”.

No definition of belief is offered. As such, the reader is free to interpret this term according to their own understanding and experience although the context in which it is used implied belief can be either private or public, personal or communal, conscious of uncognitive, rational or imagined.

2. Private and Public

In Elkin’s book, religion is described as public and social. In comparison, spirituality is described as private. As such, spirituality is something relating to personal beliefs and may not be shared by others. It may include the experience of prayer when performed in the privacy of your own home or kneeling quietly by your bed late at night. It may also describe the manner in which a boy feels about his pet dog. Such feelings are often private, incommunicable and non-communal or shared in equal measure.

By this definition, spirituality is not a communal experience and therefore does not apply to ceremonies of corporate worship and liturgy. In contrast he describes religion as “public and social” . That being the case, spirituality is not part of religion – a presupposition that Elkins seems to contradict in his later statement,

“Spirituality can be part of religion, but not it’s whole.”

Spirituality is described as the “foil” of religion , which may indicate a discordant relationship between the two. If we interpret foil as an entity to undo or oppose religion it confirms the view that spirituality can never be a part of religion. If, however, we understand foil to mean a wrapping or encasement (as in the foil wrapper of a chocolate bar) the meaning may indicate the opposite and religion is instead the centre of a the extended entity of spirituality that surrounds and encompasses religion.

4. Communicative and Wordless

Elkins description of religion incorporates the liturgical practices of hymns and songs, homilies, confessions, bows, credos, commandments and sacred texts. These liturgical practices are dependant on the written or spoken word as a device for communication between one and another. In comparison, his description of spirituality is “largely or wholly incommunicable, often wordless”. Here we may see the greatest contrast with the biblical understanding of spirituality which begins with the character of God as a being who communicates and even creates by his word. In Genesis 1 the Spirit of God is described as hovering above the waters before creation after which God speaks the creation into being. The Judeo-Christian system of belief is founded on the belief that God is both communal within himself and communicative with his creation. By the definition presented in Elkins’ book Christianity is a non-spiritual system of belief.

5. Cognitive and Non-Cognitive

Spirituality is also described as “sometimes even uncognized”. This may suggest that the spiritual person is unaware of their own system of belief. It may apply to an individual who is not conscious to the influence of media advertising on their choice of cereal in the morning. It may also describe the person who has unconsciously adopted certain behaviours, ideologies or rituals from their parents.

The term uncognized” suggests a non-rational or non-cerebral view of the world. As such, spirituality may be used to describe the feelings or emotions associated with rash decisions, a hunch or intuition.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

New residency at Leith School of Art

For the last week I have been artist-in-residence for Leith School of Art in Edinburgh. This is a four-week project running the summer. Housed in the only remaining Norwegian Seaman’s Church in Europe, the Art School has been a catalyst for cultural renewal in Leith since it was founded in 1988. Since the school has independent status it can teach a syllabus that the staff actually believe will benefit their students. And benefit the students they certainly do. In contrast to the wider corpus of art school education, Leith holds to traditional values of drawing, painting and making that really do set up their students for a rigorous and considered creative practice. I can say that because I was a student here myself in 1998. In an otherwise cynical and hierarchal arena for arts education Leith is like a breath of fresh air. It really is good to be back here.

LSA was founded by Mark and Lottie Cheverton (interestingly former UCCF staff workers) who wanted to establish an Art School with a Christian ethos for community, education and creative excellence. In 1991 the Chevertons were tragically killed in a car crash and the future of the school looked uncertain. However, Philip Archer, a colleague and friend of the Chevertons was appointed as Principal and the school has grown under his headship.

The church is still consecrated and continues to be used by the Norwegian community for special services and events.

Surrounding the college, Leith is the industrial heart of Edinburgh and the historical home of Scotland’s merchant and naval base. Like many of Europe’s city dockland areas Leith continues to pose social needs. The monuments to Leith’s past celebrate its shipbuilding and whaling legacy but no one wants to remember its history of gang related violence and drug abuse (think Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting). In the early 1980s, Leith was the AIDS capital of Europe – a situation made worse after the council banned hospitals from giving out free needles to drug addicts in an attempt to root out the drug problem. In effect, users simply shared needles and AIDS spread like wildfire.

In recent years Leith has been subject to urban generation. Alongside the historical wharfs and dilapidated council flats rise shiny new apartments for city workers and a brand new shopping mall that wouldn’t look out of place in the suburbs of Americana. They even have a Thomas Kincade franchise.

Here in this curious juxtaposition of old and new, historical, industrial and commercial I’ll be making drawings and painting about the changes in Leith. I’ll be blogging throughout my residency on my studio blog.
You’d be very welcome to follow my progress and I’d value your comments.

Here though and for now I am struck by the role Leith School of Art is playing in the urban generation of a troubled area. In contrast to the capitalistic solutions presented by the multi-national corporations and investors, LSA offers hope for renewal through the development of community and artistic renewal. If the act of creativity is indeed a wholly human experience there is much of humanity in the ethos and teaching of this little Art School that nestles amongst the debris of Edinburgh’s historical and industrial fallout like redemptive seed of hope.

Frieze Art and Spirituality

In the October editorial for Frieze magazine, senior editor, Dan Fox asked, “When was the last time you saw an explicitly religious work of contemporary art? Odds are you can’t remember. If you can, it’s because it stood out like the Pope in a brothel. Religious art, when it’s not kept safely confined within gilt frames in the medieval departments of major museums, is taboo. Of course, if we’re talking art about religion that’s totally kosher.”

It’s not that art about religion is taboo at the moment and far from it. In the last five years we’ve seen Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo (a life sized statue of a Chrost-like figure in Trafalgar Square), Sarah Lucas’ Marlborough Christ, Damien Hirst’s apostles series at White Cube Gallery and Keith Coventry recently won the coveted John Moores painting prize for his spectrum blue portrait of Jesus.

So what is Dan Fox’s question really about? The question seems less about approaching aspects of faith and spirituality in art per say. The taboo seems more for those who approach the subject of faith without scepticism or irony. In other words art made by sincere practitioners of faith. As eminent art historian, James Elkins puts it, ‘aside from the rare exceptions, religion is seldom mentioned in the art world unless it is linked to criticism, ironic distance, or scandal. An observer of the art world might well come to the conclusion that religious practice and religious ideas are not relevant to art unless they are treated with scepticism.”

I believe Fox and Elkins are demonstrative of a recent corpus of academic and journalistic enquiry into the absence of religion in contemporary art. They join the ranks of Boris Groys (Art Power 2009) and Terry Eagelton (Faith and Belief, as part of the published seminar Now Is the Time, 2010) who seem to asking similar questions of the lack of spirituality in the latter day throws of Modernity.

Are they right? Are the ideas of the sincerely religious irrelevant to art or even society today? As a sincere Christian believer I want to cry hope from the roof of my studio. I affirm their questions and want to wrestle for answers. In the Morphē Arts network we have sincere Christian believers wrestling with these exact questions on a daily basis.

In recent years the National Gallery has hosted a series of exhibitions that explore the legacy of Christian art through the centuries with sincere motives, not least through the Seeing Salvation exhibition, Sacred Made Real and the current Devotion by Design. Looking to the contemporary art fairs and contemporary art scene of London, however, I find it more difficult to identify any artist whose work is explicitly or devoutly religious and has shown in the East End galleries or around Deptford and Peckham. So maybe Elkins was right when he wrote, “Contemporary art, I think, is as far from organised religion as Western art has ever been, and that may even be its most singular achievement or its cardinal failure, depending on your point of view” (From the introduction to On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art)

Of course all this depends on your definition of contemporary art but I think Elkins is talking about the institutions and practices that constitute the main corpus of art being made by recent graduates of Western art colleges today that is exhibited and bought by gallerists and curators under 40 (not to be too crass). If that’s the case, personally I believe him to be right but that doesn’t mean there can’t be anything done about it. We’re certainly trying our best here and praying for cultural renewal as we navigate our way through the difficult waters of contemporary cultural theory and its influence on contemporary creative practice.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Ordinary Time

It was a joy to be part of 'Ordinary Time', an installation of thirteen artists work at St Barnabas Church, Dalston. First built in 1890 the church has been left empty for several years and left to the early stages of dereliction before a new congregation was planted into it over a year ago and new life ensued.

As I noted in a previous post it was a positive experience to show with so many film, 3D and performance artists whose concerns for the context of the space helped me sharpen my understanding of my own work when shown in this extraordinary space.

For those interested, here's a few images.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Forthcoming Exhibitions

Exhibitions, it seems, are like London buses. I’m happy to have been involved with two art shows over these last weeks and two more on the near horizon.
Ordinary Time was an exhibition with a group of installation and 3D artists in the eccentric St Barnabas church in Dalston, east London. The show opened last week and it was novel for me to make work in the context of such a loaded space. As a painter, the concerns for the work normally lie within the frame of the canvas but, for this show, it was a worthy experience working with artists who have a more contextual approach to the space they’re showing in.

Coated opens tomorrow night at Crypt Gallery, near Euston in London. If you’re around this week drop on by. Nine painters approach the issues of contemporary painting above and below the surface of the canvas. You can find more info about the show here

Also on the horizon is our Wimbledon MA Interim Show at The Nunnery in the first two weeks on March which I'm involved with organizing to some degree. We're pleased to have Juan Bolivar and Julia Alveraz guest curate the exhibition for us. Finally, please pencil in the first week of April for exhibition of recent graduates work at 14 Dover Street, Mayfair. I'm in the process of appropriating four floors of the former fashion retail outlet and will be working in collaboration with Tom Cuckle of IBID Projects and former RCA graduate to curate this exciting new project.

btw If you’re interested in my studio work you might like to check out my studio blog that I’ve been posting at here for a few months now.