As Western society has moved away from religion and towards the secular, the all-too-human impulse for magical thinking and solemn reverence of the inanimate and ineffable has been transferred to the art object, which is what these religious illustrations evolved into. The Christian tradition, with its pantheon of saints, disciples, and the Holy Trinity has been replaced by a pantheon of artists, directors and dealers. The secular world builds its own cathedrals to their new deity in the form of museums, and fills them with devotional objects. Just as in organised religion, factions develop around cults of personality; think of die-hard YBA fans or cut and dry proponents of the avant garde. We’re all looking for meaning, whether we’re in a church or walking around an exhibition. With this in mind, I went to speak to Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, about Bill Viola’s recently installed ‘Mary’ and ‘Martyrs’ video art works.
Art and Sacred Space
As Western society has moved away from religion and towards the secular, the all-too-human impulse for magical thinking and solemn reverence of the inanimate and ineffable has been transferred to the art object.
‘Art’, as we understand it today, is a pretty modern concept. Painting, sculpture, mosaic and fresco have been around much longer than the label we apply to them in retrospect. In the Western tradition at least, it wasn’t until the Renaissance rolled around that we started to take the oeuvre of an individual seriously, or to consider their pieces in relation to each other as a body of work. Before the cult of the genius began to gain traction, ‘art’ essentially denoted the work of an artisan. Skill with a paintbrush or a chisel was comparable to a tailor’s with a needle and scissors, or a blacksmith’s with iron and fire. Art belonged in sacred spaces or in the houses of the very wealthy. It served a distinct purpose, like a horseshoe or a coat – think of medieval egg washes of saints in martyrdom, or of the fall of man. They served to educate the illiterate masses, who were read the Bible on a Sunday in Latin, a language only the most privileged could understand. A ‘normal’ person in 14th century England might have owned a little crucifix, functioning somewhere between a totem and a tool to focus their worship. The idea of fetishising the object based on who had made it wouldn’t have occurred to them; the significance lay in its purpose and subject matter.
How did you become involved in the Bill Viola project?
It’s a very interesting history, and I think it has a model which can be picked up by others. So around 2004, one of my predecessors mentioned the idea of putting a Viola piece into the cathedral. There was a lot of energy around for that idea, and it was explored… They brought in some Viola on a temporary basis to see how it went and it was very positive. When I got here, I found that there was still interest in this project but that it wasn’t up and bubbling, mainly because my predecessor had gone and a little bit of momentum had gone with him. But I started asking around, is this something we want to continue with? And there was a lot of positivity, so I picked it up. And over the last six years we’ve made it all happen – both installations – and I’ve worked quite closely with Bill on it. The model is this: that donors paid Bill to make the work, he’s gifted it to the Tate so it’s part of the national collection, and the Tate have permanently loaned it to us, so we weren’t part of the fundraising because technically Bill was being paid to make it by those who admire his work. So we could hand it back in twenty years if we really wanted to. But actually the frame which has been made is part of the fabric of the cathedral, so we are seriously accepting this as a permanent piece.
Sacred space, St Paul’s specifically, is interesting in relation to the tradition of works within it. Talking about the Viola videos being built into the structure of the place makes me think about them alongside more traditional pieces in the building. Of course, that’s the way ‘art’ used to work, but now it’s exhibited temporarily and seen in a gallery – that white cube setting is almost the absence of a venue. In the Cathedral, though, the mosaics or the statues of patrons are literally part of the building. It seems to me that Martyrs and Mary are actually performing a very similar role to that of the more traditional work, in that they’re all imparting a lesson, but to put a contemporary video piece into that model seems radical – or are Viola’s videos just an interesting extension of a collection which already exists?
I think St Paul’s has a surprisingly radical tradition of art. The mosaics are looked on now as fine, beautiful and maybe a little bit predictable, but they’re quite modern, late 19th century. St Paul’s was ridiculed in the press at the time, and thought to be completely ruining the building. We have a Henry Moore which was put in in 1983, which I think is one of the most beautiful things in the Cathedral but again, pretty radical. We do have a lot of what you might call ‘Empire memorial statues’, and I think we do try to find ways of subverting that narrative because it’s not one of which we’re particularly proud. So we have this policy, which we’ve had in place since 2008, which is to bring in, for the temporary installations, the work of contemporary artists.
Is the church just here to stroke your apathetic conscience or is it actually provoking you to go out and do something?
Does St Paul’s commission and exhibit these things like a gallery would – because they’re interesting, art for art’s sake? Or does it install them as tools to aid engagement with the Christian story? Would you show anything, if it were interesting enough? Or would it have to chime with a certain message?
There’s a dialogue going on in St Paul’s with the work of contemporary artists, but I think it’s within a longer tradition of St Paul’s taking the work of artists seriously, and not as just illustrators to the Christian story but as agent provocateurs for the spirit. Then again, you’ve got to remember our context. We are a living church, we’re not the Tate. So people will always bring their questions, their encounter with the art, knowing that context. The questions and reflections they might bring to a piece here will be different than if it were in the National Gallery. I think that’s true, and we have to be alert to that. When people are coming into a Cathedral, they’re going to be thinking about life’s meaning, mortality, the rumour of God, the sense that, is life trustworthy, is there some ultimate meaning or is it just chaotic, haphazard? These things are alive in the National Gallery as well, but I think they’re intensified by a visit to a religious building as it were. And that means that the exhibitions we have in are going to be resonant with that ethos. This doesn’t mean, however, that the artists are going to be signed-up Christians, or didactic religious illustrators. Take the Gerry Judah in the cathedral at the moment, big white cruciform pieces – we asked Gerry to think of work that could talk about the first world war, 1914 to 1918, so he takes the white crosses of the war graves of Europe and he builds the cities of Syria and literally detonates them, blows them up. Now, people spend a lot of time with these. We were only going to have them in for six months, and now we’re going to have them for four years. What are people doing by looking at those when they come into St Paul’s? I think they are seeing that that war is still being played out today, but they’re also thinking, you know, there’s the cross. What is the relationship between suffering and meaning? What is the pity of war, and the worthwhile of human dignity and so on? What’s our response going to be? Is the church just here to stroke your apathetic conscience or is it actually provoking you to go out and do something? I think there’s an overlap of the questions and perceptions people bring to a gallery, but as I say, I think some of them are intensified in the Cathedral. But I don’t think there’s anything off bounds, as it were. We have an open mind about what’s going to come in. And if something were to offend some people, we would need to be assured that the offence is worthwhile! Because people are coming in to worship too.
So what has the public response been to Viola?
Overwhelmingly positive. Some complaints initially about the graphic depictions in the Martyrs.
That’s interesting. I have to say they struck me as far less graphic –
-than 99% of things we see on TV?
Well, that too! But much less graphic than what you might see if you went around a chapel in, say, Sicily, and looked at medieval paintings of martyrs. They’re gruesome! Catherine in the wheel, Agnes with her breasts on a plate. Or even images of the Crucifixion.
I think the medium of film is one that people are used to, that they’re drawn to. That’s why I think it’s an important medium to take seriously. But Viola, of course, subverts what filmmakers normally do, which is speed up everything into action. He slows everything down, so it’s thrown back on the viewer, who feels viewed. So this medium that people think they understand can be a bit uncomfortable. I agree with you; you know, there’s a man sitting there in flames but he’s not getting burned. It’s metaphoric. Some people, particularly teachers of primary school children, aren’t willing to take children because they thought it was upsetting as an image. And we respect that. On the other side, a couple of art critics said, do you think the suffering is too aestheticized? Is it not graphic enough? Then, Mary is one of our few focuses on woman. A lot of the memorials in St Paul’s are to men. White men. And the Mary work opens with a black Mary, breastfeeding. That’s not what you’re going to expect if you’ve just walked in to St Paul’s and you’ve seen all the other statues. But we’re not apologetic about that – women are 50% of the human race! How does a black person coming into St Paul’s believe that this is for them? It would be very easy to look at all these white patronal men and feel excluded. So I think, in some way, it’s reclaimed the dignity of groups and people who have been overlooked by the majority of art in St Paul’s – in a small way, but I think it’s important. I don’t think it was done for that purpose, I think it’s doing it en route. I have to find bridges, not so that people become religious like me, but so that they don’t write us off as being unrealistic – you know, we’ve built a castle in the sky and we’re going to move into it. Because actually, we’re living in the same world. We’re in this world where people are strung up, burnt for their beliefs, and is there anything worth dying for? Is there? That’s a genuine question, it seems to me.
It’s a good one. It’s interesting to hear you pose it because, in my head at least, Christianity is one world view where that question has an answer – that there is something worth dying for.
But also, today, martyrdom is being voiced in extremist, Islamist terms, as something you do which not only involves killing yourself but taking others with you.
Well, yes, I suppose we do tend to be talking about Muslim extremists nowadays when we think about martyrdom, but Christianity has its own history…
Yes … but in Martyrs, they’re alone with their conscience, and their resilience to something. You see the fragility of the body in the those pieces, buffeted by the elements, but there’s something unseen and yet seen, right in the heart which won’t give up. I think the urgency of some of its resonance is being felt at the moment. I look at those four martyrs and I think of Malcom X, who said, if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything. What we’re able to fall for at the moment is looking rather ugly.
A lot of the memorials in St Paul’s are to men. White men. And the Mary work opens with a black Mary, breastfeeding.
You mentioned ‘Christian Illustrators’, and I wonder where the line is? So many of the pieces which are considered the most beautiful in the world are illustrative of the Christian story. You can walk around a church and see the stations of the cross, or a medieval hellscape, but when do we move from illustration, which has its roots in something like a diagram for people who couldn’t read but needed to know what would happen if they didn’t behave or what happened to Jesus and the Saints, into the category of Art?
For me, good art, good religion, is a challenge to a simmered down literalism. You can’t look at a piece of art and say, what does it mean? What you can do is say, let’s encounter it and see what happens. I’m very comfortable with that happening in Church. I think Jesus did it when he preached – he used parables, and people said, what is he talking about? And this was a language that hovered over them rather than coming into land. I think that’s what art is doing. It’s creating a sense of meaning that’s hovering, and we can look at it one way one day, and find it’s doing something new the next, and that’s great. I see religion in the same way, but we have quite a battle because it can very quickly curdle into a rather banal pastiche which is literalistic and people very quickly start firing bullets at one another, using the Bible or whatever, to say, my meaning’s better than yours.
Yes. Incredible how that happens…!
Quite. And I expect the same thing happens in the art world – I understand this painting, you don’t.
The art world and the Church have a lot of common ground, I think – you know, the Art Object becomes almost holy, it’s been touched or processed by this particular pair of hands… all these echoes of transubstantiation, relics, the artists are saints and prophets, dealers and gallerists are priests…
Completely. The art world and the Church have a lot of common ground, I think – you know, the Art Object becomes almost holy, it’s been touched or processed by this particular pair of hands… all these echoes of transubstantiation, relics, the artists are saints and prophets, dealers and gallerists are priests… In the secular world, we’ve sort of transferred what you’re talking about onto another setting.
A lot of people think that Churches are trying to give people the answer to their questions, but a much more provoking contribution to make would be just to question their answers. Again, good art, it seems to me, is saying: look at me, because it’s going to help you see yourself. It’s like therapy, by being heard you hear yourself. That’s the other thing of course, that art and religion have in common, is we know that, spiritually, difficulty is important. So easy answers, quick clarity, are rarely profound. Difficulty, that moment when you say, I don’t get it, is potentially a very important moment. The other side of the coin is – despite all I’ve said about questioning answers, questioning literalism, wanting to be sharing a view with people, I believe all that 100% - we are a Christian Church in a Christian tradition and I wouldn’t want us to ignore a lot of the themes, the artistic templates we’ve inherited, because I don’t think they’re all redundant. The Mary is a good case in point. You know, some people might say, why are you looking at the mother of Jesus in 2017? Well, watch it and see.