One recent sunny afternoon I had a very pleasant walk through the woods at the Cass Foundation for British Sculpture in the grounds of Goodwood House. I have often thought that large sculpture is one of the most successful forms of modern art. When integrated and displayed in the landscape, as this is, it is very moving and powerful as nature and art interact.
One of the many things that struck me was how many pieces on show had religious or spiritual titles and themes – even if these themes were often treated with irony, subversion and even iconoclasm. This was not, one should stress, an exhibition of pieces gathered deliberately around a spiritual or religious theme, though there have been such collections. This was a general collection of contemporary artists who nonetheless frequently have a spiritual edge to their work.
Let me give a few examples:
The Confessional (Cathy de Monchaux, 1997) was a construction which had some of the feel of an old style church confessional – a box like construction with two chambers separated by a grill. Yet there was also something eroticised about the space; plush pink velvet seating, warm suggestive curves and intimacy. (OK, that could be my dirty mind – but that’s how it struck me.) It seemed a combination of sacred space and boudoir. This both sacralised the sexual and brought a sense of the bodily to that most intimate and vulnerable of sacraments, the sacrament of reconciliation. It also challenges the way our sacramental practices can be distorted and abused.
It pays to pray (Rose Finn-Kelcey, 2000) This interactive electronic piece was fun and challenging. A series of screens invited onlookers to pay to pray by inserting 20p into a slot. (To my skinflint pleasure it also returned the coin afterwards!). Semi-spiritual messages then danced around the screen. Most of these were affirming and asserting of the self without reference to the Divine – prayer as my desire. But also it seemed to me to be a critique of prayer as a commodity – a service we buy off God or His church.
The Temple. (Allen Jones, 1998) This was a construction surmounted by a four-armed female figure in bright coloured mosaic. There were echoes of both Classical Paganism and Hinduism in the forms yet with an unrestrained modernity of material, colour and form. The female nude form was again simultaneously erotic and sacred.
DNA DL90 (Abigail Falls 2004) This double helix of shopping trolleys may not have been the most overtly spiritual of the pieces presented but did strike me as revealing of the cultural moment. It was subversive, witty and provoking. Is the inner formative paradigm of our age consumerism? Tesco ergo sum – ‘I am because I shop at a supermarket’. It poses the question, what is our deep down pattern, what is it that defines who we are and what we might develop into. The Christian answer has to be that the mystery of the human is only revealed in the mystery of Christ. We are structured by and for the love of God.