Sandys & Baines (National Portrait Gallery)The National Portrait Gallery in London has an excellent exhibition on Elizabeth I and Her People.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to write a brief blog post for the NPG site on one of the portraits, Edwin Sandys (1519?-88) and his wife Cecily Wilford (d.1611) by an unknown English artist, after 1576 © Bishopthorpe Palace, York. I did so and it has gone up today with a photo of me in front of the portrait.

Clearly, Sandys was a miserable man; but, he made the most of Elizabeth’s permission for the clergy to marry by having nine children.

It is a brilliant exhibition, bringing together some portraits that have not been exhibited in public before. Definitely worth a visit, but look at the website anyway and follow the other ‘occupational’ blogs that will be going up gradually.

Here goes with yet another exposure of ignorance.

Until this week I had never heard of the Spanish artist Cristobal Toral. Born in 1940 and from the Andalucian town of Antequera, he works in a variety of media. However, his paintings, bronzes and sculptures all address the pain and loneliness of transience. He seems obsessed with luggage. Yes – suitcases. And lonely people. Some of the female subjects of his paintings are the most poignant I have ever seen.

Core to his concerns are concepts of emigration – images of suitcases and a lone traveler. Emigration seems to him to characterise human experience both in reality and existentially. Hence his categorisation by people who know what they are talking about as a ‘realist’ who sees reality as a starting point and not a limitation. The result is powerful images suggestive of displacement, uncertainty and loneliness.

You have to stand in front of them to see what I mean by this. (I’d never make an art critic…)

For some obscure reason this reminded me of Bill Viola‘s Nantes Tryptich which I saw nearly a decade ago (I think) at Tate Modern in London. Viola filmed the last thirty minutes of his mother’s life and the last thirty minutes of his wife’s labour, placing the former on the right and the latter on the left (I think) of a central video of a human figure floating through water. It was haunting and disturbing. Yet, it was also compelling – attempting to hold his audience to just thirty minutes of contemplation of mortality and time in the midst of a race through an art gallery. (What interested me was how few people seemed able to stick with the Tryptich for more than just a few minutes of curious voyeurism.)

Ideas of transience are not exactly new. But, representations of transience that make you stop and look differently at it demand real skill. Viola asked us to contemplate our mortality; Toral stacks his suitcases and invites us to consider the human experience of ‘leaving’. They both made me stop and, in their different ways, provoked reflection on Cain – the experience of common humanity depicted in Genesis 4.

Having found himself exiled from Eden and stranded in a meaningless expanse of uncontoured desert (‘the Land of Nod’), Cain builds defensive walls, constructs a world of meaning within them. We all need constructs of significance that make our transient life meaningful and not meaningless. If we leave God behind we still need to create some sort of structure that allows us to believe that life is not worth nothing. Of course, the problem comes when the defensive walls of our constructed world view get breached by loss or chaos or crisis (existential or otherwise). The point is, however, that common to all human beings is the need for life to be inherently meaningful and not simply random or pointless.

I have yet to meet anyone who claims that life is inherently meaningless… and lives accordingly.

Christian faith begins with an acceptance of mortality, of transience. It starts with an experience of human being and living that faces death and non-existence with frankness and realism. But, as Easter is all about, it does so in the light of a meaning found in the action of God the Creator raising Christ from death and shining new light on our living and dying. It doesn’t minimise the experience of loss or crisis, but it does challenge fear and dread.

It also suggests that Christians should start with people’s real experience and not with answers to questions they haven’t yet formulated. Our common humanity is where we should always start – empathetically as well as intellectually – because it is here that we shall also always finish.

I am writing this on a flight from Manchester to Atlanta, Georgia, where I will connect to Roanoke, Virginia, and spend a week visiting the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia which is linked with the Diocese of Bradford.

The only interesting bit of the flight so far was hearing two stewards agreeing that they “love the English accent”. “Which one?” was the question I wanted to ask. One of the amazing glories of England is that such a small island comprises so many distinct accents and dialects. I always pitied the German language Assistentin who came to Liverpool in the 1970s and, having spent too long in the company of Scouse teenagers, left feeling that she couldn’t understand a word of English after all. Ask about accent and you ask about the amazing history that makes it almost impossible to define what it means to be ‘English’.

Anyway, I was reading Thursday’s Guardian on my iPad and was struck by the piece by Martin Kettle on the newly-opened Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy in London which I long to see. I love David Hockney’s work: the vibrancy, the colour, the perception of a landscape as the seasons change, the transparency of the everyday and the banal that makes you look and think differently about what you take for granted in the familiar world around you every day.

Kettle says:

Hockney celebrates drawing because… drawing is an instinctive human act from an early age, and because teaching someone to draw better is to teach them to see better. He does not add that to see better is to understand better, and thus to communicate better, but it is implicit and central to everything else.

I remember taking a holiday with my young family in Gloucestershire when I was working as a linguist specialist in Cheltenham in the early 1980s. My wife was dabbling in art and understood the importance of drawing. She made me sit down for two hours, without distraction, and draw an orange. OK, miss out the bit where she asked me why I had drawn a banana, but I learned two important lessons: (a) when you are drawing, you concentrate and focus – and you look differently at the world; and (b) there are different ways of looking and seeing.

How would you draw a chair? An ordinary, bog-standard, unremarkable upright chair? Well, I started to look at the legs, the backrest, the seat. I tried to use a simple technique to get the perspective right. After an hour or so of drawing something rather naff,  the artist told me to start again and to look differently. She told me to draw the spaces between the seat and the legs and the backrest – out of those spaces the object would emerge.

And she was right. In fact, the chair looked more real and alive than it did when I tried to draw the object itself.

I think my point here is that we shouldn’t take for granted the way we look at what we think we see. This has a theological import, too. Sometimes we need to take our eye off the presenting object and look at the ‘space’ in order to see more accurately (or, at least, more interestingly) what is before us.

It was this that made me look at Mark’s Gospel differently several years ago (while writing Marking Time). The point of the gospel (and the filter through which to read the text and understand Jesus) is to be found in chapter one verses 14-15:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

For the Galileans, the only evidence that God was among his people again – that there was truly good news to be heard – was that the blasphemous Roman occupying forces were leaving. But Jesus asks people to look differently. The question now looks like this: “Can you possibly dare to believe that the holy God is here among you again… even while the profane Roman pagans remain? Dare you conceive of the possibility that God might be with you… even while your problems persist and resolution seems either impossible or, at least, remote? Dare you look differently (for the presence of God) in order to see differently in order to think differently (about God, the world and us) in order to live differently in the real world as it is now, but with a driving vision/narrative that imagines a different future?

The rest of the Gospel illustrates just who were those who could ‘repent’ (literally, from the Greek) ‘change their mind’… and who were those who just could not. Read it in this way and see the rather shocking picture that emerges.

Hockney is bewilderingly brilliant and exciting. I don’t look at a bend in a Yorkshire road and see orange fields and technicolor trees as he does. But he compels me to ask whether I am missing something in the world around me simply because I don’t stop and look and question and wonder.

Martin Kettle’s observation has wider pertinence:

… it seems to me that Hockney and his art express and address the kind of people and country that he and we wish we were. There is something religious in his work. And when Hockney takes a pop at Hirst, I, for one, will cheer, because he is taking a pop at the kind of country we have become, in which attitude is more important than morality, price trumps value, and in which to shock and make a name is privileged over doing something lovely or true.

A bloke came up to us in City Hall Gardens and asked for directions to somewhere we’d never heard of. He then ambled round asking other people. His t-shirt said: “Not everyone who wanders is lost.” Americans clearly do ‘do’ irony after all…

Anyway, there’s nothing quite like going round a circular art gallery for making your head spin.

The Guggenheim in New York City has a challenging exhibition (until 28 September) entitled ‘Marking Infinity’ and featuring work by ‘art-philosopher’ Lee Ufan. I put his self-description in inverted commas simply because the philosophy bit doesn’t quite fit.

The art is interesting – particularly the sculptures, which do make you think about space and balance and (for example) the relationship between iron and the stones from which the iron comes. His early stuff is also interesting in the use of space and colour. But the ‘Dialogues’ material left me questioning whether art can really do what he says it should.

Hands up: I am not an artist. I am not an art critic. I am an art virgin when it comes to experience and understanding. But, I think I know when language is being used to stitch me up. ‘Dialogues’ consists of large canvases or walls painted cream, with a squarish sort of silver-to-grey acrylic patch in diverse places – hard to explain without pictures.

Consider this by way of explanation: “Human beings live with dreams of transcendence. Art can be described as something that foreshadows and encourages reflection and leaps of imagination.” OK so far. Then: “Just as human beings are physical beings combining internality and externality, works of art should be living sites that mediate and sublimate self and others.” (From ‘Correspondance’, 2010) Meaning what…?

Ufan goes on elsewhere to say: “If a bell is struck, the sound reverberates into the distance. Similarly, if a point filled with mental energy is painted on a canvas (or a wall), it sends vibrations into the surrounding unpainted space… Yohaku [resonant space] transcends objects and words, leading people to silence and causing them to breathe infinity.” It certainly led me to silence – the silence of trying to understand the words. What exactly is the ‘infinity’ we are supposed to be breathing?

I must be lacking imagination here – my wife certainly thinks so and she is an artist. I can understand an artist expending mental energy in deciding where to apply the acrylic on the wall; I can’t, however, see how the mental energy itself is transmitted into an inanimate object. I can see how the acrylic ‘changes’ the space around it, but can’t see what that has to do with the artist’s mental energy. I can understand how the art provokes or evokes an investment of mental energy on the part of the beholder, but that doesn’t seem to be what Ufan is saying.

Later in the exhibition we read: “For Lee, restraint in creating art… transforms his works from material objects to fleeting lived experiences, and his nonproduction serves as a nuanced critique of our globalised society of surplus and overproduction. By not making, Lee inspires a kind of productive passivity in which emptiness and open time are given meaning and substance.”

In the same way that the five books I have not written provide a powerful critique of the publishing industry’s überfertility? How is the decision to do nothing suddenly pregnant with ‘somethingness’? This just sounds to my ears like … er … weird. I fully confess I might be missing something here, but the artist (or curator) cannot do a Humpty Dumpty and simply use deep-sounding words to create a fog of fine-sounding but inherently meaningless sentiment.

Does Lee Ufan really mean that the artist commits his imagination and energy into creating something that, hopefully, will cause the observer to stop and wonder what is going on? If so, I agree with him. But, why couldn’t he just say so? (I have just seen a cab with an advert on it that read: ‘Creating the intersection between taste and flavor’. Blimey…)

Lee Ufan’s work did, however, make me look at the rest of the Guggenheim with a different eye. It seemed to me that people moved quickly through his exhibitions – rarely standing and looking for long – but then crowded out the wonderful Kandinsky exhibition (space, line, object and perspective in dialogue). The Nazis closed down the subversive Bauhaus; I doubt if they would have bothered with Lee Ufan. The impressive Thannhauser Gallery with its Monet, Manet, Seurat, Cezanne, Degas, Pisarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Picasso, (pre-Cubist) Braque, etc. was packed. Or were we all missing the point Ufan was trying to make?

If Ufan was trying to make a comment about overproduction and consumerism in the art world, I think he failed. Hans-Peter Feldmann, on the other hand, fills a large space with 100,000 dollar bills pinned to the walls – exactly the amount he won in 2010 for the Hugo Boss Prize. As well as funny, he makes his point about art as consumer commodity very well.

To return to Ufan’s comment at the beginning about the human dream for transcendence, I couldn’t help notice that almost next door to the Guggenheim is the (Episcopal) Church of the Heavenly Rest. Put to one side the silly name, this church also seeks to meet the human need for transcendence in a variety of ways, some of which involve invitation to worship, contemplate, sit and pray. But they also look after homeless people and feed the hungry.

Transcendence has to be held down to earth. I guess Ufan might agree, but would want to describe it in esoteric language which only other ‘initiates’ might understand.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:New York, USA

Last Friday (1 April) my election as the tenth Bishop of Bradford was confirmed in a (mostly legal) ceremony at York Minster. Having a bit of time to kill before the service and legal ceremony, we went to have a look at the David Hockney exhibition in the City Art Gallery.

You go in through the front doors (not surprisingly) and ahead of you is a large room with a fifty-panel painting mounted on one wall: Bigger Trees Near Warter. On the facing wall there are explanations of process and there are computer displays explaining how and why Hockney set about this task in the first place.

What is interesting about the enormous painting is that it depicts an ordinary scene on the bend of a road near some buildings in North Yorkshire. It is the sort of place I have driven through many times and not noticed. Whereas I see a bit of countryside that has to be driven through if I am to get from where I was to where I want to be, Hockney sees a scene that captures the nature or spirit of a particular environment. I see ‘shallow’ and functionally; Hockney sees ‘deep’ and artistically. This might be because he is looking for somewhere to paint and I am keeping my eyes on the bendy, narrow roads – but you get my point.

I was musing on this while looking at the painting in the art gallery. Sometimes what we are looking for determines (or, at the very least, influences) what we see or how we look. And the gift of the artist is to invite us to look differently and see places (or things) differently. The artist asks us to look through a different lens and risk the potential for changing our perspective, having seen the object differently. It is what the Bible calls ‘repentance’ – changing how we look in order to change the way we see in order to change the way we think in order to change the way we live.

My wife remarked that Hockney “takes the ordinary, sees it differently, and makes it monumental”.

The second thing that struck me about Hockney’s work was an easily-missed comment on one of the explanatory panels in the gallery. His method involves observing, then painting very quickly. When you are doing this with fifty panels it is possible to end up with several large, wet panels at one time. So, he and his assistant had to modify their vehicle and construct a frame in the back so that these panels could be transported in whatever condition and without damage or compromise. Questioned about the characteristic spontaneity of his painting method, Hockey replied: “You’ve really got to prepare if you’re going to be spontaneous.”

It’s one of those annoying things that the people who make life look easy are those who have dug deep foundations and prepared well. Preparation is everything. The radio and TV presenter Chris Evans describes in It’s Not What You Think, the excellent first part of his two-volume autobiography, how his radio programmes are meticulously prepared for using pie charts. He only manages to get the effect of spontaneity because the whole thing is broken down into smaller units and is thoroughly prepared. It is impressive to see it in action.

Spontaneity is sometimes used as an excuse for laziness. A politician might be tempted to ‘wing it’ – or (he says…) a preacher to ruminate from the wells of experience, but we usually get found out. We become repetitive, uninspiring or embarrassed when questioned. Preparing for a radio documentary interview a month or so ago (for Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday on BBC Radio 4 – going out in May), I checked basic facts, read lyrics and even bought three CDs I had last owned on tape. The interviewer turned up in my office the next morning with books, CDs and other resources and was surprised to find I didn’t need them – I had thoroughly prepared and knew what I was talking about (or limited what we did talk about to what I knew…). He kept remarking on it – much to my surprise as I couldn’t imagine doing the interview without having done my own research.

OK, I’ve winged it with the best and the rest of them. I’ve occasionally got away with murder and also know what it feels like to be found out – faced in front of a camera or microphone with a question for which I was not prepared. I’ve also been arrogant enough to think people would be interested in my unique perspective, only to find from their body language that I was mistaken.

As Tony Blair might have said (but didn’t): ‘Preparation, preparation, preparation’.


Yesterday I was at St Francis, West Wickham, to celebrate 75 years of the church being there and to dedicate a window. The word ‘dedicate’ matters. At a conference the day before, when I was asked what I was doing on Sunday, I said I was ‘opening a window.’ Naturally, this drew derisory remarks about whether such basic activities really demand a liturgy.

It reminded me of a society we started at Trinity College when I was studying there in the mid-1980s. Some of us were (a) bored with some elements of Pauline theology and (b) spotted the gaps in the curriculum. So, we set up a group called the ‘Eutychus Society’ in honour of the man who fell out of a window in Troas when he fell asleep listening to Paul preach. I typed up and edited the journal (on an Amstrad 8256!) which we called The Window. We designed a logo of an open window and then realised we needed a Latin motto to complete our credibility. Unfortunately, none of us knew much Latin; so, I came up with ‘Nils fallem ex fenestra’ (‘let us not fall out of the window’) – which survived until some cleverer and more literate member of staff cried with horror and translated it properly.

The new window in West Wickham is simply wonderful and needs to be seen. Designed and made by Andrew Taylor, it replaces a 1970s depiction of a rather effete St Francis indulging his usual predilection for fluffy animals and birdies. Which, of course, misses the point of the bloke. The new window opens up the heart of Francis’s response to God – looking at the world through Francis’s eyes. My picture doesn’t do it justice, but it brings nature and city together around the cross and the fire of God’s love. The wording at the bottom of the second panel is taken from Micah 6:8:

And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

The wording on the sixth panel is taken from the Prayer of St Francis:

 for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

The workmanship is stunning, the design beautiful, the effect simply to draw us through the images to the reality of Francis’s discipleship – one that took Jesus with the utmost seriousness and cost him everything. Nothing romantic here.

abbothallThe Abbot Hall art gallery in Kendal (in the beautiful southern Lake District of England) stages some wonderful exhibitions and they almost always earn great reviews in the national newspapers in the UK. It is the sort of gallery that can only be described as ‘small, but beautifully formed’. If the wonderful Brewery Arts Centre creates the space for an amazing range of arts and culture for all sorts of people, Abbot Hall offers a quieter, more reflective encounter with art – but always with surprises.

 We went to see the David Nash exhibition partly out of interest, but also partly because the rain was unremittingly awful and we had time to kill.

Two features of the exhibition struck me. First, Nash frequently takes vertical pieces of wood and inserts into them pieces of slate. Coming Down Straight (1974) is one such work and it represented for me the fact that ‘normal’ (or ‘regular’) life is constantly interrupted by irritants that sit uneasily in our experience – almost alien intrusions into how we would like to see our life and our self. It compelled me to reflect on the ‘grit’ in my life – those unwelcome intrusions that at least make me realise I am (a) alive and (b) not in control of everything.

 The second was a video stream that followed a chunk of wood on a thirty-year journey through Wales. I know: it sounds weird.

Boulder (David Nash)Nash carved a ‘boulder’ out of a fallen tree in 1978 and pushed it into a river. He then filmed it as it got re-shaped, transported, moved and deposited by nature through three decades. In 2003 (when the video ends) it had finally disappeared, apparently having been swept out to sea. It had moved miles before it finally went missing. Nash observed in 2004: ‘It is not lost; it is where it is.’ Then, in June 2009 it reappeared, having been submerged for six years.

 This was a reminder of the transience of life and the impossibility of ever saying that an ‘end’ has come. There is always the possibility of surprise. That something has become hidden does not mean it has gone. That something is not where I wish it to be does not mean that it is now nowhere. I realise that I all too easily see things only in relation to their proximity to me – which might be misleading in the grand scheme of things.

This evokes again my plea to myself as well as others for what I call a confident humility – that however sure I am about the ways of God and the world, I must reserve the possibility that I have a partial perspective and that this might change in the future.

 After all, resurrection was a bit of a surprise. So, no change there then.

I spent several hours yesterday afternoon in the wonderful Tate Modern on London’s South Bank. The big pull was the Rodchenko & Popova exhibition, Defining Constructivism. Being interested in things Russian, this was a fascinating enquiry into Constructivism’s attempt to do art under the newly-formed revolutionary socialist Soviet Union – functional, abstract and pragmatic. Or not.

Trotsky cardThe exhibition has to be viewed as if we were back in the 1920s and not with the benefit of 2009 hindsight. The revolution was precarious; there was no gurantee it would survive; there was massive economic upheaval and poverty was awful across Russia. We know what happened as the twentieth century rolled on, but the Constructivists did not. It is a fascinating exhibition and worth a visit. (Although, given that so much of the exhibits contain words in Russian, it is odd that no translation is provided. In some cases the exhibit cannot properly be understood without an understanding of the content.)

TrotskyHowever, that aside, I was also reminded that Nicky Gumbel wasn’t the first to write a book called ‘Questions of Life’ with a big question mark on it.

Leon Trotsky wrote his Voprosi Byta (bizarrely translated at Tate Modern as ‘Questions of Everyday Life’) in 1923. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t come to the same conclusions as the Alpha Course.