Ten Years After

Poptones/Careering (PIL)

My ‘mid-career retrospective’ took place a decade ago at Beaconsfield, an artist-run gallery based on experimentation and crossover, following two decades of a fairly ‘successful’ career as a young(ish) British artist. But then as now I was more interested in looking forwards than backwards, so I installed four new works, including Christian Disco and Love Missile, alongside a video jukebox containing 36 previous works, including Goin’ Back, Scorpio Rising 2,  Ascension, and The Return of Jackie & Judy. The show was positively reviewed in art journals including Artforum and Art Monthly; but while the show’s title The Beginning of the End referenced my customary loops, it also projected the termination of my career as an artist after ordination as a priest.

The first sign that the situation might not be as binary as this came before the show opened, when I received a Paul Hamlyn Award for Artists, a three year stipend which allowed me to self-fund my curacy while continuing to work as an artist, after which I was appointed as a chaplain and interfaith advisor to University of the Arts London, partly on the basis of my ongoing art practice. So although my career changed, it did not end; and while I don’t expect people in the art world to necessarily be interested in the language of faith, or vice versa, I have found there are crossovers and shared concerns.

Still, it took me a while to work out what works, and where. Christian Disco was subsequently shown in art establishments including Tate Britain and the Boijmans Museum. Nothing Compares 2 U, which was first shown alongside the work of another artist-priest, Dom Sylvester Houédard, in a British Council exhibition exploring the relation of art to worship, was later purchased by Espoo Museum of Modern Art for the Saastamoinen Collection.

But I wanted to see what happened when I took my work as an artist into a specifically religious context. I projected Stations of the Cross onto the Henry Moore altar in an all-night vigil at St Stephen Walbrook, and installed Stations of the Resurrection in St Paul’s Cathedral. Out of this has grown Arts Chaplaincy Projects; mostly this involves the work of other artists, but I have also shown my own work in this context, including Pastiche Mass.

In all this, the question of the relation between contemporary art and religion, and my place within that, has been ongoing. I know that I have to put my work as a priest first — but what is this work, and where is the boundary with art? Also, priority is not just hierarchical, but temporal; I was an artist before I became a priest. This might explain why I cannot stop making art, even when it does not obviously fit into the parameters of the church — or indeed the art world. In this way I am perhaps not so different to many other artists — and certainly not to the kind of artist I was before I had a ‘career’.

I believe in God, and I believe in art. I have a faith, and I have a practice. Both of these involve communication with other people, which I don’t always find easy — especially in the context of the institutions of art, or religion. Of course, it is a mistake to use such general terms; I am interested in specificity, in art as well as religion, problematic as this may be. So perhaps I should specify the art as appropriation, and the religion as Christianity. But what kind of appropriation, and what kind of Christianity? And so these questions persist; to be specific takes ongoing work. I believe that artists can teach religious people something about this process, especially where the material meets the immaterial. On the other hand, I think art has something to learn from religion about a specificity that is not based on individualism. [read more]