Peace, good will, and perspex

09 December 2008

Jonathan Evens tells the story of an art initiative in Ilford

THEY SAY that you can’t make art by committee, but the response to an installation created for Advent in the London Borough of Redbridge suggests that it can be worth the effort. The installation (photo, right) was created by a group from the six churches where the work is being displayed.

The project was initiated by the Priest-in-Charge of St Luke’s, Great Ilford, the Revd John Brown, who says: “We decided to develop a mobile art project to be designed, executed, and then displayed in the Ilford area from 1 to 24 December 2008. Our intention was that the installation would form the focal point in our churches for a place of stillness and reflection.”

The aim was to create a restful space that would enable Christians and non-Christians alike to find a space to relax and reflect — “an alternative to the business that the Christmas period brings”.

The planning group began by pooling ideas for an installation on the theme of light which would be created as a triptych on three large transportable panels. John Brown said: “We chose the theme of light as a symbol that crosses faiths and cultures and therefore would have as wide an appeal as possible.”

Ideas initially discussed included abstract or fragmented imagery using holes in screens, fragments of stained glass, mirrors, fabrics, lights, candles, and water. From these initial beginnings, the group explored their ideas through concept sketches and discussion of images drawn from artists such as Mark Rothko and Daniela Schönbächler.

From these meetings emerged the final concept of an installation com­prising three panels of mirrored per­spex mounted on wooden backing panels. The mirrored surfaces are painted to an abstract design using differing textures and densities of paint, while areas left unpainted form the shape of a star and the repeated word “peace”. One of the key concepts of the work is that people become a part of the installa­tion by viewing themselves in these mirrored surfaces.

A meditation on the installation sets out the concepts involved. “The sombre colours and rectangular voids of this abstract artwork may recall works by Mark Rothko which hang in Tate Modern. Rothko’s later paintings have often been understood as depictions of the absence of God and the darkness of the world; an impression reinforced by Rothko’s suicide on the day that the Tate received those paintings.

“Similarly, St Paul wrote that our experience in life is that of seeing in a mirror dimly; we do not see clearly and our understanding of life is clouded, he seemed to say. That may also be our experience in this installation, where the abstract colour has been applied to mirrored perspex, clouding our ability to see clearly in the mirrored panels of the installation. Yet the poet, Martin Wroe, has written that God can be seen as ‘the abstract art of paint and poem when our propaganda makes everything clear’.

“In the darkness of the abstract design, we can still see reflected the candles, lit within the space where the artwork stands, and picked out on the panels, forming a star, are also lines of clear reflection. The light beaming from the star on the right panel is linked by a line to the repeated word ‘Peace’ on the left. In what ways might there be links be­tween light and peace in the darkness of our world?

“What do we see as we look into the blurred and clear mirrored spaces of this installation? Essentially, as in any mirror, we see ourselves, both blurred and distinct. Are we defined by the darkness or are we one of the many points of light reflected in the darkness of this design? Is the reflection of our light blurred or distinct as we shine in the world? In what ways could we be­come light bringers and peace makers? After all, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

THE installation was painted by artist Henry Shelton and me. For Mr Shelton, it has been the first time that he has been part of a com­munity art project. The experience has been one that he has found “very interesting at the initial meetings and working on the project with the rest of the team”.

The project has been supported by the Bishop of Barking, Rt Revd David Hawkins, who sees a big need for the Church to re-engage with the arts: “The Church has had a lengthy and happy marriage with the arts in the past, but needs more artists. I agree with Rowan Williams that ‘artists are special people and every person is a special kind of artist.’”

Bishop Hawkins is an artist, too, and has been working with Henry Shelton and me to further that re-engagement with the arts by forming “commission4mission”: a new arts organisation seeking to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary Christian art in churches as a means of fund-raising for charities and as a mission opportunity.

The Advent art installation is an initial example of what we hope will be achieved through this new initiative — as John Brown puts it, to show that art in churches can “be a haven of peace in a busy world and a sign of much-needed hope in the present moment”.

The installation has toured to St Luke’s, Baxter Road, and St Alban’s, Albert Road. It is at: St John’s, St John’s Road, until today; St Andrew’s, The Drive, until 16 December; St Margaret’s, Perth Road, 17-20 December; and The Vine Church, Riches Road, 21-23 December. For more details, phone the Revd John Brown on 020 8553 7606.

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