Southwark Cathedral Lent Art Installations

Contemporary art is given an entirely new aspect in an ambitious programme currently running at London’s Southwark Cathedral. Every year a monumental sculpture of museum quality is installed for the Cathedral’s Lent Art Programme. Running from Shrove Tuesday to Good Friday, each successive installation is a major undertaking to bring contemporary art to the spiritual journey of Lent. ‘Lent is a time to think more deeply, study more deeply, and engage with scriptures more deeply. The Lent Art Programme challenges conventional ways in to this contemplation’, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark, told us.

Since 2012, works by David Mach RA, Nic Fiddian-Green, Angela Wright, Edmund de Waal OBE and this year Angela Glajcar, have been installed, and Southwark’s Lent Art Programme has become a warmly anticipated part of the Cathedral’s calendar. ‘The installations are not just a piece of art but provoke thoughts about the religious side of life,’ said one of the Cathedral’s Vergers, ‘We look forward to seeing how they are going to be interpreted by the visitors and the congregation.’

Responses to the art have been overwhelmingly positive and extremely varied, just as the Dean and Chapter hoped. Artists have given talks to receptive audiences in the Cathedral, the major national broadsheet newspapers have variously covered it, the programme has been included in art exhibition listings, Angela Glajcar was featured in conversation with the Dean on BBC Radio London, and images on the Cathedral’s Pinterest board get re-pinned months and years later. A sample of visitors’ comments from 2014 reflect reactions:- ‘astonishingly ambitious, powerful and peaceful’, ‘the installation is stunning’, ‘spirit lifting’, ‘profound and moving’.

The idea for a focused programme developed from the Cathedral’s long involvement in exhibiting contemporary art on an occasional basis. Andrew Logan’s Constellation hangs in the Cathedral from Christmas Eve to Candlemas, and Emily Voirin’s Minimal Nativity Set replaced a more traditional nativity scene in 2014. ‘The Lent programme really started with Charlotte Mayer’s The Thornflower ’ Southwark’s Director of Development, Rose Harding, told us.The Thornflower was in the Cathedral from March to June 2011, Lent to Pentecost. For Mayer, ‘Thornflower is more than just a piece of sculpture’. It was made in memory of her grandmother who was interned as a Jew by the Nazis and died in Treblinka. The work is an uncompromising juxtaposition of stainless steel upright spikes, encircled by softer bands of flowing bronze. It is now on permanent display at St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in Bishopsgate, London.

The Southwark version of The Thornflower stands at 150cm high. The Cathedral, however, is over 40 metres high, part medieval and part Victorian Gothic with a nave and ornate altar screen designed by Sir Ninian Comper. On entering the space, attention is pulled in multiple directions by the myriad carvings, stained glass, art and images from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries. The Dean and Chapter began to realise that there was potential for a contemporary artist to create something much bigger. 

Plans were already underway for an exhibition marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in November 2011. Sophie Dickens rich, red, wood carvings The Four Evangelists, were positioned in the Cathedral’s nave. Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are represented by winged angel, lion, ox and eagle respectively, as described in the Bible’s Books of Ezekiel and Revelations. At nearly life-size, and extremely heavy, the sculptures proved to be a major installation challenge. A visiting cleric however, the Reverend Professor Richard Burridge, Dean of London University’s King’s College, based an entire Sunday Sermon on the works using them as an intellectual challenge: ‘The ancients used these four images as images of the Word of God incarnate that was reflected in the written words of Scripture and what Sophie Dickens has done for us is the same today, to interpret that Word. Read the Bible in this 400th year if in no other.’

The combination of the physical and intellectual challenges of siting contemporary art in the Cathedral would have put many off the whole business. To the staff and clergy at Southwark this was a challenge to rise to, and the occasional art programme evolved into the structured Lent Art Installations. Rose Harding describes the programme as ‘a transient public monument that informs and takes anyone through the journey of Lent.’ It is much bolder than that, as the 2012 installation of David Mach’s uncompromising Die Harder demonstrates. 

Precious Light, a large solo exhibition by David Mach at Edinburgh City Art Centre, also marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, led Rose to Die Harder. A monumental crucifixion made out of steel and 3,000 coat hangers with straightened hooks, standing nearly 5 metres high, Die Harder is described by the Dean Andrew Nunn as ‘an extremely difficult piece to look at but compelling to return to.’ While it fits within the visual canon of Christian imagery, to describe it as challenging would be an understatement, especially in the context of a contemplative art programme to aid a deeper understanding. It screams pain.

Placed at the end of the Cathedral’s Victorian Gothic nave, behind the lower altar where services are led, Die Harder blocked the ornate high altar reredos. In many Christian traditions of Lent, statues and images in churches are covered with violet vestments, the sensory deprivation reflecting the inward spiritual journey Jesus made during his 40 days in the desert. Southwark Cathedral veils all its statues and artworks on Passion Sunday until Easter Day when the church is filled with an abundance of yellow daffodils. The Lent Art Installation becomes the main visual focus for the entire Cathedral.

The congregation took the point. Die Harder produced strong, but no negative reactions to the idea of installing challenging contemporary art in the historic Cathedral building. ‘I felt it was the right setting for such a powerful piece about such a major moment in time’, David Mach told us. David Mach himself is not religious, which is perhaps why he is able to examine religious themes with such a clear and unsentimental eye. ‘I was advised by anybody I spoke to not to do the Precious Light exhibition but the reactions to it were amazing, and the religious setting multiplies the reactions.’

By 2013 the congregation had come to expect and enjoy the surprise element of not knowing the art before its revelation on Ash Wednesday. David Mach’s Die Harderhad not been exhibited in London until Southwark installed it. Nic Fiddian-Green’s work was well-known in London through his vast bronze horse’s head, Still Water, at Marble Arch, but his figurative heads are less known. The Cathedral knew of Fiddian-Green’s work through his connection with the Wintershall Plays. Based in Wintershall village in Surrey, Fiddian-Green has long had a connection with the open air biblical plays which use a large cast of local people to retell the Nativity, the Life of Christ, and at Easter a Passion Play which tours to Trafalgar Square on Good Friday.

Nic Fiddian-Green had been quietly working on the face of Christ for over 20 years with no exhibition in mind. Following a suggestion from Tim Travis, Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Southwark approached Fiddian-Green via the Watts Gallery in Guildford, and it all came together in Christ Rests in Peace. A vast head of Jesus lying on its side, cast in lead with gold leaf tips to the crown of thorns, it was placed on an octagonal table in the centre of the Cathedral’s choir. This work was made specifically for the Lenten Art Programme and is the largest head of Christ that Fiddian-Green has made yet.

For the artist Christ Rests in Peace was a personal journey. As he spent time with his dying father, Fiddian-Green became inspired to ‘make studies of death as portrayed in the face of Christ’. Fiddian-Green is, so far, unusual in the programme because he brings a strong Christian faith to his work. Making the work as a site-specific piece for the Cathedral was an experience Fiddian-Green describes as ‘profound, difficult, personal and public, the challenging subject of Christ, death and life was powerful and inspiring.’ He relished the questions people asked during the talks he gave at Southwark as a challenge to ‘search deeper for the meaning.’

Dean Andrew Nunn describes Christ Rests in Peace as ‘challenging for people as an image of Jesus in the tomb’, a brief period of three days that is frequently glided over, eclipsed by the resurrection story of Easter Day. Images of Christ on the cross are abundant, but images of the dead Christ are limited to Pietàs or scenes at the tomb. Fiddian-Green’s work is a close-up focused study. In the context of the Cathedral, the transient nature of the installation gave viewers a reassuring opportunity to contemplate the face of a death that will pass, or in the Dean’s words the work is ‘a peaceful challenge to how we Christians face up to our own death – a chance to stay with the three days.’

The initial suggestion of an artist is made by Rose Harding, and has to be approved by three committees, including the Fabric Advisory Committee for the Cathedral’s building, chaired by the Reverend Canon Charles Pickstone. The final piece has to be signed off by the Dean. ‘The feel and impact of the work is extremely important, and its relationship to the setting of the Cathedral, as well as the contemplative meaning that the work will bring to the observance of Lent.’ Rose continues, ‘not everything is approved.’

Rose was understandably reluctant to tell us what had been turned down, but is conscious of making a dramatic departure from figurative to abstract work last year with Angela Wright and Edmund de Waal. Angela Wright contacted the Cathedral to see if she could be an artist-in-residence, the subsequent conversation turned into a proposal for Lent 2014. 40 Days is a huge hank of thick wool, hanging 15.3 metres down from the top of Sir Ninian Comper’s high altar reredos, to pool on the altar steps and floor of the choir below.

Wright works as an installation artist, ‘the only permanent display is on my website’, featuring photographs of the various interventions she has made in silk, wool, paper and clay. She chose wool for Southwark because of its special qualities of ‘colour, softness, smell, and associations both everyday and biblical.’

‘My work is very much about response to immediate environments. I have added works to churches, cathedrals, and an abbey. Their environments are complex and enclosed, partaking of architecture, light, history, spirituality and sociality. This richness impacts on my work and I believe that my installations, while they are in situ, create a new dynamic order in these environments,’ Wright told us. 

The huge scale of Wright’s work, 500 miles of wool, made its presence felt beyond the choir, filling the space with the scent of lanolin. For the Dean, who ‘always writes a reflection on the piece’, the abstract nature of the work gave rise to unexpected associations. He describes an exchange with some of 10,500 children who visit the Cathedral each year via the Education Centre. ‘What’s that?’ a group of Year 2s asked, ‘It’s God’s beard,’ a girl answered with certainty. ‘It’s a very big beard’, the Dean responded, to which a little boy explained patiently, ‘It’s big because God is big.’

The temporary nature of the programme means that works can be made specially for the Cathedral, and go on to have a new life beyond the installation. Nic Fiddian-Green is in discussion with the Devon parish of Ilfracombe as a permanent home for Christ Rests in Peace. Angela Wright’s 40 Days ceased to exist as a piece of art when the 40 days of Lent were over. ‘It feels right to let go of a work, however important it might have been to me. Letting go allows new things to happen and for the space my work occupied to be reclaimed,’ she commented. The Southwark hanks of wool may be re-used for another installation in a Cathedral outside the UK.

Edmund de Waal chose to site his work in the space behind the high altar with its dramatic fall of wool, in the quieter, more hidden thirteenth-century retro choir. Another Hour, ‘is composed of twelve 7ft tall towers containing a single white porcelain vessel… installed in a serpentine line throughout the retro choir … They are my attempt to make you pause, to stand still and listen in this vast building, and contemplate the changing light and shadow of the space.’ De Waal’s work was already familiar to the Cathedral through his father’s role as Dean of Canterbury from 1976 to 1986. 

Taking abstraction to a more mysterious level, Another Hourconceals its treasures, playing with translucent and obscured glass, to hide the pots de Waal is known for. Each vitrine contains only one vessel, a new departure for de Waal, suggesting the isolation of a lonely journey through every hour of 40 days in the wilderness. De Waal started using vitrines in his work after completing his family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes in 2010, and writes about their effect on what they contain: ‘vitrines exist so that you can see objects, but not touch them: they frame things, suspend them, tantalise through distance.’

Canon Charles Pickstone, Chairman of Southwark Cathedral’s Fabric Advisory Committee, was so taken by Another Hour, he wrote about the contrast between ‘modernist aesthetics and mediaeval romance … placed in awkward conjunction; their juxtaposition strips both worlds of their idolatrous aspiration to supremacy.’ (Published in The Bridge, the Diocese of Southwark’s newspaper). De Waal was especially excited to see his work in the Cathedral, and how the tower vitrines would work in the ancient retro choir with light filtering through stained glass windows. The transience of the installation enabled him to treat it as a ‘work in progress’, and for new work to develop from it.

Each year the art works have to be installed on Shrove Tuesday, and removed on Holy Saturday. Every detail has to be carefully planned well in advance so that the installation and the de-installation go smoothly within the small time-frame. Working every year with the same trusted technician, who has experience in both visual art and theatre, is essential to the success of the programme.

This year’s installation by the German artist, Angela Glajcar is the result of two years’ careful planning. Within the Light is a large installation of long sheets of glass fabric suspended in a swoop above the choir. Like Edmund de Waal’s work it demands that viewers move around, taking in different views, and it rewards with surprising effects when you look up. Glajcar’s work is particularly hard to photograph, but images on the internet of the artist’s Curalium, installed in a church in the USA, caught Rose’s attention. By happy coincidence, Glajcar was preparing for her first solo exhibition at London’s Andipa Gallery and so discussions started.

Like Angela Wright, Angela Glajcar is secular, although she frequently exhibits her work in churches, which is how Southwark came to find her. Rose points out that it is the effect of the work that is important, ‘the artist can be of any faith or of no faith at all.’ Glajcar’s work has been exhibited in several religious spaces including Church Allerheiligen in Frankfurt, St Peter’s in Cologne, St Joseph Memorial Chapel in Worcester, USA, Sint-Anna-ten-Drieënkerk, Antwerp, and Abbaye d’Alspach in France.

For Southwark, Glajcar has installed sheets of glass fabric, some partially frayed, hanging in a swoop from a single point at the reredos and opening up across the choir towards the main aisle of the cathedral. Angela Glajcar writes on her website: ‘My way of working on the material … the tearing out creates new interior spaces. And maybe the atmosphere of a church, as a place of retreat and withdrawal, offers to the spectator a possibility to get involved with this interior space in a particularly open way.’

From the images, it seems as if the work will dominate the Cathedral’s space, but on entering the space the work sits quietly at the top end of the aisle, and only begins to reveal itself as you move around the space, towards it and underneath it. After seeing it installed, the Dean has decided to hold a series of candlelit meditation evenings during Holy Week underneath its canopy.

Southwark Cathedral receives no special funding for its ambitious and innovative programme and every year manages to raise the necessary monies. The 2015 installation has been partly enabled by a donation from the London Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, as well as generous private donations.

We asked Rose about any particular difficulties they had encountered over the years. Nothing insurmountable was the response. In 2014, Doorkins Magnificat, the gloriously named Cathedral tabby, had to go to a cattery for the duration of Lent to prevent her making a massive cat’s cradle out of 40 Days. The Dean took her.

The Dean clearly defines the main purpose of the Cathedral as the ‘development of faith’. The development of the installations can be read as a resolution of the contrasting opposites within all faiths and within each artwork, the painful but compelling work of David Mach, a study of permanence and transience by Nic Fiddian-Green, vast scale and fragile temporality in Angela Wright, and shadowed mystery within the minimal aesthetic of Edmund de Waal. The gentle solidity of Angela Glajcar’s work seems like a welcome relief to some of the tensions explored in previous installations, but as you look more closely the translucent fabric throws up questions of concealment as much as revelation.

Southwark’s Lent Installations have reached the attention of people involved in cultural life beyond the Cathedral’s precincts. Dr Stephen Shaw of the Creative Industries Research Centre encourages visitors, writing that the installations ‘may beautify, but they do not decorate Southwark Cathedral, nor is this an art gallery. Since 2012, the Lent installations have demonstrated the extraordinary power of contemporary visual art to connect with people’s lives: big, bold sculptural pieces in metal, ceramic, wood, wool, glass, and so on. In doing so, they transform the way we see and take in the historic nave and retro choir through encounters with space, place and objects that can only be experienced by going there and walking around the Cathedral floor.’

Kirsten Dunne, the Greater London Authority’s Senior Cultural Strategist for the Fourth Plinth described the programme as ‘a quietly ambitious treasure in the heart of London. The installations to date have been considered and sensitive, responding to the beauty and history of the Cathedral, but retaining their power as individual works of sculpture.’ We agree, and asked about plans for 2016. Rose is discreet; she still needs to go through three committees for final approval.

Main image: Angela Glajcar, Within the Light, 2015, glass fabric (photo: courtesy of Southwark Cathedral)

Aurora Corio