Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

Tate Modern: Tino Seghal, performance and liturgy

July 26, 2012 1 comment

It’s not new to suggest that art galleries and museums have replaced some of the functions of the medieval great churches in the modern world. I was struck by how true this has become several years ago, on a bend above Bilbao, looking down at the great silver beast that is Gehry’s Guggenheim: alien, eye-catching, spectacular, strange, utterly dominating the city, entirely cultural (or spiritual, or non-practical) in function. Has anything been built in the modern world that comes closer to the vainglorious spiritual display of the cathedrals?

Much the same could be said of Tate Modern, conducting a 1930s/1670s face-off across the Thames, umbilically/spiritually dis/connected by the Wobbly Bridge, with its nave-like Turbine Hall — and now it has a crypt, the Tanks.

We do here what we do in churches, walk through vast designed spaces talking in a whisper, stopping to gaze at Significant Objects placed artfully among them.

But Tino Sehgal’s current event/’installation’ in the Turbine Hall ( takes the analogy deeper, or it did for me: this is not art at all, in that there are no objects whatsoever; this is performance, and as any fule kno performance, theatre, ritual and liturgy are concepts that blur one into the other.

As someone who often participates in liturgy with emotions that are at once mixed and strong, the whole thing was partly a little test-tube sample of what such concepts might mean.

People wander the Turbine Hall. They come up to you suddenly, friendly and confessional, and tell you intimate emotional details of their lives, engage in conversations one rarely has with firends, with total strangers. This breaking-up of the normal orders of social interaction is an element of ritual, too, I think.

And then they run: like particles caught in some invisibly-ordered current, they start off slowly and end up zooming everywhere, filling the space with exertion (‘you can tell who are the performers’, said my daughter, ‘they’re the ones who are wearing trainers and are sweating’). The point being that, when they’re all running around, one wants to join in, to be part of this abandoned race in the great space. And sometimes, other people do (kids especially?), and it is hard to be sure who is a performer and who is not.

But also that most of us  hold back, wanting to be part of it, but needing permission first; and when we’ve decided that it’s ok just to join in, realising that the running people are following some invisible rules about who is chasing who and where they are going, and that these rules themselves seem to vary, and so it’s hard to join in without asking what the rules are. You can try asking the friendly confidantes, but the answers are at once friendly and faintly evasive.

So one is forced into the position of observer. Does that mean the performers are some kind of priesthood, and I am a congregant? I stand among them, enjoying the spectacle, trying to work out how to participate, worried I’ll get something wrong, wanting to run in the Hall, too.

And then I notice that on the bridge above us, a large crowd has gathered, passively watching. This, then is the difference between audience and congregant. Tho audiences are complicit in performance in all kinds of ways, staying voluntarily silent, clapping at the ends of things, congregants are participating in a wholly different way. The event itself is less valid without their presence – mind you, that’s true of theatre, too; more to the point their participation, at certain moments and in certain ways, is part of the point of the things done.

So are these sweaty people in their trainers a priesthood, at once validating our observation and setting themselves apart by their knowledge of the unwritten rules, at once the focus of our attention and set apart? And standing here among them, am I trying to be of them, or bending the rules, or doing what it is that is meant to be done?

Perhaps one day these kinds of events and these kinds of places really will morph into a new liturgy, just as new liturgies have become more spontaneous and less formal. Rites without gods, yet still somehow essential.

Categories: Spirituality

Occupy London — Paulsbury revived

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Placards announce that the Beginning is Nigh; the model of an Imminent End — whether it be Resurrection or Revolution — is buried deep in the Western psyche: we hurtle forwards, perpetually about to fall off the cliff. But the end is also the beginning, and at St Paul’s they are rushing to roll the world back in deep time: stop the future, I want to get off.

First, there’s the ancient nature of this site. The top of Ludgate Hill has almost certainly been the site of the cathedral of London since the earliest decades of English (as opposed to British) Christianity, when it stood in a liminal zone between the lost kingdoms of Kent and East Anglia. And there was a cathedral for London, site unknown but very possibly here, before the Romans left Britain (as opposed to England) to self-government after a few centuries of nation-building occupation. The country promptly reverted to a pre-historic state.

So this hilltop has seen every insurgency and objection to How Things Are from Boudicca’s rebellion onwards; more than that, well before the Norman Conquest it had emerged as Paulsbury: much more than the emerging city’s sacred enclosure — bringing with it the overarching, besworded protection of the apostle most widely assigned, today, with Christianity’s revinvention as a faith of law and authority — it was the city’s premier public space, the embodiment of its community. 

So until the Guildhall emerged as a centre of lay, civic power at some point in the late medieval era, and long before modern conceptions like Trafalgar Square, Speaker’s Corner or Greenham Common where even dreamt of, this is where everything happened. Here, beneath an enormous freestanding belltower, was held the Folkmoot, an informal but politically powerful institution of rough, citizen’s democracy. Here stood Paul’s Cross, where bishops and others vied to grab an open air pulpit for sometimes controversial, often game-changing preaching: Lollards preached here, Reformationists, the opposition to King John. And here where other, just as populist, but more spiritually focused and equally unique, institutions: the outdoor passage to the north transept, with its great ‘people’s cloister’, where burghers vied to be buried before the Dance of Paul’s, a collossal painted reminder that the end is nigh and all finery would imminently be dust, before making their way towards the Black Rood found miraculously washed up on a Thamesside beach, and the gloriously transgender St Uncumber, patron saint of the abused wife. Other cults celebrated here also fused the irrational, the imaginative and the inspired in equally varying ways, from the anti-Edward II Thomas of Lancaster to the putative tomb of rebel-leader London Boy Thomas Becket.

And now here they are again: bedecking the area between the west front, the north transept and the Chapter House with bunting, temporary art, a cluttered photocopy refuge of message from the inspired, the committed, the angry, the artificially intoxicated and the plain barking. As opposed to Barking.  Cramming their way onto the York stone flags until the twin anti-puppies of the apocalypse, Health and Safety, run in terror before them.

 A week ago, there was a buzz to all this: our curious globally overheated Indian Summer shone off the Portland facade and Grinling Gibbons swags of free bounty, the golden orb of Queen Anne and her supplicant native peoples, the half-empty shanty of freely decorated tents. People spoke in open-sided tents, announced spontaneous and creative actions from the steps, slept out on the hard stone. Nows the place is more sombre, and crawling with people from news agencies in search of voxpops. the sky is overcast, a police helicopter poises with metallic-eyed surveillance above Wren’s dome, like a hovering steel raptor; and at some point in the next few days this temporary, threatening, righteous bloomage will be washed away.

Of course all this was meant to happen in Paternoster Square. I don’t know at what point this aonze of offices left Paulsbury and became a privately owned development in the heart of the city, but the city traders based here acted swiftly when Occupy London first descended. All routes of access are sealed with crowd barriers, gaurded by police, security goons and a small army of female staff hoping to entice punters into the various high-end shops and restaurants therein, who must be losing money hand over fist. They stand there with menus, hoping to beckon passing bankers in to the empty concrete fake-Classical wasteland beyond, where a lone police car stands next to a miniature monument to the Great Fire of London.

So just how nigh is this beginning?

Glastonbury I – approach

January 21, 2011 2 comments

The road to Glastonbury. January rain. The high Mendip a cloud-smudge, hard and hollowed-out by rain, falling away behind me. The miraculous, choppy world of tiny conical hills, deep green with grass and old growth, that fringes the Levels. And then the flatlands themselves, a wetland of oceanic flatness, always ready to return to its liquid root, thick with eels.

Somerset should be two places: highland and flatland, but it’s three: this foothill world, steep and brief, that seperates the two is barely a mile wide, yet in its way it is the county’s most memorable place of all. Here Wells sits, with the waters spring from the very toehold of the Mendip; from here strips of tarmac run on ancient causeways, linking highlands to the archipelago of which Glastonbury is the largest island.

Somerset, ofcourse, is not two places or three, but one: a vast watershed whose boundary is the county itself, draining like a planet to an inland sea. It is defined by this combination of wetland and hill; and these island-uplands – Brent Knoll, Burrow Mump, Glastonbury Tor – are thus somehow its innermost definition.

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity

January 6, 2011 2 comments

It sat precariously on the cistern in the loo from July to December, and a wee at a time (note to the girls: standing up is key here), it is done.

What a work. I know for myself – – how hard it is to synthesize a vast field, while remaining a good read. Yet my focus was a pindrop compared to his. How can anything that complex and log be such a page-turner? Yet I could almost read it again for all the new insights and fascinating stories I missed. Such as the Christian saint who results from an early co-option of the tales of the Buddha. Time and again, familiar events (such as the Second World War) look like an entirely new landscape when light is thrown on them from the unfamiliar angle of this one specific faith.

As one nears the ending, where he makes some resonatingly interesting points, especially about the possible future directions of liturgy (yes, happy clappy is liturgy too; and no, happy clappy doesn’t have to mean Fundo nonsense) and the impact of the Enlightenment, one realizes he, too has an agenda, a point of view. Sexual politics is one theme, for example; another is the uniqueness of the European tradition, or as he rightly calls it, state of mind; a tradition which has such a powerful relationship to the faith that dominated European culture from the late Roman to the late Industrial era. Indeed I don’t think he makes clear enough just how remarkable our current juncture is, faith-wise. Europeans today operate in a multi-faith and no-faith environment unmatched since the Romans; not just because of population change – ie migration from non-Christian cultures into Europe – but also because of the influence on ‘indigenous’ culture of those traditions, from Buddhism to Islam, and including newly-minted homespun faiths, often cut from the cloths of many others. This is a major contrast to the previous millenium or so, making is closer to some very distant ancestors than we realise (not just the Romans, but also, for example Britain at the time of the first Anglo-Saxon incursions: Christian, pagan, Empire cults, all mixed up and combining with major population shifts).

The only place I beg to disagree with him, however, comes in the first half of the book. The problem is that he sees the success of Christianity — still the largest religion on the planet — as entirely the result of a series of historical accidents, especially in its early centuries, before it had achieved any kind of hegemony. I don’t think it’s that simple. His reporting of current paleo-archaeological analysis of that elusive thing, the Historic Jesus of Nazareth, is fascinating, but he throws the baby out with the bath water when he says that all faiths have a ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’-type message. It’s not that it’s not true — it is. It’s also not that other faiths don’t have their own core, unique and powerful insights — Buddhism’s Wheel of Suffering, for example, or Islam’s approaches to the nature of G*d. It’s just that no other faith says: there is only one thing to remember, only one form of behaviour that is moral, and it’s love thy neighbour as thyself. That’s a simple, but powerful, contribution. Likewise, Christianity has been so successful in so many cultures over such a long period that there must be something in the essence of it that is persuasive, that meets real human needs. I don’t deny the significance of simple power politics here, and the coincidence of Christianity’s riding on the back of early Modern European expansion; nor that other great faiths don’t have their own equally persuasive Core Story. But I do think that Core Story is worthy of attention, and something unique about it, something inherent to the story itself, has a power that has contributed to its succcess. And that something is not just about a moral message. For a start, as he very eloquently emphasizes, there’s a certain flexibility, an unfixed-ness, that has helped aid success enormously. But there’s more: something in the story itself, the birth, the death of it: what I’m saying is that the success owes as much to the power of images, myths, stories as it does to abstract moral messages; and that those of us who find themselves friends of the faith, interpreters of its contribution, without quite being *of* it (except in the loosest sense), need to get to grips with whatever-it-is that is that faith’s unique contribution if we are to understand it, and faith, and indeed our condition and what can heal it.

This year’s places

January 5, 2011 3 comments

Time for my annual update of Extraordinary Places encountered this year… in the order they come to me:

1) the Red Mount Chapel, King’s Lynn.

In baking sunlight, this relict from an age of pilgrimage; designed to choreograph the approaching peasant: downstairs, a brutalist vision of the Tomb of Christ, hidden in an earthen mound; up (winding) stairs, like a stone-filigree eyrie, the tiny cross-shaped chapel, battered and thick with carved stone

2) Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia, two minutes before it closes. Empty apart from the cats, and the hidden crowd of mice, scurrying in the echoing galleries

Little Hagia Sophia, at late-evening prayer. The quiet, ordered supplication of Islamic prayer, a small gathering of bearded men in the ancient church, the sound of the Call to Prayer echoing off carved fifth-century Biblical quoations

The walk from the Theodesian walls to the First Hill, past collapsing churches, mosques as plain as they are grand, territories third-world/chic-and-Bohemian/Heavily Islamic. How many cities can they get into this place?

3) St Mary Redliffe.

Standing on the roof, surrounded by reverse-icicle pinnacles, on a bright morning during the hardest frost of 2010

4) Smeathe’s Ridge/the old Marlborough Road.

On a bicycle through drifting snow, high above the empty Downs

5) West Kennet Long barrow – at night.

A sleeping bag, a good friend, an empty long barrow, another heavy frost. Suprisingly homely, though the stones above us looked unnervingly heavy

6) Martinsell Hill – at night.

Liekwise, but in the summer; if the open air, with the wide Vale of Pewsey gaping beneath like a quiet yawn, could be cosy — well, this was cosy. And for an hour at 2am the moon revealed its cloudy mysteries, and the stars were bright as pins.

7) Roche Rock.

This masterpiece of Cornish Gothic — a ruined medieval hermitage atop a ridiculous, wouldn’t-believe-it-if-it-was-CGI outcrop of granite — is all the better for being set in a shattered post-industrial wasteland. Landscape as EMO.

8) Salisbury Plain from the air.

Barrows like bubbles of grass; only a ball of glass between me and them

9) Repton crypt.

Whisper it: ‘Offa!’ ‘Mercia!’ ‘Clefts!’. Is any Anglo-Saxon place more spine-tingling than this, nasty, brutish, small and also, somehow, suprisingly clever. Number one Edgy Crypt of the year

10) Westbury-on-Trym.

More an intellectual encounter than an emotional one, but a wonderfully satisfying series of lost lives and the extraordinary efforts they made to be remembered was unearthed here:

11)  Marden.

Another crypt, quietly satisfying; and a church above as open and empty as a swimming pool, with jewel-sharp fourteenth-century kings clinging to the golden limbs of Jesse’s tree in the windows: you can almost touch them.

12) Dorchester-on-Thames.

It doesn’t get better than this: Wittenham Clumps; the slow, wide Thames; Dyke Hills, gravel-robbed henges, and in the middle of the sleepy village, the strangest, empty-yet-fullest lost monastery in England

13) Milton Abbas.

Orange, empty, at once wiped clean by its own history and full of quiet poetry.

14) Selby abbey.

A town that feels as if it’s about to sink (indeed its history suggests it shouldn’t be there at all), featuring a silver-grey abbey of real power. And the bliss of a fast, near-empty train back to King’s Cross

15) Abbey Dore.

Cistercian fragment, elegant as a whisper, given a heartbreaking twist by hyperactive additions of the C17: tempus fugit, so fugit I’m standing still.

16) Portsmouth.

Unlovely, but the unfolding story of British Sea Power is here made  into stone.

17) Knapdale.

The top end of the Kintyre peninsula, with rocky peninsulas and Celtic stones enough to make it a world apart.

18) La Hougue Bie, Jersey.

Enormous Neolithic passage tomb? Check. Evocative/mysterious medieval chapel? Check. Nazi command bunker? Check. Three-in-one, then.

19) Kilpeck

I know, I know… but it was dawn, and clear and cold (always the best days — you may have noticed). And an hour later I was turning over leaves of C8 parchment.

A top 20 of sorts, then. Some already familiar; the big moments where Red Mount, Hagia Sophia, Abbey Dore, cycling in the snow, sleeping in the open.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

January 4, 2011 2 comments

No book more influenced my childhood than this one. I used to dream I was on that boat; the combined longing and dissapointment on awakening is still with me. I loved every part of it, apart from the boring slave-trader early chapter; but especially I loved the places. And more than anything else, the moment of falling into that picture; the last three chapters, so intensely mythical and poetic that I reread them into adulthood; and those moments: in the magician’s library Lucy says ‘Shall I ever be able to read that story again; the one I couldn’t remember? Will you tell it to me, Aslan?’; and Aslan replies, ‘I will tell it to you for years and years’. And again, by the great wave, ‘I shall be telling you all the time’. Heartbreaking, all the more so for beautifully fusing Christian propaganda with the wider agenda of image and myth.

And now it’s been made into a film. So along I take my daughters: what to make of it?

Firstly, this 3D thing is nice eye candy but it doesn’t transform the experience: film is persuasive enough as a substitute for reality to work perfectly well without it. The landscapes and buildings benefit most from the technqique: I only wished they’d linger on some of these more, let one enjoy them: the first shots cuts along the fake-Tudor entrance screen to King’s, giving me an unexpected chance to indulge in a few crockets and pinnacles, while feeling faintly perturbed at finding C.S. Lewis, an Oxford man, having his story relocated to Cambridge. This, for the geographically-attuned Englishman, is almost as worrying as confusing London north of the river with London south of it, or the moors of Yorkshire with those of Devon…

This eye candy thing is a problem. Perhaps I watch too many kids’ films, but the recent ones all share breathtakingly thought-through CGI places with exhausting editing that makes it quite impossible to sit back and enjoy said creations, or even, in the case of a certain Mr H. Potter,  to follow the plot.

But what’s more interesting is what they’ve done with said plot. Apart from being moved to Cambridge, Eustance is made geeky and inadequate (and, perceptively, lower class than the Pevensie kids): the anti-liberal stuff in the book is stripped away. The moment of entering the picture is delicious, if a little over-literal. And they play merry hell with the sequence of islands once the kids reach Narnia: the island with the golden pool and the island with the dragon are conflated into one; more to the point Lewis’ carefully constructed Platonic sequence of places is completely arsed-about with, by introducing a supernatural element to the ‘earthly’ Lone Islands, relocating the subsequent storm, and creating an entirely new plot line that involves a (yawn-not-another) quest for seven swords and necessitates placing the dark island last, after the island of the sleepers. The dark island is then ramped up, making the original idea – a great mass of foggy shadows within which both dreams and nightmares come to life – more vivid but less haunting (there’s an interesting account of Lewis’s revision of this passage for the US publication on Wikipaedia: Eustace’s dragonising is extended over several islands, neatly tieing them into the plot but again reducing those islands’ roles as places in a symbolic sequence.

But the biggest damage is done at the end, where the loveliest aspects of the island of the sleepers — their role as a feasting place of the stars — is almost entirely done away with, and the beautiful final passages — over the mer-kingdom, through the sea of lilies where the water is warm, shallow and sweet, to the edge of Aslan’s country — cut to the barest minimum concomitant with the film makers idea of Most Childrens’ Patience Levels.

With this goes some subtle twistings of message. The spiritual (oh, ok, *Christian*) subtext of the Magician’s Island is replaced with (suprise suprise) a message about Being Yourself (Fulfilling Your Dreams, etc), even as Lucy wishes to be beautiful rather than to eavesdrop. The G*d stuff at the end is kept, indeed made more wincingly obvious than it is in the book: and both the lovely lines mentioned above are dropped, of fluffed.

All this makes this not (at all) a bad film, but also rather a different one from the book: one wonders what young readers will make of it should they turn there; indeed whether the CS Lewis estate exercises any control over things. At least an early plan to set the whole series in the States was scotched. And one realises how strongly one links image and text: several things, from the reimagining of the Dawn Treader picture as a tiny kitsch watercolour, through the landscapes of several islands (such as that with the gold-turning pool, and the island of the magician) where wrong — but only because Pauline Baynes’s pictures are so strongly linked to C.S Lewis’s words in our imaginations; just as the film will be for a younger generation.