Two weeks ago, Jonny and I drove down from our homes in Birmingham to The Big Smoke to go and see a special exhibition at the OXO building on Southbank.
The Chaiya Art Awards, the brainchild of Katrina Moss, is an art exhibition and competition, centred on the question ‘Where Is God in our 21st Century World?’ It opened to the public in late March, but we were there for the swanky opening evening, and Jonny for one was very excited about the opportunity to schmooze with all the arty people from our nation’s capital. I was mainly worried because Jonny was the most smartly dressed I’d seen him since he spoke at my wedding, and I had forgotten to not wear a t-shirt.
Incredibly, we parked for free near Highgate Underground station and in no time were racing into central London on the (incredibly underrated) Northern Line. It was at this point that Jonny discovered an ancient pop-up Jesus storybook at the Highgate Station Community Bookswap, but chose to leave it until we came back – a fateful mistake. At long last we arrive at the exhibition itself – Jonny waves our ticket and we are in.
There is a lot of art. The Chaiya team had to create a longlist, then a shortlist and then an exhibition list of work to actually feature in the gallery space, and still the white cube is brimming with a great variety of media; ceramics, installation pieces, photography, video, sculpture, painting and even – much to my personal delight – a print or two.
We decide to complete one lap of the gallery without looking at any of the artists’ notes on the pamphlet we’ve been given. We then complete a second circuit reading each piece’s accompanying text, whilst trying to guess whether each artist is a Christian or not based on what they’ve written. It’s an unexpectedly fun game.
Here’s what we discovered during our two orbits.
- There is some really, really good art here.
There was plenty of real technical excellence on show, many brilliant ideas that were perfectly executed, and it didn’t take long before we were both hooked on particular pieces. We were both taken by ‘Jesus Wept’, a giant, neon blackletter sign of the shortest verse in the Bible, which both highlighted Jesus’ compassion for everyday suffering and the way those two words are viewed within the wider culture – a cheapening of Jesus empathy intended to mean the exact opposite – no one cares.
Also incredibly effective was a twice-lifesize cast of a newborn lamb (‘The Other Lamb’). Creepy in its largeness, it reminded Jonny of unnerving horror flicks like The Witch, as well as the visceral nature of animal sacrifice.
Another piece which inspired wonder was Sue Lawty’s ‘Sequentia’; a long, portrait frame filled with hundreds of circular marks. Upon closer inspection they were in fact tiny pebbles – intricately lined up to form perfect (and if you stared for too long, psychedelic) grids.
- In the 21st Century, God is found amongst the displaced, lowly and poor.
Conflict in the Middle East, the ongoing refugee crisis and collective human suffering were persistent themes throughout this exhibition, and two of the prizes which picked up big awards focused on the effect the 24-hour news cycle has on our souls (‘Naivety’) and the compassion and remembrance God has for each of our individual struggles (‘A Thousand Bottles of Tears’).
- We don’t like to think that God is funny. But He probably is.
As excellent as all the work was, it was also incredibly reverential. And that’s not a bad thing. In grappling with lofty philosophical concepts, its perhaps understanding that few of the pieces risked comic relief.
The few that did were our favourites. The aforementioned ‘Jesus Wept’ and (my personal favourite) ‘The Last Fish Supper’ made light of the disparity between God’s nature and our own. ‘The Last Fish Supper’ replaced Jesus and the disciples with scaly, finned equivalents, making a connection between declining church numbers and global fish stocks, but also lowering the tone of Da Vinci’s painting and comparing instead to the type of meal you’d eat with your mates. Which is much closer to what the Last Supper was probably like.
- If you want to showcase art, go for it.
So much credit has to go to Katrina, who seems to have just decided she wanted to showcase art about faith, has gone for it, and has done it really well. I was greatly encouraged too by the similarities between the Chaiya exhibition and some of the projects we’ve undertaken. Though we’ve not had an exhibition space like the OXO building, nor a £10,000 grand prize, Sputnik’s exhibitions have addressed themes as pertinent as this one and produced work that has engaged in a similar way.
We also chatted to a London-based artist who thought it a shame that all the art was contained in a gallery space, instead of being in public space accessed by ‘ordinary’ people. And we’ve done that pretty well in Birmingham too, exhibiting and performing in many a public space or coffee house.
By the time we got back to Highgate Tube Station, the ancient Jesus pop-up book had gone; the only negative to be taken from the day. The Chaiya exhibition is now all wrapped up, but it’s a Bienalle, which is a fancy art way of saying that it will be back in a couple of years. In the meantime, check out some of the artists involved here.