By Kay-Marie Stroud, LST Theology and Worship alumni
The magnificence of art can immerse the viewers in the stories it tells. Religious art especially may inspire emotions of awe and wonder, leading the viewer to enter into the story. It is little wonder then that many painters conveyed iconic scenes from the Bible: Leonardo de Vinci, Velazquez, Bouguereau, or Michael Angelo’s spectacular painting in the Sistine Chapel, to name but a few. More recently, there has been an obvious recent rise of secular experiential installations (Harry Potter studio tour, interactive museums, 3D art galleries, sensory experiences etc.) which immerse the viewer in a narrative, suggesting that there is a growing need among people for transformative creative encounters that enable them to live better lives.1 There is a need for similar Christian settings that encourages contemporary culture to passionately engage with Scripture and to seek truth and understanding in creative and innovative ways. Art is a powerful tool in doing this.
Art installations began emerging around the 1950s, although some projects had been described as installations in the 1930s.2 Although the idea of installation art therefore seems fairly recent, many artists are using this format today to engage an audience that is wanting more holistic experiences. The Tate Britain describes that ‘what makes installation art different from sculpture or other traditional art forms is that it is a complete unified experience, rather than a display of separate, individual artworks’: everything revolves around the viewer.3 In creating installation based art, one can provide guidance, although the experience rests in the hands of the viewer. Bob Rognlien, author of Experiential Worship, suggests that ‘when we are engaged on a physical level, we experience God more completely.’
The power of creative approaches may be shown in the success of Alternative Worship. This arose in the late 1980s and through the 1990s as a conscious response to contextualise Christian worship within Western Culture.4 This has led to more creative approaches of encouraging engagement with a range of issues. Baker, for example, reflects on consumerist society that has been numbed to the effects of evil: in developed countries where everything is instant and immediate, concerns for the poor and oppressed can be sidelined.5 Creative art installations may aid the Church in tackling such issues, just as creative forms of worship have done, enabling us to engage with something that is not part of our everyday reality. Such things may, Baker suggests, bring a renewal to our imagination, connecting us to the realities of God’s world.6 This is a powerful starting point for engaging with Scripture.
In providing an experience that allows the viewer to partake in its creation, we want to be responsible curators of the arts. The challenge is for the art to communicate the message clearly. Baker writes that ‘the best curators tend to let the art speak for itself so that the viewers can look and look and look again and immerse themselves in the experience.’7 This is what we want to achieve: a well balanced installation that explains key messages from passages of Scripture, but that also allows space for the viewer to respond to the art, thus creating an informative yet experiential worship installation. Such art installations may include art, drama, music and dance. The hope is that installations can bring Scripture to life, to make its relevance clear, demonstrating that the God of Scripture continues to be part of our reality now.
There are dangers with an artistic approach however and an emphasis on experience increases the chances of misinterpretation: a foundation of good biblical exegesis is necessary. There is a danger of over-emphasising the experiential element and, although experience may speak powerfully to a post-modern society, it may also contribute to the development of a self-seeking generation that idolises experience.8 The risk of this may be reduced through careful artistry and explanation. showing that art is not something to be idolised but is a tool for communicating and engaging with God.
The hope is that art installations will inspire and provide a way of biblical exploration, that can be enjoyable and engaging, equipping churches with the means to be able to create their own installations and reach out to their communities. However, this is not the only creative approach and it is hoped that such installations will spark creativity in others to use their gifts and joys to go deeper into God’s word, enabling many more possibilities and platforms for sharing and engaging with the Word of God.
As a result of reflecting on the power of art installations, alumni of LST have started a project to explore the idea further. This is named Word Encounters. For more information on upcoming installations, or to explore the possibility of hosting your own art installation, please contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Moynagh, Emergingchurch.intro, 69.
4. Collins, ‘Alternative.’
5. Baker, Alternative, 99-100.
7. Baker, Curating, 6-7.
8. Sweet, Postmodern, 45.