Art in public spaces invites engagement. Observing interaction says something about the art itself and the general public. Claire Boxall, Strategic Framework Manager for Rochester Diocese and one of our guest writers, shares her thoughts on a recent trip to London to ‘find Jesus’.
Announcing “I’ve been to London to find Jesus” caused some highly curious looks in my office – and I work in a place where talk of faith and religion are commonplace.
Ecce Homo, Mark Wallinger’s life-size sculpture of Christ was, until recently, standing peacefully watching out from St Paul’s Cathedral in central London. Its presence is a collaboration between the artist, the Cathedral and Amnesty International.
The steps to St Paul’s Cathedral are a busy place; even on a fairly average April weekday. The sculpture was right there, pleasingly central, standing silently between two of the massive columns that form part of the West Front portico and framing the big doors.
The Cathedral dwarves the figure of the man. This shouldn’t surprise me. When the piece was exhibited as the first artwork on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square it looked tiny on the plinth. Yet at St Paul’s the juxtaposition of the figure (which is not much taller than me) against the mammoth Cathedral caused me to reflect on the relationship between ‘man of faith’ and ‘building of faith’.
I like people watching. In fact, it’s probably fair to say I love people watching and it was fascinating seeing how people responded to the sculpture. I identified three main types of people:-
Plungers – these were the ones who plunged straight in, making a bee-line up the steps, mobile-phone in hand ready to capture the all important selfie. They had no fear of the interaction and were super keen.
Sometimes the Plungers were in groups, such as school trips, all crowding around for a group photo.
Lurkers – these people were the most like me. They watched from a distance. They were unsure whether to get closer. They wanted to see what other people would do first.
Ignorers – these folk walked straight past, or casually sat nearby munching lunch. Perhaps they had seen it before, and didn’t notice it any more. Perhaps they just hadn’t noticed the figure of Jesus standing near by at all, but I wondered if that were possible?
As ways of interacting with a piece of art, I was fascinated. I wanted to know the thought processes of each person on those steps.
I couldn’t work out if there was, or should have been, etiquette or a respectful way to approach a marble representation of Christ. I remain unsure on the appropriateness of posing for selfies.
And then, of course, come the musings on faith, and religion, and what this tells us. If Christ were physically with us today, would he be a celebrity – posing for selfies with passers by? Would he even be on the steps of the Cathedral? Or would he be in the markets, the night-shelters, the refugee centres or the nearby stock exchange?
What does the way people interact with a marble figure tell us about how they approach religion and faith? Are there lurkers, plungers and ignorers there too? What challenges does this pose us in reaching out and spreading the Good News?
I hung back, taking photos of other people taking photos. I couldn’t bring myself to walk right up. The figure’s resemblance to a statuesque street entertainer caused me to worry that He might just talk to me. Oh my goodness. If Jesus was THERE, and could just talk to me. If I could just talk to him. No other piece of art has ever led me to confront my faith in such a tangible way before.
I stayed at a distance and then I moved on. I had a train to catch and a meeting to go to. When I got to work, I declared “I’ve been to London to find Jesus”. To be honest, that might be closer to the truth than I’d like to admit.