On a grey Saturday in March this year, I boarded a train to London Blackfriars to view a free exhibition at London’s prestigious gallery@oxo, located on the busy South Bank Riverside, on the intriguing theme of ‘Where is God in our 21st century world?’ The exhibition was the result of the newest theme-based biennial art award, The Chaiya Art Award, which had a top prize of £10,000.
Arriving at Blackfriars, the view of London was so cold and bleak that I really wondered why I’d bothered to forsake my weekend lie-in for all the hassle of station car parks and train connections. Without quite knowing where I was going, I wandered along the banks of the Thames, circling the Oxo Tower in search of what had been promised as an exciting and thought-provoking experience. The pavements were packed with shivering tourists and blue-lipped buskers and I found myself following a stream of people making their way through a glass door. Anything to get out of the cold!
Accidentally I’d arrived! I was greeted by warm air, white space, and walls displaying vivid pictures which hung like windows into another world. Along with those who had stumbled in out of the cold, I wandered through the gallery, drinking in the eclectic collection of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, textiles, photography and videos. It was not at all what I expected. Some of the exhibits were beautiful, others disturbing or puzzling. But there were one or two which caused a visceral emotional reaction. In particular ‘Genes’ by Mandy Smith, ‘The Real Thing’ by Simon Shepherd and ‘Left Out’ by Maxwell Rushton, which went on to win the public vote.
‘Genes’ by Mandy Smith
“Using old jeans collected from friends and family, the artist modelled this figure on her body, while marking it with wounds experienced by her mother through episodes of illness and grief. The hand, a plea looking for God.” (Where is God in Our 21st-Century World)
The Real Thing’ by Simon Shepherd
“Two global icons – the cross and the Coca-Cola brand, both claiming to be The Real Thing. What do we worship in the 21st-century? Has the focus shifted from worship of the spiritual to worship of the material? Can we see what is ‘real’? The piece poses radical questions.” (Where is God in Our 21st-Century World)
‘Left Out’ by Maxwell Rushton
“It’s a shock to see the human form presented uncompromisingly as a bag of rubbish. Yet it is worryingly easy to lose sight of the humanity of rough sleepers and the homeless. This inert and vulnerable figure makes us ask, ‘What must I do?’” (Where is God in Our 21st-Century World)
The winner of the £10,000 award was Deborah Tompsett for her installation ‘A Thousand Bottles of Tears’, a display of hand-thrown clay vessels using a variety of materials and techniques, each pot formed from a heart-sized lump of clay from baby to adult – each filled with a handwritten message and then re-fired. The artist explained that “since the Davidic era, 1055 BC, tear bottles have spoken of the sacredness of tears as messengers of grief, contrition and love.” (Where is God in Our 21st-Century World)
I was delighted to be able to buy an advance copy of the accompanying book, Where is God in Our 21st-Century World, which contains photos of all the exhibits plus other longlisted entrants. This beautiful limited edition book, officially released on 21 September, also contains a collection of meditations by author, Ann Clifford, on the themes which resonated through the exhibition. It’s the kind of book to dip into, finding new insights and connections. I loved the way it took me out of the box of words alone and into a visual world with a different way of expressing questions, hopes, pain, faith and purpose. I haven’t seen a book quite like this before which combines words and art in such an interesting way. Turning the pages is a revelatory experience. You cannot help but be challenged and inspired. Beautiful!
You can buy a copy from online retailers and bookshops, or through the Chaiya Art Award website here https://www.chaiyaartawards.co.uk/book
‘‘In the Detail’ by Kate Green
“In each act of kindness, each spark of inspiration, every expression of forgiveness, in creativity, in nature, in our fingerprint, in the universe – all reveal a God of detail. He is all around, in each moment, waiting for us to see Him in the detail.” (Where is God in Our 21st-Century World)
‘The Suspense of Living on the Edge’ by ashar
“The artist explores their emotional feelings about a world which seems poised dangerously close to falling into an abyss. Uncertain, we step into the unknown, asking where is God in all our 21st-century chaos?” (Where is God in Our 21st-Century World)