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May 13 2011

The resurrection of religious art

The trees placed in Westminster Abbey for the royal wedding were typical of how modern artists are transforming churches

Recently, 27 million British television viewers enjoyed the beauty of a medieval church, gasped at its soaring nave, cooed at its gothic vaulting. But the spectacle of Westminster Abbey, the venue for the royal wedding, was enhanced by an unexpected modern touch: trees. Trees in themselves are not modern, obviously – in fact, the architecture of medieval churches and cathedrals may originate in the ancient Germanic tribes' feel for the great canopy of branches and leaves in primeval European forests. But the idea of bringing trees into Westminster Abbey was definitely modern: a bit of spontaneous royal installation art that echoed the tree-planting activities of the German artist Josef Beuys.

Those trees made a superb impact. They opened our eyes to the grandeur of a medieval building that might otherwise have struck television viewers as just a dark, lofty old bulwark of church and state. But the wedding trees – and now everyone will want their own – were not unique. They were actually typical of the way religious buildings are experimenting with modern art. At Salisbury Cathedral right now you can see a sculpture by Antony Gormley called Flare II, whose explosive abstract energy draws attention to the exhilaration of this great building's slender spire, which pierces the sky and reaches towards heaven itself. Meanwhile at St Paul's Cathedral, which also showed Flare II last year, video artist Bill Viola is working on a permanent installation using giant plasma screens, set to open in early 2012.

Viola is the high priest, as it were, of the new religious art. In 1996, he created The Messenger for Durham Cathedral; it went on to tour other religious venues in Britain. He does not need to adapt his work to fit into holy settings. His films are always religious, using simple images such as water, candles and the human figure to portray spiritual crises and profound moments poised between life and death. He is one of the best artists of our time.

But how many Bill Violas are there? Perhaps it is troubling that, in searching for a great new work of religious art, St Paul's Cathedral has commissioned the same man who drew attention to the power of new religious art with his Durham commission 15 years ago. Don't get me wrong – they are right to do so. But perhaps the move also reflects a recognition that modern religious artists are not exactly two a penny, and that putting just any piece of contemporary art in a cathedral is no guarantee of a powerful aesthetic or spiritual experience. Cathedrals are sublime works of art in their own right, and it takes an incisive and at the same time respectful piece to genuinely add to their glories.

You could say it takes a forest – for the trees of Westminster Abbey showed how an imaginative, poetic gesture can enhance such a setting. Bill Viola, meanwhile, shows us that modern art can be both simple enough and spectacular enough to emulate the altarpieces of the past. Whatever your beliefs, or lack of them, Britain's cathedrals and churches are aesthetic treasure vaults. The purpose of contemporary interventions is to unlock them. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 30 2011

How royal wedding photographer Hugo Burnand tackled 'gig of the century'

William and Kate 'respect where they are and still show love', says official photographer

The photographer who took the official pictures of William and Kate's wedding said he hoped they portrayed the love that everyone felt on the big day.

"From where I was, and from their point of view, it was two families coming together and that was the feeling, the sense of family and love going between everyone," Hugo Burnand said. "They had their own buzz. Everyone had their own buzz. It was that excitement that I hope you feel at most weddings."

Burnand said he had only seconds to set up his favourite photograph, of the newlyweds with the bridesmaids and pageboys, having coaxed the children with promises of jelly beans and sweets.

"When you look at those individual children in that picture you are seeing those children and their characters," he said. "That's the same with the bride and groom in the middle of the picture as well. That's really them. There's no time for direction."

Burnand said Kate was a keen photographer herself and he discussed the images with her and William beforehand. Asked about the mood between the couple, he said: "Fantastic. I don't know what to say – I love them. They are so bloody nice. They are just so nice as individuals and as a pair, and they work so well together."

He said of the formal portrait of them standing side by side: "In a way what I really like about that picture is that it is formal and it shows their respect for the formality, where they are, who they are. They understand and respect where they are and yet you can still see a smile and love between them.

"At the same time they are right side by side with each other and they are connected and they are touching, their arms are connected and they've got a smile on their face. That picture really sums up a lot about them."

Burnand was accompanied by assistants including his mother, the photographer Ursy Burnand, 71, who is praised as be an invaluable member of his team. "It was the gig of the century," he said. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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April 16 2011

Royal wedding: Bob and Roberta Smith's commemorative artwork

Artist Bob and Roberta Smith creates likenesses of Prince William and Kate Middleton ahead of the royal wedding

Of all the cultural figures we approached to pay tribute to the royal wedding, Bob and Roberta Smith chose arguably the most abstract approach. The east London-based artist (actually just one person, real name Patrick Brill) has what he calls "a broken ice-cream van approach" to aesthetics and decided to build sculptures of the bride and groom out of rubbish he found in a skip. To complete the piece, he made himself a part of it, sitting beside his creations with an empty cat-food tin and a felt-tipped sign, begging for money.

It isn't necessarily a critique of the expense of the wedding, insists Smith, 48, though he's pretty sore about recent government arts cuts. "And I haven't sold a painting in six months. If I was in the right place with these sculptures, on royal wedding day, I could make a bit of money." So he plans to find a spot on a kerb in King's Cross, north London, near the Work gallery where he currently has an exhibition on, titled You Should Be In Charge. "On the day," says Smith, "I'll be a bit like those kids with guys on Guy Fawkes night. I might even spend some of the money I make on fireworks to mark the occasion."

The sculptures don't immediately recall William and Kate… he's a broken spade gaffer-taped to an old wall bracket. She's a plastic football with a lampshade for a veil. "But you can see some of her cheekiness, can't you? Look at her smile!"

He thinks Middleton has more zing about her than William. "She was practically naked in that student dress. I think she has the potential to become a bit of a Princess Margaret figure. You know. Jolly."

He's not against the monarchy – or not completely. He thinks they should be elected figures. "Not politicians, but interesting people. Then you can still have the pomp and occasion, and keep the attraction to tourists, but also have a king or a queen with ideas."

Who would he vote into a crown if he had the choice? "My absolute queen at the moment is Susan Hiller, currently being exhibited at the Tate. Who else? Unfortunately she's French, and she's dead, but Louise Bourgeois would have made a wonderful monarch." It's an idea that might need work, but Smith will have plenty of time to refine it while he's chinking his tin in King's Cross a week on Friday. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Royal Wedding: Tom Hunter: 'All the other royal marriages have fallen apart now'

Photographer Tom Hunter creates an artwork to commemorate the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton

Tom Hunter's work documents the lives of his friends and fellow residents of Hackney, east London. Borrowing ideas from old masters such as Velázquez and Vermeer, his work lends a dignity to the sometimes prosaic lives of his subjects.

Soon after accepting our brief to produce an artwork commemorating the royal wedding, Hunter was studying coverage of the tsunami and saw the rare TV appearance of the emperor of Japan. He began reading about the Japanese royal family and in particular Princess Toshi, the emperor's granddaughter, who will be prevented from succeeding to the Chrysanthemum Throne because she's female.

Coincidentally, Hunter's friend Kev is married to a Japanese girl, also called Toshi, so he decided to shoot her in a cafe posing as the princess, contemplating her situation and the ephemeral nature of royal weddings. She pokes at the bun on her Fergie and Andrew commemorative plate and studies the Charles and Di mug and the Japanese royal figurines on the table.

"She's thinking about all the other royal weddings," says Hunter. "They've all fallen apart now." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 11 2011

When east weds west in rural China

Reuters photographer Carlos Barria captures a traditional rural Chinese wedding ceremony between an American woman and a local man

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