Congregation, a video installation by Chloe Dewe Mathews which explores collective religious experience and specifically, the nature of expressive worship in south London’s African churches. With projected footage gathered since 2014, Congregation offers an opportunity to reflect on the nature of contemporary worship, within one of the fastest growing religious communities in London.
The installation will be shown at Bosse & Baum, a new gallery based in a former industrial building on the site of a former church, within the Copeland Park Industrial Estate in Peckham. Congregation is a development of Dewe Mathews’ recent work Sunday Service - a photographic piece shown in the McAulay Gallery, Tate Modern in May 2014.
Alexandra Warder from Bosse & Baum talks to Chloe about her work, the history of the gallery as a church and the relationship between the art going audience and church communities in Peckham.
In what way does the former history of Bosse & Baum’s gallery space, as a Christian church, contribute to the meaning of Congregation, and the way that it will be received?
Having shown Sunday Service at Tate Modern in May 2014, I was keen to show the second iteration in a space that was actually amongst the churches I’d been working in. It was then an amazing coincidence to return to one of the churches that I had photographed less than a year later and find that it had become a gallery – your gallery, Bosse & Baum. So yes, the recent history of the space is very important to me, it creates the base layer onto which the videos are projected and feeds into the understanding of the piece as a whole.
Do you think that history will help a Christian audience to understand and identify with your work?
I hope so. Last year I realised that, to my surprise, some of the people I photographed at the churches had never heard of Tate Modern, despite living only twenty minutes away. At the moment there are many churches in the Copeland Park industrial estate and it is also next to the famous Bussey building, so I hope all sorts of people will come into the gallery once the work is installed. Years ago, when I was starting to take photographs, I had a show about Banger Racing, and arranged for a freshly smashed up banger (car) to be fork-lifted into the middle of the exhibition space. I did this to give the audience a more direct experience of the thing that had originally inspired me. In the same way, I think showing this video in the area it portrays could well enhance it, and I hope that when people leave the gallery they will look at their surroundings with new eyes, a different approach, particularly if they’ve never been inside one of the churches before.
Do gallery spaces with significant histories and strong identities influence, works inside them?
For me, the combination of fleeting video imagery playing across the gallery walls, the natural light emanating from the pitched roof and the knowledge that there was an active church on the site only one year before, all influences the character of the piece. However it’s inevitable that others will read it differently. We all digest art though a filter of personal experience, so while some people will be seeing the work in the context of the gallery location, others will be comparing these practices to those in their own church, perhaps they’ll be sizing up what someone is wearing or even making connections with the nightclub they went to at the weekend.
The history of Bosse & Baum gallery as a church is very fitting.
The flexibility that industrial spaces offer are often as appealing to galleries as they are to churches. These spaces are large, spacious and give more freedom to activities inside, including the ability to make more noise, for example. For Bosse & Baum, as a young gallery, it is important to us that we engage in the history of the space and the area. This places us within a more consolidated history and strengthens our own position. Ultimately this local area has embedded communities working hard to survive and contribute to civic life and we want to be part of that.
In view of former church spaces being used for other means, what does this make you feel about the changing social and cultural landscape of the area?
I think when there is a significant movement, in this case a rapidly growing number of churches in a relatively small area, that’s worth thinking about (Southwark has the highest density of African Christianity anywhere in the world, outside Africa). It is that organic, fast paced urban change that first drew me in; with industrial and commercial spaces becoming makeshift religious spaces, then it was observing the rituals that went on within them that inspired me to make ‘Congregation’. The work is primarily about faith and collective experience rather a changing social and cultural landscape.
However, I’m certainly aware of the changes taking place in Peckham. If one views those changes as problematic, then I’m part of the problem! Some say artists act like a first wave of foot soldiers, which then give way to the armies of gentrification, but one also has to acknowledge that this city has been in perpetual flux for the last two thousand years.
What do you think are the similarities between places of worship and galleries?
Well, the similarities between galleries and churches are often talked of. Both can be seen as spaces for reverence, quiet reflection, but also arenas of everyday life. I went to Tate Modern last week (it was half term) and the turbine hall sounded like a public swimming pool! There were so many people jostling about, hanging around before or after an ‘experience’. It’s the same in the churches.
Personally, I have always found a lot of comfort and solace in visiting galleries, and find that going to galleries can be quite a spiritual, highly emotive experience. I can relate to your views about the intense mixture of personal experience and collective participation. When you start to think about this, having gallery spaces and churches live side by side is very fitting.
Do you think that there is scope for there to be a stronger relationship between the congregations from Christian churches and regular gallery goers? Currently, there is very little, if any, mix between the two. I think that showing Congregation at B&B will be a great point of focus in which to bring the two communities together.
Bridges form between communities if there is genuine mutual interest or there are specific working relationships, but the process can’t be forced. I have certainly found the churches I’ve worked with to be very welcoming and for that I am grateful. Without that kind of attitude this show would not be taking place. Ultimately, as long as there’s some kind of dialogue going on, the project feels worthwhile.
Visit Congregation at Bosse & Baum between 29 May – 21 June 2015.
Find out more about the exciting programme of events including a performance by the Liberty House Choir and an afternoon of some of the best samba reggae sounds led by over 40 members of the London-based Brazilian Batala band. Pick up a free poster showing an image of some of South London’s most vibrant church communities!