On The Belfry

i wanted to make you swoon with a light bulb that i taught to laugh
but you took that bulb and you chewed it to a pulp
and you spat out fifty full grown fireflies
but it was all a lie …
those fireflies were made out of dust
and i don’t wanna watch them glow no more.

‘Fireflies Made Out of Dust’ by the Happy Jawbone Family Band (Kemado Records, 2013)

Delphyne Poster
Rosie Dahlstrom: Poster design for ‘DELPHYNE’, 2019

In March 2019, I presented my second solo exhibition DELPHYNE in the Belfry of St John on Bethnal Green, an arts space within a working church in the East end. I had approached the church back in November to inquire if they would be amenable to work with me and the Delphyne project, and after meeting with them happily we were able to collaborate and make Delphyne @ The Belfry a reality. Though obviously not being paid for the show, I was lucky to get the space for free and apart from minimal costs such as printing postcards the exhibition was very do-able for a skint student.

Belfry 2
‘DELPHYNE’ @ The Belfry installation shot, 2019

This coincided nicely with our off-site projects that we had to do as part of this February – March section of the MA course, taking our work outside of uni into the big bad world, lacking in funds and friendly faces but armed with panic, nerve and creativity. So though I did end up taking part in two other off-site shows, in a basement in Dalston and a pub function room in Lambeth, knowing that I at least had my own show that I was desperate to do already lined up took the pressure off of what I knew was probably for me going to be the most challenging and nerve-shredding task of the Masters thus far. It was especially useful as I’ve not been at my best over the past few months, and needed the boost of being able to do my own thing the way I wanted to do it.

‘Delphyne’ is a project that considers images of sacred women across the history of religion, from the ancient to the contemporary, and asks what it means to believe in something beyond your body, identity and experience; what it takes to sacrifice oneself, the nature of martyrdom; ideas of ecstasy, sexuality, grace and heathenism in religious commitment. It takes all these images and concepts from the past few thousand years, smashes them all up together, slaps them on a very minor creature from Greek mythology and creates a narrative that examines the female divine in organised religion. Like that cliche statement that ‘atheists only believe in one less god than religious people’, I enjoy treating images from Ancient Greek, Roman or Egyptian culture with the same reverence as the Virgin Mary or other references to ‘living’ religions. I’m interested in secular worship, secular martyrdom, secular belief, secular fundamentalism, secular faith, secular fervour.

Belfry 3
‘DELPHYNE’ @ The Belfry installation shot, 2019

I wanted to take Delphyne into a church or religious environment because I wanted to see how the work would change when it came with a ready-made context of entering a holy place of worship in order to view it. Instead of having to create my own context (or extended world) around the work and imagery in order for the viewer to understand it fully, when the work is shown in a contemporary art context as up until now it had been, what happens when that work is done for me? What other elements could be brought to the fore that had been buried under the pressure of establishing the setting of the narrative?

So, to sum up, I wanted to take my project about the sacred female into a living, breathing church or place of worship to see how this liberated or changed the reading of the work, and to experiment with an interesting, alternative space like the fascinating architecture of the bell-tower. I had a pretty strong idea of what I wanted to do with the exhibition: namely project an animated film comprised of the Delphyne Photoshop collages from last term, with text incorporated to clarify the story. It was exciting to me to create a show with light being the main material of the work, a show made of light. In the end, the dark belfry space lent itself well to the projected images, but the arches and architectural details complicated the final installation. But more on that later. In any case, the Delphyne @ The Belfry exhibition comprised the following elements:

  • 2 projections of films made from Delphyne collages, one with and one without accompanying text
  • A sound element, which was a song that played on repeat in the space that echoed off the stone walls and added a certain atmosphere/emotion to the images
  • Postcards to be taken by viewers that had an additional piece of creative text and image of one of the Photoshop collages

The installation of the exhibition was spontaneous and experimental. I went in with my two projectors, finally all the technology was working, so it was just a case of deciding where the projections were going to be situated. This actually ended up being the most interesting part of the experience as everywhere I shone my film just was wrong: the odd, broken-up, curved, inconsistent architecture of the bell-tower continually defied a simple install. In the end, when nothing else felt right, I put the projector high up above the door so that it shone directly across the whole of the ceiling, with bits of the film on each of the ceiling arches the whole depth of the space. It looked very dramatic, but at the expense of losing clarity of the imagery and text in the piece – but as I was in two minds about having text in the film in the first place, I perversely quite liked the idea of a piece that was in one way more accessible with the accompanying words and also, in another way, unreadable and abstracted. In short, by using the features of the Belfry such as its darkness, its depth, its arches etc, I made an installation that worked with the space but may not, in the end, have worked for the actual artwork.

Once the installation was finished, here were the features in the work I was surprised by:

  • With the work obviously consisting of projected light, I was thinking about Light as Heavenly, the Sun is God etc, and the symbolic pleasure of art actually made of light not just seeming to emit light. In Paradise Lost, Milton refers to an early Christian idea in which the properties of fire are divided up between the cosmic realms (‘Heaven has the light and Hell has the heat’). I thought this marriage between symbolic and aesthetic impact really worked.
  • The photographic source material becoming painterly and the light making colours glowing and bright; texture of brick walls like brushstrokes and the blurring of projector light all made photographic material seem like painting
  • Contrast between Belfry (sky-touching high place) and and the Oracle’s basement stairs/cave space (low place), disorienting between high or low. Duality of high/low added another element to the already present dualities of human/animal, male/female, sacred/profane.

Feedback from congregation and visitors included:

  • Some commented on Delphyne’s fragility, suggesting she was set up to fail in her divine role. Her physical weakness, and the shifting between forms, helped get across this aspect of the character
  • People commented on the beauty of the space and work, the pleasurable aesthetic experience and pace of the movement in the films that changed their mood and conveyed a melancholy but seductive emotion
  • The Rev Alan and others made references to early Christian murals, Renaissance frescoes that the work reminded them of, particularly the intense colours (red, gold, lapis lazuli blue) that mimicked medieval pigments. My friend sent me pictures of Christian cave murals (see below) which are very reminiscent of this piece, and also I love the cave reference which I commented on above.
  • There was a general enjoyment of the engagement with the features of the unique space, including the loud ringing of the bells every half hour. Visitors said it felt oddly nice to spend time in the dark, cold, creepy bell-tower; a Gothic space made friendly by colour and sound. At the opening, we had 20 to 30 people crammed into the space drinking and chatting with the light and music.
  • For non-church visitors, was exciting to explore the church and its architecture and features, and even some members of the congregation hadn’t been up to the bell-tower before. It was a way of opening the church space in a non-threatening, welcoming way to those of no faith or other faiths.


Early Christian cave murals in Matera, Italy

However, though I had a lot of visitors from art and non-art, religious and non-religious perspectives, and I was in general happy with the work, there were plenty of things I wish I had done better. I was quite burnt out when it came to the week of the show, and of course I would have done a better job if I was thinking more clearly. However, I was coming at the show from a playful, work-in-progress perspective, and I definitely learned a lot. If I had put more pressure on myself I may have crumbled totally, so I tried hard to enjoy the experience. But here are some Negatives:

  • Due to the install of main projection, the unreadable text and hard to make out images in projection were frustrating and stopped visitors from fully engaging with the story of Delphyne
  • Uneven floor space, dangerous in the pitch dark
  • Technical problems including USB sticks and 2nd projector not working the last few days. Should have had more consistency over every day the show was open
  • Would have been open for longer, organised more invigilators and marketed more aggressively if not for other commitments with university and employment
  • People not reading postcards before viewing the space as the postcard text was designed to be a scene-setter; or not taking postcards
  • As part of my disorganised-ness, and the addition of sound being a last-minute decision in order to create a more immersive environment, I didn’t fully research the intellectual property/rights I needed to be able to play the sound legally. Though the church was covered to an extent as a live music venue.
  • I was conscious of a possible conflict between members of the congregation not wanting artists using the church, not understanding/responding to contemporary work, feeling taken advantage of or patronised, and others being more open-minded and enjoying the different experiences that exhibitions offer
  • Loan store fine contributed to unexpected costs which I was trying to keep to a minimum

I thought this exhibition was valuable for my practice as it was a step towards making my work more relevant to the experience of others. I’ve been battling for a long time with how to take the work into the world, and how to allow viewers inside it and enable them to get something from it. I think the show combined this frustration with my work and its insular tendencies with a church space that also, traditionally, is a home for an insular community, and nowadays in London and all over the world these spaces have to adapt to stay relevant and in use by communities outside those it was created for, and by getting to know the church I saw the efforts that were being made to do this (with music concerts, other churches coming in to hold their own sermons, charities and educational programmes and other arts ventures). For Rev Alan and Sabine and the other church members, I think the show offered an insight into alternative uses for their building and an extension of the idea of belief into more personalised and secular perspectives.

Essentially the show was concerned with the nature of belief, the idea of committing your body to a spirituality or cause outside your individual experience. It was in the practice of making the show and for visitors to the church a consideration of insiders and outsiders. In an aesthetic experience that combined painting and photography, there was an expression of faith and love in colour, light, space; which is a very old thing to do done in a new way. In this way, through the exhibition process and the artwork, the show had its strengths.

Please have a look at this Belfry documentation to get a feel for how the moving images looked in the space, and also here is the original film that I made for the show in which the text that’s part of the film is legible.

Poster 2
Rosie Dahlstrom: Poster design for ‘DELPHYNE’, 2019

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