Joan Bakewell: Belief, 2005
ln the summer of 2001, I found myself in discussion about the role and scope of the BBC's Religious Department. I had been contributing to its programmes over some thirty years. Throughout that time I had seen its attitudes to faith and belief change, just as those of the country at large had done. Back in the beginning in 1928, under the unflinching leadership of Lord Reith, the BBC had no doubt about the central role of Christianity within its remit. Documents from that time speak of the BBC's 'doing its best to prevent any decay of Christianity in a nominally Christian country', and 'giving new life and meaning to the traditionally Christian character of the British people'. In the post-war years, any sliver of doubt was quickly crushed by a strengthening of resolve: in 1948 the then Director General, William Haley, declared 'some people may ask whether British Broadcasting is neutral where Christian values are concerned. Of course it is not. ... We are citizens of a Christian country and the BBC - an institution set up by the state - bases its policy upon a positive attitude towards Christian values.'
By the 1960s when I made my first programmes, the BBC had largely passed into the hands of a generation of secular arts graduates, but the Religious Department was still fulfilling its primarily Christian role. Its head had always, with one exception, been an ordained cleric of the Church of England and that was to remain the case until 2000. It was not until 2001 that the first television professional was appointed to the job. In 2000 the Department had been renamed the Department of Religion and Ethics. Thus has one of the long-standing core functions of British broadcasting gradually evolved into something more appropriate for these times.
By the 1990s, BBC Religion, increasingly concerned about its obligations to the beliefs of ethnic minority communities, had conducted an enquiry into what people say they believe. It findings were strangely disquieting. The saddest outcome of the survey was the conclusion that a majority of the population are people of 'vague faith'. This concept - vague faith - suggests those who when asked whether they believe in God or not, answer in essentially unsophisticated terms -'Well, yes, I feel there has to be something, doesn't there.' 'I suppose something must have started it all, so, yes, I suppose I do.' These were not the conclusions of a people who had spent a great deal of time in rigorous appraisal of their beliefs. This was not a nation in the grip of religious profundities. Into this evolving scheme of things, I threw my few pence of comment. I wanted to push an idea for an entirely individual concept of faith, and to hear its many voices. The Belief series was born. Since 2001, I have conducted some 47 conversations, of which 20 are presented here.
During that time, there has been accelerating change in the world. Religion has swept back onto both the domestic and the international agenda. Christianity in Britain has been gripped by continuing convulsions. The Catholic hierarchy has suffered a grievous loss of respect and trust following its paedophile scandals; the Church of England remains embattled over the issues of women in the priesthood and the homosexual clergy. At the same time the evangelical wing of the Christian faith is enjoying a rapid and passionate expansion. The Alpha Course - a proselytising crusade aimed at the affluent middle classes - and the black-majority Gospel and Charismatic churches, have boosted their numbers and injected a new enthusiasm into Christian worship. An evangelical President of the United States has entered his second term of office with religious observance firmly entrenched in White House procedures, and with a cabinet of fellow Christians who thread their pronouncements of international policy with an Old Testament vocabulary of good and evil, and unhappy references to crusades and a clash of civilisations.
In parallel the rise of fundamentalism throughout the world is now driving the international agenda. An increasing number of Muslim countries have made shariah law the legal framework of the state. Political loyalties are increasingly tied to the profession of religious credos; minority faiths come under attack simply for being different. Asians in Britain ask to be identified as Hindu or Muslim or Sikh. Suddenly what you believe has become part of your public identity. Religious allegiances are becoming dangerously allied with a tendency towards tribalism.
At such a time it is good to listen to the thoughtful and considered beliefs of individuals of intelligence and reputation. Beliefs are not simply the codes and credos of religions and sects. Indeed it is clearly the case that individuals - even those espousing the orthodoxy of an established faith - bring to its tenets their personality and intelligence which renders their personal belief unique. It is impossible to police the human conscience. So even among a number of people professing the same religion, their actual beliefs will be born of their individual lives and circumstance. So it is within these pages. Here are people chosen simply for themselves, not as representative of faiths or to demonstrate any clash of ideologies. And, regardless of changing world events, their beliefs remain strong as the basis for judgement and action.
People can believe in many things; in horoscopes, in crystals, in ley lines, scientology, spiritualism, witchcraft, the transmigration of souls, or indeed any of the 12 or so strongly.established and widely-observed world religions. Or they can have beliefs shaped by a more rational and scientific outlook; a belief in the values of this life: justice, humanity, beauty, art. It is rare to find anyone who sets aside the question, saying they have no beliefs at all. And in large part, until recently, it was widely felt that people were free to choose and follow their own beliefs.
What emerges is more complicated that that. Children are born into already well-established and shared belief systems. Their first experience of trust and love comes with the ideas of parents whom they have neither reason nor capacity to doubt. So our first beliefs are implicit in our background. Beyond the home, they will be reinforced by the community of belief in which they are grounded. Thus early and thoroughly do we grow unwittingly absorbing attitudes, ethics, stories and beliefs. In his On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote: 'He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice.' It is only as our interaction with the world grows and develops that we come to exercise our freedom to explore and develop new ideas. The stories within these pages demonstrate just such choices being made. Each individual journey is unique and fascinating. What they say can challenge our own beliefs, perhaps grown routine with habit. Here are new insights into the many and diverse beliefs individuals have about the world.
This book owes its existence to the BBC Radio 3 programme, Belief, an on-going series in which I interview people of diverse views and reflective temperament about what they believe about the world and things beyond. I could not do this without the commitment of Radio 3 itself, and the BBC's Department of Religion and Ethics. Most particularly I owe a debt of gratitude to my producers of the programmes: Anna Cox, Tim Pemberton, Janet MacClarty, Rosie Dawson, Karen Maurice, Norman Winter, who also gave valuable assistance with their publication.
Antony Gormley ' ... a parallel universe'
Antony Gormley is one of Britain's foremost sculptors. After Cambridge, he studied at London's Central School of Art, Goldsmith's College, and The Slade School of Art. Throughout his career he has used moulds of his own body as an archetype, the starting-point for his continuing exploration of the relationship of the human and its context. His most famous works include the Angel of the North which towers 20 metres high beside the motorway approach to Tyneside, Field, made up of some 40,000 small terracotta figures, and Quantum Cloud, created to stand beside the Thames at the Millennium Dome. He has made large-scale installations for Cuxhaven in Germany and the Royal Academy in London. He won the Turner Prize in 1994 and the South Bank Prize in 1999.
I was brought up a Catholic in which everything either had an answer or was a mystery for which we should not seek to have a definite answer in this life. I've tried not to have belief. I've tried to make things that deal with my uncertainties, but also with my faith. I think faith is rather different from belief. Belief is a lack of knowledge, but faith is something that we can posit within human life and human consciousness as an evolving process. And I think that's where art and sculpture come. Art can provide objects of which their principal value is that they are instruments through which we can know ourselves better
You are the youngest of seven siblings: what was that like as a child?
Our family was run a bit like an organisation, and I think religion was part of the rules. Being the youngest is quite a problem. From the older children's point of view you're horribly spoilt and indulged in ways that they weren't. From your point of view, everything has already been said, everything has already been done and there is very little to add. I can just remember very early on feeling that I had to make my own place, I had to find an alternative space where I could grow.
And the Catholic teaching offered very clear Catholic rules?
Yes. 'Why are you born?' 'I was born to serve God, to love him and ...', whatever it is. And I think that was in some sense almost interchangeable with the kind of family system. We had prayers at night and sometimes in the morning, and then, going to school, there was more of the same. And I look on it now as in a way a form of abuse. I know that sounds a little heavy, but there was a sense in which this was indoctrination, done in the name of love, but in fact was a form of emotional blackmail in which all of those things that I think human nature is very susceptible to- guilt and anxiety- were in some way used as forms of manipulation.
Did you feel very guilty yourself?
I think I was very profoundly affected by that religious environment. I attempted to have a very strong relationship with the Virgin Mary for instance, which I think is a common escape route from a more male and disciplining father God figure.
Did you talk to her?
I must have spent long hours on my knees in front of a plaster Virgin. I can hardly look at those images now without feeling a certain kind of sickness in the stomach. But there were a lot of moments of deep disappointment in the evolution of my relationship with Christianity, and I think the first was 'first communion'.
There's something very moving I always think about look?ing at people's faces when they return from the altar, when they've taken the Holy Eucharist and there is some extraordi?nary transformation taking place and you seek signs of that in the transfiguration of their faces. I believed I could see that. And then it didn't happen for me and suddenly there was this extraordinary rite of passage, this moment of taking the host and going back to my pew and closing my eyes and there being just darkness and a sense that, oh goodness, actually nothing is going to happen.
Christianity also offers a code for living which, if you follow it and observe it, is enormously supportive. Did you accept that code and find it nourishing?
Basic Christian morality - 'love thy neighbour as thyself' - is absolutely a fundamental rule of Christian and all society. It's what helps life become liveable, and hopefully more than liveable, because it encourages empathy. But the fundamental image of Christianity I have problems with because it is to do with the denial of the body. I think that the crucifixion in some sense is also an expression of the fear of the body, in general as a sexual object. I suspect that's where I begin to part company with Christianity.
You went to Ampleforth, a leading Catholic public school.
While I was there I was a full participant. I regularly took the sacraments and I regularly went to confession, and I had a wonderful time at Ampleforth. I found that that was the first step of my liberation really from the rigours of home life. But I left the Church the minute I left Ampleforth.
And it was there that you began to really explore art and your love of art.
We did at least two periods of two-hour-long drawing sessions per week for the whole time that I was there. I won the school art prize a couple of times, and I painted a lot of pictures, some of which were bought by the school. So, immense support and immense encouragement at a very early age, which was very important. Art was always for me this zone where possibility was rife, where anything could happen. I would dash up there during the first break, start something off on a big piece of hardboard, throw lots of colours and maybe some earth together and swill it all about with some oil and then rush up before lunch to see what was going on in this chaotic canvas and then at the next possible opportunity go up there again. And it's still like that for me. I think that the zone of possibility that art offers is like a parallel universe.
When you gave up Catholicism did you find it a void? Did you feel emptied out?
No, I felt liberated. It was a wonderful time, so I'm afraid that Catholicism went with a lot of other things.
And what came in its place?
A very robust engagement with ideas about expanding your mind in all ways. I was interested in alternative religions, I took my fair share of drugs, I did a bit of acting. And I began to travel. It was in the first long vacation at Cambridge that I went to India for the first time.
So you were a bit of a hippy?
I was and still am. I am a hippy I think at heart.
Tell me what influence India had?
I think that the real engagement happened after I left. When I arrived back in India at the beginning of 1972, I met S. N. Goenka who taught Vipasasana meditation and I think the minute that I started this form of very simple Buddhist meditation I made a connection with an experience that I'd had as a child. As a child in the 1950s I had to have my rest after lunch. I remember, when my eyes were closed, feeling this unbelievably claustrophobic space behind the eyes which would be almost suffocating, a matchbox-shaped darkness that was never big enough, and dwelling in that space. And slowly but surely that small claustrophobic matchbox darkness opening up and opening up until it was as big as deep space in which I was floating, and it went from liberation through to fear and then back into a kind of freeform floating. And I re-linked with that space in a deep way for the first time again through meditation in India and I think that is still the space that I am interested in. That's where all of these things that we used to call the soul, what we might now call imagination, dwell, and out of which everything comes in terms of consciousness.
I'm interested that you took instruction to access this depth of insight; a new set of rules perhaps or a technique.
A very, very simple technique, a way of being still, a way of sitting and a way of leaving the distractions behind. In some senses the twin powers of desire and aversion disappear along with the ego. When you sit still and watch what is actually happening, you realise that everything is in flux, that we are just a bundle of energy and that actually where we begin and end is not a very defined thing. It's a process. And it is possible to expand consciousness itself.
So you practice meditation every day ...
Well it's become synonymous with the work. I use my body as the material out of which the work comes, and the process of being moulded is itself, I believe, a profoundly meditative experience where you have to be there completely. You have to be at one with your body, as the plaster is placed around you. And as the plaster heats up in the chemical reaction, as it is hardening, so you yourself can relax because this act of will is translated into this exoskeleton and its form then becomes the condition of your existence. It's a very extraordinary process and in a way it has become my meditation.
How long does it take?
An hour, an hour and a half.
Do you ever feel trapped? Have you ever been trapped?
It's happened once or twice. It happened early on when my wife had to go and answer the front door or the telephone or something. I was just standing there and this little bit of plaster just happened to fall in front of my breathing hole. I was going 'phhh, phhh' ... to blow this thing away, to get it out, but I couldn't move because I was entirely encased. It kept sort of falling back and 'ugh' and I couldn't breathe, and that was panic. I almost blacked out. Vicken reappeared after about 10 minutes, but by that time I was fairly alarmed.
Your exposition of consciousness and where it ends, seems to be at odds with the figures you produce which are very clearly there, and not there. They are hard, rigid outlines of your body in different positions, sitting, standing, but also up in the ceiling or out at sea. Angel of the North couldn't be more absolute in its presence. There is nothing confusing about the edges of the Angel of the North. Do you find that hard to reconcile?
That's a very important question. As far as I am concerned, the works are not representations. They are testaments or witnesses to an existence. They are indexical evidence of where one particular body once was and by implication anybody could be. I am hoping that people will relate to them, because they're not representations, by asking much more fundamental questions, like 'what the hell is this thing?' 'What's it doing here?' 'how does it work?' and in some senses those questions then get returned by the mute objects and they have to reflexively ask themselves 'what am I doing here?' 'how do I work?' Empathy is one of the ways I think that you can relate to these works, even the Angel. The sense of their being an object isolated in space that might have less to do with art and more to do with life is part of how they work. That's why I've been very interested in using the beach, or a hilltop or places that are not confined by architecture. Because I think then the relationship between this human sign and everything that it is not, is much more manifest. And in a sense then the question of 'who it is' is much more open. It can be an image that anyone can inhabit.
You entered into a political minefield with a sculpture you did in 1987 called Derry Walls which involved figures facing both ways, a comment on a very obvious rift in the community. Were you surprised at the effect it had?
The sculpture for Derry Walls is a very specific work It's two body cases that are crucified to each other, taking the central image of Christianity, the arms are stuck out at the side, the eyes are open, so that you can look through one set of eyes and out of the other at these two views, inside and outside the walls. The idea was to make a benign object that stated both the history and the present divided nature of this community, but to do it in such way where this central image of Christianity was reconfigured. The very fact that the work was attacked by both communities meant that it was doing its job. I saw it as a poultice. Here was this benign object that called to itself thoughts and feelings that might otherwise be expressed violently against other human beings. That's certainly what happened. In a sense it still remains for me one of my most beloved public works, because it's testing where art belongs, who it's for, what it can do. It's very unusual to see art on the front line of the human conflict like that.
You use the word 'poultice', and elsewhere you've said that you see art as a catalyst for healing. Is your art healing you? Is your art therapy?
Absolutely. I think that the basic 'doctor-heal-thyself' is absolutely to be applied to art. I think if art is not in some senses an instrument for its maker, how can it be an instrument for the rest of us. I'm absolutely certain that I couldn't live without it. It's the balancing mechanism in my life. I offer it to the rest of the world for whatever it's worth, and its only way of having worth is as a space. Even the most solid of my works, the three-quarter-of-a-tonne body forms; I think of them as a space, even if it is a materialised space. And I offer that as a space of possibility to the world. They are so very different from statues. They don't represent a particular person in the way that a statue does, and they don't represent a particular ideology or history, or narrative. They are about possibility and about potential.
Field is a very famous but very different kind of work because it is made up of some thousands of small figures, presumably designed by you but made by many people. I wonder if you see art as having a civic and moral role in society and community?
No, I think it's tribal basically. Art is one of the principal ways in which a community discovers itself and this is something that we've lost. Field takes a lot of making, and, the making is half of the work. It's very important it's a collective activity. It's very important that the form of each of those pieces is absolutely unique and comes not through my design but through just allowing yourself to enter this repetitive almost breathing motion of taking a ball of clay and using the space between your hands as a kind of mould, a kind of womb out of which the form arises. Each person is communicating a unique self in the way they walk, the way they write their name, the way they speak. I do fundamentally believe that each of us is an artist, is a creative person and the project that we are making is the self: the shape of our lives. This work and process is a way of expressing that.
And what happens when people do this?
I think you become a tribe. If you weren't beforehand, you become a tribe through the process of making it. People are always amazed that they can do this extraordinary thing of making an object that in some way is part of them and part of their bodies and they put it out there, and it has a life of its own and it makes demands of you. I think that's what was extraordinary about Field. That's certainly what happened when we made it at St Helen's, filling up this 1960s school. First of all we filled the gym, then we filled the science block and we ended up in the schoolrooms, filling every available surface, the floor and all the tabletops with this growing crowd. People couldn't believe the energy of this battery of gazes that was looking back at them because each of the figures has two little eyes that look up and forward, eagerly awaiting something or other.
Can you not see that this is your congregation?
The interesting thing is that each person who made part of it became the work's first audience and was aware of the power of the pieces. I think the whole point about Field is that it's saying, 'We are no longer God's children; we are the makers of the world; we are the inheritors of this earth; and out of it we make a world.' And in some senses, each of us carries a responsibility for that.
Does it express a faith in man? Do you have faith in the future, or do you feel it's an arid desert?
I think Field combines all sorts of fears with a great deal of faith. It talks about over-population and lots of our worries about what we're doing to the planet. But I think it also is life-enhancing or life-empowering in so far as it puts you in the position of being the mediator between, as it were, the spirit of the ancestors and the spirit of the unborn. That we are this living layer of human consciousness that is in some senses the seeds of the future.
And is the world good?
I think the world is a place of transformation in which the forces of good and evil are ever waging a constant battle. I am not sure that I believe in an evolution from bad to good. I think that what we have to do is remain vigilant and keep in some sense our faith that human consciousness is the agency by which balance can be maintained in the world.