Founded by painter Patrick Hamilton, the Florence Trust first opened its doors to artists in 1990. It was created as a place where exchange with other artists was encouraged; for over thirty years the Trust provided a year-long residency for 12 international artists to create and commune at St Saviours, North London. Since the beginning of the pandemic the Florence Trust has adapted; changing from a residence scheme to providing permanent, affordable studios and support for around 20 artists. They held a programme of 15 shows over 2 years alongside a natural dye-making and textiles education programme, based in the garden of St Saviours.
After 33 years the Trust is now leaving St Saviours. While the building will be sold the Trust will continue, as it currently negotiates with three different organisations across three different sites in north London. There will be a year-long gap in residencies while the Trust restructures and plans for this new start, although during this time they still plan to initiate a series of online workshops and skill-sharing sessions that will focus on community, feeding into the in-person and on-site work that will follow. Building on the international residency model, the Trust will be incorporating a programme of outreach works, making it more accountable to the community and the role that art plays in wider society.
In 2008/9 artists Yuka Namekawa, from Japan, and Steven Allbutt, from the UK, met on the Trust’s programme. They married in 2014, and returned in 2019 to help manage the Charity and its home, through this next chapter. Enshrine is their first collaborative artwork, in a show conceived as an opportunity for viewers to say goodbye to St Saviours and hello to the Florence Trust, as it moves forward and away from its past home.
I stumbled upon this on the recommendation of a friend, and immediately found myself moved by how the exhibition was structured and the wider thoughts it invoked. The work explores how we make the mundane sacred and the sacred mundane: what does blurring that boundary look like, and what could we learn from it? This was inspired, in part, by the quote that inspired Patrick Hamilton to found the Florence Trust.
Unless one says goodbye to what one loves, and unless one travels to completely new territories, one can expect merely a long wearing away of oneself and an eventual extinction.
– Jean Dubuffet
The Enshrine triptych consists of three pieces: Monumental Words, created with recycled studio timber, broken concrete casts of Das Kapital and the Bible, and a found box; From the Mundane to the Sacred and Back Again, created with recycled studio timbers, recycled paper, wire and LED lights; and Enshrined, featuring charity book shop copies of Das Kapital, with text set in resin.
There’s something profoundly moving about the way this exhibition mixed precise arrangements of broken objects and found items, alongside something so large, deliberate and (quite literally) radiant.
From the Mundane to the Sacred and Back Again features a large Torii (鳥居) within the church. In Japan a torii is the symbolic gateway between the spiritual and human world. It marks the boundary between a sacred shrine and ordinary space, but can also identify other sacred spaces, such as the base of a mountain, a rock, or the ocean. These torii gates are said to embody the deity which is believed to exist in nature, which is a long-rooted belief in Japan known as animism.
While the title seemingly refers to the act of walking through the torii, moving between these sacred and ordinary spaces, there’s something special about placing a profoundly spiritual marker in a building that’s already seen as spiritual in nature. It suggests there’s something more to this place, beyond the history of a church building. Considering the legacy of the Trust, it’s hard not to see this as anything other than the sacredness of community. This space has become something other. Irrevocably changed because of this residency; because of what it represented for those who partook and those who came to see the work, and how this encouraged connection in both arenas.
From the Mundane to the Sacred and Back Again
This begs the question, what do we choose to worship, and why? Namekawa has stated her interest in ideas around how people come to place value in objects. How we enshrine, and how we attempt to protect and elevate that which we destroy. It’s a question those of us working in climate justice often think about, how we shift perspectives and approaches to redefine what we see as important, and worthy of respect and love. In the case of this work, it manifests in the marking of a shrine. The laying out of boundaries, creating a sacred space inside a sacred space, as an invitation to question what we really value.
What marks this place out as different from other churches? What memories does it hold and what did it mean to the people here? It didn’t just exist as a building, but as a place where people collaborated and conversed, were profoundly changed, and shared this with the world. Perhaps, it suggests, this is what matters. Perhaps this is what we should be seeking to cultivate in every area we step into.
Move beyond the gate and you find secondhand copies of Das Kapital beneath a triptych of the crucifixion, the pages open as if being flicked through by an invisible hand, words encased in resin. This stilling of ideas, literally setting words in a specific space and time, suggests a pause and reflection. While we transform, we take stock. We pause before we prepare to move forward. Placing Marx directly below such overtly religious imagery can’t help but connect the crossover of the two. After all, stories of Jesus depict him as a radical proponent of love and justice.
At the other end of the church, shards of broken concrete casts of both the Bible and Das Kapital are placed in order, methodically, like their own kind of shrine. While in this we see a kind of destruction and decay, old things falling apart to make way for the living, breathing new. We also see circularity; these items aren’t useless in their brokenness, they come together to form their own artwork. They change form and become imbued with a different kind of meaning, but meaning is still there.
Pause & reflect
All of these pieces invite pause, whether in sheer awe of the large or to consider a minute detail of the small. We reflect, we acknowledge, we consider, and we are grateful. We see what came before, in all its wholeness, before we watch it break apart to make way for something more.
This is reflected in the materials themselves, which are generally sustainable in nature. Found objects, books sourced from charity shops, recycled timber and paper. Nothing is wasted, and nothing is ever truly over. It simply shifts form, becoming new and whole over and over again.
It’s the approach we all need to take to the kind of world we are seeking to build. We need to look at what is broken and see it for its potential. See how it falls apart to make way for the new, the better, the equitable, the just. And see how we can pick up the pieces and transform them into something that works for everyone. May we all find ways to cultivate this radical dream within us, that sees what is not yet there but what could be. May we constantly rework, may we constantly be circular in our thinking. May we constantly find ways to create that which is big and small and rooted in a politics of love. May we constantly inspire awe in ourselves and each other, whilst recognising the fullness and variety of our experiences and how that can make everything sacred. Through the fullness of community, the lives we touch, the earth we inhabit, and the justice we fight for.