Mobile phones were yet to become ‘smart’ in 2003 when the British artist Rose Finn-Kelcey was commissioned to make a work of art for the church of St Paul’s Bow Common, East London. But messaging had evolved enough to mean that there was a received abbreviation for many commonly used words in our lexicon, and the use of symbols and punctuation to create expressive icons (what were to become emojis) had established itself and spread quickly. One of these, which uses the image of a haloed angel’s face on its side 0:-) as if to say ‘You’re an angel’, became the central motif of the vast panel of shimmer discs with which Finn-Kelcey graced the exterior of this post-war church. It remained there for six months.
In the Bible, angels take many forms and inhabit many guises. When the angel appears for the first time before ‘the woman’, wife of Manoah and mother-to-be of Samson (Judges 13:3), with news that she will conceive, the woman has no doubt of the angel’s veracity, although she does remark afterwards that ‘he didn’t tell me his name’ (v.6). This compulsion to name and identify the angel is more strongly expressed by Manoah himself when the angel appears a second time (v.9), but the angel evades answering, giving the reassurance that it is a name that is ‘wonderful’ (v.18).
Finn-Kelcey’s Angel was a deliberate and contemporary manifestation of the ambiguity between sign (what is being shown) and identity (what—or who—is being communicated in the showing). As Manoah and his wife found themselves wondering about the full implications of their angel's message, so the audience to Finn-Kelcey's work were encouraged to speculate on the meaning of hers.
In doing so, she turned the secluded experience of the biblical couple into something very public. Her sideways digital characterization was a departure from traditional visualizations of angels, but suggested an openness to those beyond the Church. Enlarging its central motif to the scale of an advertising hoarding, it was widely visible. Using the para-linguistic code of texting, it was legible to many for whom the Church may perhaps have seemed anachronistic. And harnessing human beings’ magpie-like attraction to shiny materials it appealed beyond the boundaries of any one culture or belief.
Rather than conveying her message from within the privacy of one-to-one messaging Finn-Kelcey declared it at full visual volume to anyone who would listen.