Altar/d Adamstown - Contemporary Art in the Sanctuary / Rod Pattenden

by Rev Dr Rod Pattenden - photos by John Cliff

During May of this year Adamstown Uniting Church became the venue for a series of art installations that is being held over a period of six months by a range of respected and diverse Australian artists. The series is entitled ‘Altar/d’ and allows for a conversation with art works that are presented as the central visual focus for the worship space. The invented word Altar/d offers opportunity for a breaking down off barriers between the sacred and secular, for difference and surprise, and for celebrating the ‘everyday’ moment as included in the scope of the sacred. It invites a playful conversation between tradition and innovation, between the ways things have always been done and the disruptive capacity of seeing found through contemporary art.

  ‘Dirt, Soil, Earth’ by Penny Dunstan, detail - 2018

‘Dirt, Soil, Earth’ by Penny Dunstan, detail - 2018


Penny Dunstan’s work ‘Dirt, Soil, Earth’ brought connections to the wider landscape of our region that is pock marked by open cut mining and the resultant affects of major changes to the natural landscape. On the Communion table the artist placed a number of bowls made of various soils from around the region, offering contrasts to healthy rich life bearing soils to those found around mine sites where little nourishment could be found. In the course of the month long exhibition these bowls began to crack and fall apart, turning towards their original condition of soil. Given their symbolic reference these containers made material connection to the nourishment and productivity that is expressed at this Eucharistic table.

Above the table a small tree was suspended upside down, its bare branches reaching down towards the soil bowls. The artist explained that this tree had been burnt from the roots up by the excessive amount of coal dust found in the reinstated soils. The ground combusts at 500 degrees. This has become our burning bush. It has been delicately bandaged. It hangs like a pointer above the table with its white bandages flickering in the warm moving air of the sanctuary. Behind this ensemble - were four black panels painted with coal dust. Their material physicality brought into the space the otherwise unseen presence of coal mining in the region. Newcastle remains one of the largest exporters of coal through its port, to the world. These difficult connections are ones that are usually left outside the doors, and their very presence in the sanctuary asked questions about the nature of our worship and its connection with the land we inhabit and care for.

The introduction of this art installation into the Church broadened the horizon of worship to include the rivers, hills and valleys that supplies our food, security and well being. Each Sunday elements of the works were included in worship thereby deepening their capacity to work as containers for memory. They in turn called up deep memories of the land and increasingly challenged our assumptions about our place in this particular landscape. The works went on challenging our words, our actions and prayers as we sought to include them within the frame of the liturgy. Soil scientist and artist Penny Dunstan inserted an ensemble of works that opened up a wider frame that includes our ethical relations with the earth, and called out for a God who grieves over the face of creation. Such an intervention disrupted our liturgical habits which then needed adjustment and innovation to allow new insights to develop through the words and liturgical actions conducted in the space.

Further details about the exhibition can be found here

  Rev Rod Pattenden with ‘Dirt, Soil, Earth’ by Penny Dunstan - Altar/d exhibit,   Adamstown Uniting Church,   May 2018

Rev Rod Pattenden with ‘Dirt, Soil, Earth’ by Penny Dunstan - Altar/d exhibit, Adamstown Uniting Church, May 2018

Rev Dr Rod Pattenden is minister of Adamstown Uniting Church. He is an art historian and curator interested in the connections between art and spirituality.

Penny Dunstan is a prolific artist working in mixed media and geological-environmental themes (NSW). See more at her website:

  ‘Dirt, Soil, Earth’ by Penny Dunstan, detail - 2018

‘Dirt, Soil, Earth’ by Penny Dunstan, detail - 2018