Behind the veil

When you arrive in Santiago de Compostela, they say, then your real Camino begins. Or continues, since the vast traverse between where we’ve been and where we’re headed is ongoing, never finally completed – not even by death, say the theologians. We are always “on the way,” deeper and deeper into the mystery of the world. Just so, this blog will itself travel on, exploring the permutations of that mystery within the wide categories of God, Nature, and Art, which are my three great passions. The subjects will be diverse, but all will pursue my guiding theme: where the fire and the rose are one.

This richly suggestive phrase, the last line of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, harmonizes seemingly incompatible energies: the wild, consuming flame, the serene, soft and self-possessed bloom. As traditional symbols of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, they recall the fruitful incongruity of the Incarnation, but even without this theological overlay, on a strictly sensory level, their union comprises a highly charged coincidence of opposites. The interplay of radically different entities – matter and spirit, sensation and meaning, fact and imagination – and the expanded sense of reality that such unlikely dance partners can produce, will be the subject of my inquiry. John Muir, rhapsodic apostle of the California mountains, described nature as “opening a thousand windows to show us God.” The Religious Imagineer exists to look for those windows – not only in nature, but also in the arts, literature, cinema, theology, and ritual practice. The terrain is immense, my maps are few. But like Wordsworth, I pray that “should the guide I choose / Be nothing better than a wandering cloud / I cannot miss my way.”

So let me begin my new “camino” with Bill Viola, whose video art installations explore big questions: Who am I? Where am I? Where am I going? I have admired his work for years, and was delighted that the first retrospective of his work in France coincided with my arrival in Paris en route to the Camino in April. The notes to the exhibition related his aesthetic to religious contemplation: “For the artist, the camera is that second eye that ‘re-teaches us how to see’ and addresses the world beyond, or beneath, appearances.” And in fact the multiple rooms of the gallery, cave-like spaces lit only by the high-definition images projected on large surfaces, seemed more church than museum. People stood or sat on the floor in rapt attention to the visions unfolding all around them.

I was struck by one room in particular, where the four walls were covered by simultaneous projections of five different 35 minute scenes of mortality and resurrection. One of these was a fixed wide shot of a man dying in a tiny house perched on a bluff (a cutaway wall lets us see inside) as a boat is loaded with household goods on the beach below. When the man dies, we see him appear on the beach (while his lifeless body remains in the house) and get into the boat, which ferries him slowly across the wide expanse of water toward an unknown shore. In another scene, a rescue crew is packing up at the edge of receding floodwaters, while a distraught mother keeps watch in the desperate hope that her drowned son might still be rescued. After a long vigil, mother and paramedics, exhausted, fall asleep on the shore. It is only then that the son’s resurrected body rises out of the water and into the sky beyond the frame. The sleepers miss it, but the viewer is given a privileged glimpse of the crossing between this world and the next. Water dripping from the man’s ascending feet turns into a downpour once he is out of sight. The sleepers are awakened by the deluge, and they exit the scene, never suspecting the rain to be a sign connecting earth and heaven. The mystery of resurrection remains hidden from them, though not from us. The largest image, covering the entirety of a long wall, was an endless procession of people, seen from the side like a Parthenon frieze, moves in slow single file through a forest. As Viola intended, these walkers, wrapped in a silence that seems neither anxious nor eager, suggest souls who have left this world, on their way to whatever world awaits them. I would recall this image a few days later, when I took my own place in the Camino’s great procession of pilgrims, all making our way toward God knows where.

It would be hard to imagine a casual encounter with this installation, whose title was Going Forth By Day (a term for dying taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead). It seemed too concerned about our own fate for us to pass it by with only a glance. Viola’s work always invites us deeper, soliciting, in his words, “faith in that other thing, that something else dimly felt behind the veil of daily life.” (David Morgan, “Spirit and Medium,” in The Art of Bill Viola, p. 101)

We could use more of such conviction – and poetic persuasiveness – in the rites and imagery of our churches, which sometimes seem at a loss in the task of making the sacred tangible or even thinkable in a culture saturated by secular assumptions. I was delighted to hear that St. Paul’s cathedral in London recently unveiled a permanent Viola video installation in its Martyrs chapel. You can find images of this new work at http://www.billviola.com/

You can view a short montage of excerpts from Going Forth by Day here: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Bill+Viola+Going+forth+by+day&FORM=VIRE1#view=detail&mid=38964FC4118E53E2F6B938964FC4118E53E2F6B9

You can also watch an excellent lecture which I heard Viola give at UC Berkeley in 2010. It is 90 minutes long, includes examples of his work, and is well worth it for his discussion of “technology and revelation.” The link is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0RCkNugozU

Viola flood res

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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