To Plough and Harrow the Soul: The Shared Work of Art and Faith

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child with Singing Angels (1477), Gemaeldegalerie, Berlin

[Art] makes us see in new and different ways, below the surface and beyond the obvious. Art opens up the truth hidden and within the ordinary; it provides a new entrance into reality and pushes us through that entrance. It leads us to what is really there and really going on. Far from subjective, it pierces the opaque subjectivity, the not seeing, of conventional life, of conventional viewing, and discloses reality.[i]

– Langdon Gilkey

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas,
to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person
for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.[ii]

– Andrei Tarkovsky

 

In the blood-soaked trenches of World War I, a young German chaplain found respite from horror and death by looking at reproductions of great art in tattered magazines. Even in black and white, faintly viewed by candlelight, the images revealed to him “the existence of beauty.” As soon as the war ended, he went straight to the art museum in Berlin to see, for the first time, one of the paintings which had comforted him in battle: Botticelli’s Madonna and Child with Singing Angels.

Gazing up at it, I felt a state approaching ecstasy. . . As I stood there, bathed in the beauty its painter had envisioned so long ago, something of the divine source of all things came through to me. I turned away shaken … I believe there is an analogy between revelation and the way I felt … the experience goes beyond the way we encounter reality in our daily lives. It opens up depths experienced in no other way.[iii]

Ten years later, in 1927, a middle-aged Canadian painter saw an exhibition of modernist landscapes by the celebrated “Group of Seven.” That night she wrote in her journal:

Oh, God, what have I seen? Where have I been? Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world. Chords way down in my being have been touched. . . Something has called out of somewhere. Something in me is trying to answer.[iv]

The young German, Paul Tillich, would become one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, while Emily Carr, at age 56, would begin her most productive period as a painter, exploring the unique spirituality of Canadian landscapes.

Tillich and Carr each had a powerful, life-changing experience in the presence of paintings. Were they describing a religious experience or an aesthetic one? Whatever distinctions might be made between the religious and aesthetic dimensions of each encounter, what they had in common was the fundamental dynamic of revelation: call and response.

 Something has called out of somewhere.
Something in me is trying to answer.

 

Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior (1926)

Art, like religion, addresses us, hoping for a response. Art, like religion, wants to take us “deeper and deeper into the world.”[v] Art and Christianity have sometimes acted like rivals, but they really share a common task––to rescue us from what David Foster Wallace called “our tiny skull-sized kingdoms,”[vi] and awaken us to larger realities.

Gary Indiana, in his appreciation of the transcendental cinema of Robert Bresson, put it this way:

You go to a work of art and hope to be transformed. Quietly, secretly, to be roused from a waking sleep, agitated at some resonant depth in your psyche, shown something you couldn’t have shown yourself. Bresson shocks you into reconsidering your whole existence.[vii]

Not everyone welcomes this kind of engagement in art – or in religion, for that matter. Many would prefer art to remain a harmless commodity, a decoration, an amusement. The average time a museum visitor spends in front of a painting is about fifteen seconds. As for religion, how many churchgoers want a worship service to shock them into reconsidering their whole existence?

Once upon a time in the West, there was no such thing as religious art.[viii] There were simply religious beliefs and practices involving images, words, music, singing, architecture, drama and movement. But with the waning of the Middle Ages, art began to lose its preoccupation with sacred stories and theological themes. Artists turned their attention to the human being, the natural world, material objects and daily life, even as churches of the Reformation, wary of idolatry, began to strip images and ornaments from their places of worship.

Thus the typical modern narrative of art history shows religious concerns and perspectives being left in the dust with the rise of secular culture. The modern artist was expected to ignore religion or to mock it. Christian subjects and symbols, no longer a living language for many, began to lose their hold on the imaginative life of the West. Museums replaced churches as sites of popular devotion. And conventional wisdom concluded that good artists were not religious and religious artists were not good.

Barnett Newman’s fierce manifesto in 1948 declared art’s absolute independence from religious tradition:

We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life’, we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.[ix]

Some of that same antipathy lingers today. When a symposium on art and religion was held a few years ago, two prominent art critics refused to attend. They said it would be too “painful” to sit at a table where people talk about religion and art at the same time.[x]

Christians have made their own contribution to the divide. They have not always been comfortable with the questioning spirit and expressive freedom of artists. And many churches are simply out of touch with contemporary art, failing to regard engagement with the arts as a significant spiritual practice. Nor do they foster dialogue––or collaboration––with local artists, closing the door to the possibilities of mutual exchange.

But contemporary Christianity’s greatest failing with respect to the arts may be a lack of imagination––in our worship, our formation practices, and our theological conversations. Gerhard Richter, one of the world’s most celebrated living artists, thinks “the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental and of making religion real—and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion.”[xi] It is a troubling indictment, and I hope we can prove him wrong with a rebirth of vision and wonder in our common life.

Meanwhile, the whole tired narrative of art leaving religion behind is being reexamined. A close look at the writings and conversations of modern and contemporary artists reveals a continuing interest in the transcendent, the numinous, and the sacramental. A lot of artists may have stopped going to church or painting traditional religious subjects, but few have ever abandoned the search for meaning or depth of presence in their work.[xii]

Many iconic figures of modern art openly recognized the spirituality of their work. “I want to paint men and women,” wrote Vincent van Gogh, “with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to communicate by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.”[xiii] Jean Miró hoped painting could “discover the religious essence, the magical significance of things.”[xiv] Mark Rothko believed that both the making and the viewing of his intensely colored canvases had a sacred dimension: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”[xv]

Roger Wagner, Menorah (1993)

There are an increasing number of well-respected Christian visual artists, such as Roger Wagner, Makoto Fujimura, and Terrence Malick, who are exploring Christian subjects, stories and symbols with fresh eyes and astonishing means. Many others, though not active in faith communities, still find in Christianity a deep language for the big questions of identity, purpose, and suffering.

The persistence of Christian subjects and images, despite the immense erosion of the Church’s cultural presence, is exemplified in the case of Barnett Newman. Only ten years after his manifesto against the “outmoded images” of western art and religion (quoted above), he began to paint one of the sacred masterpieces of modern art: Stations of the Cross (1958-1966). In fourteen large abstract canvases of minimal content, he explored Christ’s anguished scream from the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Newman called it “the unanswerable cry,” and in each of those paintings, often with only a thin black line in tension with––even overwhelmed by––the empty space around it, he questions our place in the larger whole. What does it mean to exist, to suffer, to desire? Are we alone, ignored, or loved?

Barnett Newman, Stations of the Cross, First Station (Jesus is Condemned)

Ultimately, it is not just the intentions or beliefs of the artists, nor their chosen subjects and styles, which make their art religious, for “any art that helps us penetrate the surface of things is religious, regardless of content or creator.”[xvi]  And whether art is a mirror of the human condition, a window into beauty both immanent and transcendent, or a hammer to shatter our complacencies, it shares many of the tasks and effects of religion.

Art and faith are, each in their own way:

  • Transformative: opening us up to the otherness of worlds beyond our isolated egos.
  • Revelatory: showing us what might otherwise remain invisible (suffering and injustice as well as more sublime realities).
  • Sacramental: making present to our senses the depth and beauty of a world “charged with the grandeur of God.”
  • Relational: connecting us with “Something” that not only desires to be known, but wants to address us.
  • Prophetic: making it impossible to avert our eyes from pain, suffering and injustice.
  • Formative: teaching us how to be receptive and pay the deepest attention.

Art and faith, then, are fundamentally allies, though they may not always act like it. Deepening the connections between them is, I believe, part of the Spirit’s dance. Or as Cirque du Soleil’s Michel Laprise puts the question:

A bridge to a new dimension? A magnetic portal to an invisible world? Yes! Why not? The Valley of Possible Impossibles, where dreams are on standby … waiting to be ushered into the now Abandoned dreams, collective dreams, mad, mad, mad utopian dreams … the unconscious into the conscious. Duality! Oneness!

Let the journey begin… [xvii]

 

Cirque du Soleil, Kurios (photo by Jim Friedrich)

 

Related posts

Do Not Fear: Reflections on the Venice Colloquium

“The artist formerly known as priest”

 

[i] Langdon Gilkey, “Can Art Fill the Vacuum?” in Art, Creativity, and the Sacred: An Anthology in Religion and Art, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 189-90.

[ii] Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, 1987), 43.

[iii] Paul Tillich, q. in On Art and Architecture, ed. John Dillenberger and Jane Dillenberger (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 234-5.

[iv] Emily Carr, Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of an Artist (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1966), 6.

[v] Mary Oliver, “The Journey,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), 114-5.

[vi] David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 117.

[vii] Gary Indiana, “Movie Rites,” Artforum (April 2000, v38 i8).

[viii] See Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997)

[ix] Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” Tiger’s Eye (Dec. 1948), reprinted in The Sublime (Ed. Simon Morley, Documents of Contemporary Art, London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010), 27.

[x] Re-Enchantment, ed. James Elkins & David Morgan (New York & London: Routledge, 2009), 110

[xi] Gerhard Richter: Text, Writing, Interviews and Letters, 1961-2007 (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009), 34.

[xii] Charlene Spretnak’s extensive documentation in The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) makes the case persuasively.

[xiii] Spretnak, 40.

[xiv] Ibid., 102.

[xv] Ibid., 129.

[xvi] Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 164.

[xvii] Michel Laprise, Workbook for Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities (2014)

“The artist formerly known as priest”

Text:Robert Bresson; Calligraphy: Br. Roy Parker OHC

Text:Robert Bresson; Calligraphy: Br. Roy Parker OHC

We are all artists, we are all storytellers. We all have to live by art, it’s our daily bread… And we should thank the gods for great artists who draw away the veil of anxiety and selfishness and show us, even for a moment, another world…. and tell us a little bit of truth.”

— Iris Murdoch [i]

In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,
Then grass and grackles ….
All these things
Are there before us, there before we look
Or fail to look.

— Richard Wilbur, “Lying” [ii]

My friend and sometime colleague Mark Harris has been an Episcopal priest for half a century. Now in his seventies, with his days of institutional church employment behind him, he devotes much of his time to making art. One of his friends recently designated him as “the artist formerly known as priest.”[iii]

The Prince reference made me laugh, but I also resisted the concept. Priest and artist are not contradictory vocations. Both draw back the veil between seen and unseen; both bear witness to a depth, a meaning, a beauty, or a Presence which is ever before us whether we “look or fail to look.”

Of course the priest is committed to a particular story about the world, and is accountable to some form of ecclesiastical authority, while the artist has no such constraints. In fact, it has been a commonplace of modernity to depict religion as antithetical to artistic freedom.

After a “shameful and distressing” conversation about the subject with T.S. Eliot in 1928, Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister: “He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. . . I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”[iv]

Similarly, a collective manifesto in 1948 declared art’s absolute independence from religion:

“We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you. that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life’, we are making them out of ourselves, our of our own feelings.”[v]

The modern narrative of art history, at least in western civilization, describes the messy divorce between art and religion. Art drifted away from sacred stories and theological themes to focus on the human being, the natural world, material objects and daily life. Then it stripped away all manner of content until its only subject was art itself, the pleasure of pure form and color unburdened by any external meaning.

In her persuasively argued book, The Spiritual Dynamic in Art, Charlene Spretnak refutes this narrative, documenting the deeply spiritual perspectives expressed by many of the iconic figures in modern art. For example, Van Gogh understood his revolutionary style as reinterpretation rather than rejection of a religious worldview: “I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to communicate by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.”[vi]

Writing “On the Meaning of Painting” in 1939, Joan Miró insisted that the artist’s vocation was to “endeavor to discover the religious essence, the magical significance of things,” rather than “merely add to the sources of stupefaction.” Recalling his first drawing class as a youth, he said, “That class was like a religious ceremony for me; I washed my hands carefully before touching the paper and pencils. The implements were like sacred objects, and I worked as though I were performing a religious rite.”[vii]

Spretnak cites many more such examples. But the rich and complicated relationship between art and religion is too vast for a single post, so for now let me return to my original argument. Priest and artist, for all their differences, share some essential common tasks:

To make visible what might otherwise not be seen.
To integrate life’s incompatible elements within a harmonizing vision.
To facilitate our encounter with a life-changing Presence.
To perform ritual interventions for the creation of community.

I am aware that many would define priesthood more narrowly, or art less religiously. Nevertheless, I am proud of the company I keep in this matter.

Seventeenth-century Anglican poet/priest George Herbert grounded his poems in a word or an image, morphing it into a multiplicity of resonant meanings. As one critic has put it, “he breaks the host of language” as the one becomes the many. This was more than clever wordplay. It was a worldview: one thing becomes another, like bread becoming God. Or a poet becoming a priest.

Contemporary Catholic poet Les Murray makes a similar connection between his verse and the Eucharist. Both involve “the absolute transformation of ordinary elements into the divine.”[viii]

The Orthodox composer John Tavener (d. 2013) described his music as “liquid metaphysics.” Acknowledging that his call was not to prove God’s existence but only to witness to his own experience of Presence, he said, “I cannot clearly demand belief in what I believe in, but I can ask for an openness, or certainly an acceptance that another level of reality exists beyond this commonplace one.”[ix]

Whether ordained or not, such artists perform a priestly function, inviting us to attend to the mystery of the world, in which “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.”[x] Or as I once heard arts innovator Peter Sellars put it, “The purpose of art is to wake people up who are sleepwalking, to grab them and say, ‘You cannot pass this by. This is your life!’”[xi]

Daniel A. Siedell, who has focused his critical attention on art and religion, makes an eloquent case for the priest/artist connection:

“There is a sacramental and liturgical presence in contemporary art, in which artists explore the potential of banal materials and gestures, in defined spaces, to embody and serve as a vehicle for profound meaning and experience. The liturgical dimension of contemporary artistic practice, which incorporates and re-performs the power of sacred space, ritualized gestures, and sacramental objects that testify to what philosopher William Desmond calls ‘the porosity of being,’ requires more expansive and richly-nuanced notions of both ‘art’ and ‘religion’ than those offered by modernist critics.”[xii]

Chiharu Shiota, "The Key in the Hand", Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Chiharu Shiota, “The Key in the Hand”, Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Chiharu Shiota is a Japanese artist living in Berlin. Her haunting installations are inspired by religious sites and rituals which evoke “strong emotional reactions. I think those reactions are sacred, but not necessarily the objects. It is similar with my art work. It’s the emotions that are sacred.”

For her work, “Key in the Hand,” she collected 180,000 old keys from all over the world, suspending them with 250 miles of red yarn over two old boats at the Venice Biennale in 2015. The keys represent the memories and treasures we lock away until we choose to entrust their custody to others. Shiota states that keys “protect important people and spaces in our lives. They also inspire us to open the door to unknown worlds.” [xiii] The yarn evokes blood and the interconnectedness of relationship. The boats, like an immense pair of hands, “catch” the rain of memories falling from above.[xiv]

Is Shiota’s work not sacramental, employing tangible objects to manifest hidden realities and touch our own deepest places? Does not its breathtaking beauty feel like a hint of the transcendent splendor toward which all being tends?

Chiharu Shiota, "The Key in the Hand", Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Chiharu Shiota, “The Key in the Hand”, Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Six years after Hurricane Katrina, the African-American artist William Pope.L invited residents of struggling New Orleans neighborhoods to donate photos in response to two questions:

When you dream of New Orleans, what do you dream of?
When you wake up in the morning, what do you see?

The collected photographs were to be projected onto a rear screen attached to the back of an old ice cream truck painted entirely in black. And one night in October, 2011, this 8-ton truck, with its engine shut off, was hauled through the city by a team of strong bodies from sundown to sunrise.

The artist imagined the black truck as the weight of our “collective darkness,” all those regrets and fears and demons we drag behind us. Countering the darkness, the back of the truck was illumined by projections from the inside of all the light collected from their lives and their dreams.

“I am asking people,” he said, “to show the fragility of their bodies as a collective and then go for a walk with others who are dragging the same old dreams down the same ole corridors and to take time out to wonder about that.”[xv]

Is this not priestly work? Using common materials and ritual actions, Pope.L. was the presider/curator for a “work of the people” which employed many of the elements of Christian liturgy: narrative (the photographs as “stories,” and the journey of the truck), symbol (darkness and light), time (a night passage framed by the setting and rising of the sun), and community (facilitating connections among the photographers, performers, and the neighborhoods through which they made ritual procession).

Pope.L acknowledges a “priestly” association: “Like the African shaman who chews his pepper seeds and spits seven times into the air, I believe art re-ritualizes the everyday to reveal something fresh about our lives. This revelation is a vitality and it is a power to change the world.”[xvi]

Critic and poet Donald Kuspit says that “being an artist is about being a certain kind of subject, not just about making certain kinds of objects,”[xvii] while Iranian/UK installation artist and sculptor Shirazeh Houshiary defines an artist as “someone who is capable of unveiling the invisible, not a producer of art objects.”[xviii] It seems that such artists as Shiota and Pope.L have brilliantly intuited this implicit artist/priest connection.

What I wonder, as an artist/priest myself, is whether those officially ordained by traditional Christian communities, such as my own Anglican tradition, fully understand the implications of this connection for our own work. Do we bring to our own priestly vocation the same degree of passion, creativity, imagination, curiosity and daring displayed in the work of the artist?

We may have much to learn.

 

Related Posts

Do Not Fear: Reflections on the Venice Colloquium

Sweet Miracle of Our Empty Hands

Heart Work and Heaven Work

Tending the Lamps of Holy Imagination

Note: The image at the top of this post was made for me by the wonderful calligrapher and Episcopal monk Br. Roy Parker OHC. For information on his work:  http://www.holycrossmonastery.com/calligraphy

[i] Iris Murdoch, Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues, 1986, p. 62-3, q. in Theological Aesthetics after von Balthasar (Ed. by Oleg V. Bychkov & James Fodor, Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008), 162

[ii] Richard Wilbur: Collected Poems: 1943-2004 (New York: Harcourt, 2006), 83

[iii] Some of Mark’s work may be seen here: http://www.preludiumarts.net/ One of his poems is found in the Related Posts link to “Tending the Lamps of Holy Imagination”

[iv] London Review of Books, 10/23/14

[v] Originally published in Tiger’s Eye (Dec. 1948), q. in The Sublime, ed. Simon Morley, Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010), 27

[vi] Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dynamic in Art: Art History Reconsidered: 1800 to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 40

[vii] ibid., 102, 100

[viii] Missy Daniel, “Poetry is Presence: An Interview with Les Murray”, Commonweal 119, no. 10, 1992, 10), q. in Between Human and Divine: The Catholic Vision in Contemporary Literature, ed. Mary C. Reichart (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 217

[ix] John Tavener, ed. Brian Keeble, The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 163

[x] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 291

[xi] From my personal notes on a “The Arts: A Catalyst for Change,” a forum at the Stanford University Centennial Weekend, October 1991

[xii] Re-Enchantment (James Elkins, David Morgan, eds., New York & London: Routledge, 2009), 234

[xiii] http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/05/the-key-in-the-hand/

[xiv] Interview with Shiota: http://2015.veneziabiennale-japanpavilion.jp/en/project/

[xv] Glenn Harper and Twylene Moyer, eds., Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics (Ed., (Hamilton, NJ: isc Press, 2013), 247

[xvi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Pope.L

[xvii] Artforum (1984), q. in Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 124

[xviii] Interview with Stella Santacatterina (1994), q. in The Sublime, 93

 

Do not fear: Reflections on the Venice Colloquium

image

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion – all in one.

– John Ruskin[i]

I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas.
I’m frightened of the old ones.

– John Cage[ii]

John Ruskin, the influential Victorian oracle on all things pertaining to the visual arts, had a particular passion for Venice. As a young man, he made repeated visits to analyze and record, in words, drawings and watercolors, the endangered architecture of the place he described as “a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak, so quiet, – so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which was the Shadow.”[iii]

A city floating on the sea, a mirage of reflections and watery light, an endless play of surfaces and mazes, seems more imagined than built. Ruskin’s fevered description of San Marco celebrates this fantastic evanescence:

… as if in ecstasy, the crests of the arches break into a marble foam, and toss themselves far into the blue sky in flashes and wreaths of sculptured spray, as if the breakers on the Lido shore had been frost-bound before they fell, and the sea-nymphs had inlaid them with coral and amethyst.[iv]

Artists, writers, and dreamers have long made pilgrimage to Venice not just to admire its beautiful treasures, but to be immersed in its spectral fancies, a provocative analog for their own imaginative processes. When a small group of Christian creatives gathered there for the Venice Colloquium in late October, we arrived with that same longing for inspiration and discovery.

Our collective intention was to “dream the Church that wants to be.” It was born of a shared sense of urgency about the state of imagination in the common life of God’s friends. In my last post, I wrote that “the practice of holy imagination is like a sanctuary lamp in the life of the Church. If not duly attended to, it is in danger of going out.” In a week of group conversations and Venetian wanderings, we tended the flame as best we could.

We had little interest in being theological spin doctors, cranking out persuasive messages or illustrative answers. Art is not argument or propaganda. Its purpose is not to answer questions, make a point, or silence doubt. The artist should not know what is going to happen when she goes to work. One of our group, a painter, said, “I am not trying to get a message out with my work, but to evoke a deep experience. What right do I have to impose my meanings on the incredible lives of other people?”

“Church,” said another, “has become the place where you go if you know, rather than the place to find out. It has become the place of the answer instead of the question.” Could we possibly abandon the project of collecting the best answers and devote our attention to curating the best questions? Where would that lead? Would we just get lost in the maze of unknowability? Or as the Psalmist says, is there anywhere we can go where God is not?

Where can I escape from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in the underworld, you are there.[v]

When we discussed the drag imposed on creativity by the institutional rage for order, the young leader of an “emergent” Christian community spoke up: “I want a wild church, where things are out of our control.” For Christians concerned about communal stability and institutional sustainability, that might sound like a recipe for chaos. But as our sacred stories remind us, chaos is prelude to creation. And if anyone thinks the Church is not in need of some serious re-creation, they aren’t paying attention.

The worship spaces of Venice, with their monumental forms of marble and mosaic, their exuberant decoration, their Bellinis, Titians, and Tintorettos, express a religious confidence that is nearly incomprehensible to our own time. More frequented by tourists than believers, they seem like gorgeous tombs for an expired past. Then what shall we say when the prophet asks: Can these bones live?

Jaume Plensa,

Jaume Plensa, “Together”

One Sunday morning I attended mass at San Giorgio Maggiore. There were less than forty people present in its vast interior. But as soon as the liturgy ended, many more people began to stream into the church. They had come not to worship, but to experience a contemporary art installation, part of the Biennale art exposition taking place throughout the city. A giant head, made of thick wire, faced the altar from the nave. Consisting of far more empty space than substance, it was a ghostly, immaterial presence, in but not of this world. A great golden hand, suspended over the crossing, bestowed upon that serene and mysterious face a perpetual blessing.

Jaume Plensa,

Jaume Plensa, “Together”

The contrast between the sparsely attended mass and the popular artwork could be interpreted as a simple duality of irreconcilable opposites: religion vs. art, old vs. new, moribund vs. vibrant, neglected vs. popular. But that would be too facile, ignoring the deep connections between the artwork and the worship space it inhabited.

It was not accidental that the head, modeled on a girl of Chinese and Spanish ancestry, faced the altar from the nave, like any common worshipper, or that the blessing hand mimicked the gesture of countless priests who had presided in that place for a thousand years. The work couldn’t be detached from Christian ritual without evacuating much of its meaning.

At the same time, there was something universal about a blessing hand and a receptive face. The extreme magnification of head and hand functioned like a cinematic close-up, focusing on the act of blessing in isolation from any specific ritual context or tradition. We didn’t see the vested body of a Catholic priest, or encounter the sociology of a local congregation. We only saw a hand that blesses and a face that receives. For me, the elemental humanity of this universal gesture reinforced rather than replaced the meaning of Christian blessing.

So instead of a rivalry between art and religion, there was a conversation, in which each informed and enriched the other. An explanatory text said that Jaume Plensa’s artwork, entitled Together, employed “a metaphorical language that will connect people of many faiths and of no faith.”

The conversation between art and religion, and among artists of many faiths and no faith, can only be tentative and experimental in an age of fragmentation and doubt. It will also be wild and unpredictable. If any of our small group came to Venice thinking we might collectively forge a vision of what the Christian artist is called to be in such a time, in such a Church, we were soon awakened from that fond dream. There will be no manifesto from the Venice Colloquium. We have returned to our homes with no answers, only more questions. And some lasting images.

Another Biennale work, Rashad Alakbarov’s The Union of Fire and Water, provided particular inspiration. As part of an installation evoking the turbulent political history of Azerbaijan, an array of swords and daggers was arranged in such a way that a message was created from their shadows: Do not fear. The instruments of violence and death had been transformed into an utterance of encouragement and hope. It was reminiscent of the Arma Christi, where the implements of Christ’s suffering become symbols of salvation.

Through the play of light and shadow, the handwriting on the wall was there for all to see. For artists out on the road of unknowing, with the voices of caution and order tugging us backward lest we lose our way, it seemed like a word from heaven. Do not fear.

Rashad Alakbarov,

Rashad Alakbarov, “The Union of Fire and Water”

[i] John Ruskin, Modern Painters III (IV: 333), abridged and edited by David Barrie (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 404

[ii] q. in Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: The Penguin Group, 2012), x

[iii] Ruskin, The Stones of Venice I, 9:17, quoted in Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited, ed. Sarah Quill (Farnham, Surrey: Lund Humphries, 2015), 41

[iv] The Stones of Venice (10:82-3), ibid., 55

[v] Psalm 139: 6-7

 

Bill Viola’s “Martyrs”

image

The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.

– Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 (Lectionary reading for All Saints)

At the far end of the south choir aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, four “martyrs” perform a perpetual sacrifice in a slow-motion passage from suffering to glory. These martyrs are not the painted or sculptured figures of a traditional altarpiece, but two men and two women, recorded on high-definition video, and played back continuously on a polyptych of four adjacent vertical plasma panels, each 55” x 33.”

This stunning work is by Bill Viola, who has long been exploring the interplay of “technology and revelation.”[i] As David Morgan has written, “Viola’s work suggests that the human condition consists of the fact that we are embodied beings yearning, but ill-prepared, for communion with one another; that we suffer pain and loss, that we struggle to transcend our bodies and our suffering by connecting with a larger or inner aspect of reality; and that we die. Bodies, communion, suffering, transcendence, and death collectively constitute a condition, a worldview that the artist seeks to investigate in his work.”[ii]

Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) was installed at St. Paul’s in 2014, and this week I had my first chance to see it. It is 7.5 minutes long, continuously repeated. Mesmerized and deeply moved, I watched it ten times, and each viewing provoked some new thought or feeling.

The figures begin in stasis, undergo an ordeal involving time and motion, and finally come to rest in a perfect stillness: not the anti-life of death or nonbeing, but something implicitly wondrous.

All the figures are facing in our direction. In the first panel, a kneeling man, head bowed to the floor, is almost completely buried beneath a triangular pile of dirt. We only see the top of his head, clutched by his two tense hands. The dirt begins to fly upward in a column, disappearing into whatever is above the frame. He rises to his feet, ever so slowly, as if it is a great struggle against gravity, or stasis. By the time he is upright, the last of the dirt has vanished into the “above,” and he is staring out at us impassively.

In the second panel, a woman in a white shift is suspended by a rope tied to her wrists. Her feet are anchored two feet above the ground by another rope securing her ankles. She is blown by a great wind coming from the left, buffeted back and forth within the constraint of her tethers, at the mercy of a relentless exterior force. After a while, the wind subsides, her suspended body grows still, and she gazes out with an unexpected measure of serenity.

A black man sits in a chair in the next panel, his head tilted to the side and downcast. Then bits of flame begin to drop from above, continuing to burn where they land. More and more flames fall, some leaving trails like shooting stars, until the whole floor, and the chair, are on fire. By this time the man has raised his head to look out at us, but he appears calm and still even as the flames envelop him. He remains in that position as the flames finally relent and die out.

In the last panel, a man is curled up in a fetal position with eyes closed. A rope tied to his angles is suspended from somewhere above the frame. The slack starts to be taken up, pulling his legs upward, and then his entire body, until he is completely upside down like the Hanged Man in the Tarot, or one of those skinned animals dangling in a Dutch genre painting as a secularized image of Christ’s Passion. When a stream of water begins to fall from above, his arms slowly stir, moving into a prayer position, bent 90 degrees at the elbow, then gradually sweeping backward, like a swimmer’s breaststroke, until they are near his side. Meanwhile, his inverted body begins to be pulled upward by the rope, toward the source of the falling water.

All of the figures have been handed over to forces or situations beyond their control. One buried, one bound and buffeted, one burned, and one left for dead. Yet none of them rages or resists. They accept their condition with a calm grounded in something greater than their own survival.

Each of the first three, after gazing out at us for a time, gradually shift their attention to whatever is above them, out of our sight, until their upturned faces glow with the light of eschatalogical radiance. Their faces never become expressive, or call attention to their own personalities; they remain still and quiet, in a condition of “absolute unmixed attention.”[iii]

The fourth figure, the “Hanged Man,” provides the dissonant harmony within this suite of images. He is the one who appeared already dead, his suffering behind him. His eyes, either closed or obscured by the water streaming down his face, are never quite visible. Although his arms eventually make hopeful gestures of prayer or embrace, the rest of his body stays limp, totally given over to the power at the other end of the rope, which pulls him up and out of the frame. The water continues to fall when he is gone.

Unlike the prayerful final images of the other panels, the fourth is fraught with absence. The other martyrs only gaze at the transcendent. The fourth has already ascended there, and we are left with only the water as a reminder of the one we can no longer see.

Noting that martyr means “witness,” an accompanying statement by Viola and his producer Kira Perov compares the active witness of martyrs to the passive witness of those who merely consume images of suffering through mass media, adding that these four figures “exemplify the human capacity to bear pain, hardship, and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs, and principles. This piece represents ideas of action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance, and sacrifice.”[iv]

But these evocative images can’t be reduced to a single meaning. The more I watched, the more meanings and associations were generated. The first figure suggested Adam formed from the mud, or Christ rising from his grave, shedding mortality clump by clump. It also seemed a kind of birth.

The strongly sidelit second figure, whose white shift and platinum hair glowed against the black background like a Zurburan crucifixion, mirrored both Jesus and Joan of Arc.

Like gold in the furnace God tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering God accepted them.[v] The fire in the third panel not only recalled the light of burning martyrs, but the positive biblical tropes of the refiner’s fire and tongues of flame.

The fetal position of the fourth martyr evoked both the womb and the grave. The falling water made me think of both baptism and waterboarding. Once he was gone, however, it spoke to me of both memory and promise: what had happened to him, and what might happen to us.

Just what – or who – is at the other end of that rope anyway?

[i] “Technology and Revelation” is the title of a lecture I heard Viola give at the University of California at Berkeley, September 28, 2009.

[ii] David Morgan, “Spirit and Medium: The Video Art of Bill Viola,” Image, No. 26 ((Spring 2000), 32

[iii] This was Simone Weil’s definition of prayer.

[iv] From the installation’s explanatory text.

[v] Wisdom of Solomon 3:6

“Delightful! Wonderful! Incomparable!” – Thoughts about holy spaces

Doug Wheeler, RM 669 (1969)

Doug Wheeler, RM 669 (1969)

For the viewer/participant of Light and Space art, a significant outcome of this experimentation is that the works of art perceptually condition us, whether we are aware of it or not.[i]

– Dawna Schuld

In 1914 the German writer Paul Scheerbart published The Gray Cloth and the Ten Per Cent White, a novel about an architect who constructed buildings made of colored glass. For the opening of each new building, his wife always wore gray clothing containing 10 per cent white, in order to intensify by contrast the effect of all the colors. Anyone who entered these luminous environments felt enveloped by the sublime. “The splendor of the colored glass ornament was so enhanced by the sun that one was at a loss for words to praise this wonder of color. Many visitors shouted repeatedly, ‘Delightful! Wonderful! Incomparable!’”[ii]

As the architect’s fame grew, he became fond of tossing out pithy aphorisms: “Glass brings a new era.” … “Building in brick only does us harm.” … “Colored glass destroys hatred.” He would have loved Twitter. Scheerbart’s utopian dream of transforming human nature through salubrious environments would soon fade in the disillusioning violence of the Great War, but it would surface again in the idealism of Modernist architecture: Design can change the world. Better buildings will make better people.

Architectural idealism has a long history. Plato thought that measure, form and order in the built environment had significant shaping power for both the soul and the community. Eighteenth-century Anglicans applied an exacting symmetry to church buildings in the hope that regularity and order in places of worship would, over time, help produce constancy and balance in believers. Order and form would tame unruly passions.

Such ambitions are easily mocked. In his brilliant and entertaining documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen observes that well-designed environments have become for the movies the equivalent of the bad guy’s black hat. “One of the glories of Los Angeles is its Modernist residential architecture, but Hollywood movies have almost systematically denigrated this heritage by casting many of these houses as the residences of movie villains.”

When L.A. Confidential (1997) placed the sleazy criminal Pierce Patchett in the Lovell House, Richard Neutra’s definitive manifesto for better living, the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times wrote that the “house’s slick, meticulous form seemed the perfect frame for that kind of power. Neutra’s glass walls open up to expose the dark side of our lives. They suggest the erotic, the broken, the psychologically impure.”[iii] In fact, Andersen points out, the film’s director was a great admirer of Lovell House, whose actual history closely reflected its architect’s ideals. It produced no villains.

Of course there is no simple correlation between environment and ethics or spirituality. A beautiful space does not automatically produce beautiful people. But can more modest claims be made for the influential nature of designed environments?

In the mid-1960s, the Light and Space artists of southern California began to create works that were not objects to look at but environments to experience. “I’ve always been interested in how much I can take away,”[iv] said Bruce Nauman, who stripped a space of light and feeling to create Room with My Soul Left Out, Room That Does Not Care (1984). Its chilling title might be applied to many contemporary enclosures, from the black holes of prisons to many of the places where we shop and work. But most of the Light and Space artists, while also stripping away much of what the public expects from an artwork, preferred to create rooms that do care.

At New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970, Robert Irwin was offered a dingy room for whatever installation he wanted to use it for. “The room really was an unhappy space,” Irwin noted.[v] So he cleaned the skylight and installed on the ceiling alternating cool and warm fluorescents, veiled by a translucent scrim. There was nothing “in” the room except for what Irwin called a “subliminal rainbow” effect of the light. People would wander through, see nothing there, and continue on to the next room, full of Brancusi sculptures – something they actually could look at. While they didn’t notice anything in Irwin’s room and thought it empty or unfinished, they did tend to remark on how bad the lighting seemed in the Brancusi room. The pleasant glow of the first space made them critical of the less luminous space that followed. An intentional environment had changed the way they saw the world outside it. Such work has been called “an art of incremental resistances that seeks not to change the world but to sharpen our perception of it.”[vi] 21

Both art and religion – sometimes in collaboration, sometimes independently – have created physical environments designed not only to provide a refuge from the prevailing fixtures and forces of the culture, but to generate resistance to those forces by providing, through a sense of otherworldliness or unnameable presence, a critique of culture’s totalizing claim to be all there is. Such spaces pose questions about what we have settled for as reality, and about what else might lie beyond our cultural constructions.

Critic/historian/collector Melinda Wortz called the Light and Space artists “architects of nothingness,” seeing their work as transcending the purely material level. “By reducing the physical and visual incident in their art to almost nothing, or at least creating the illusion of nothingness, they challenge us to share in these perceptions. And they are important perceptions, which go beyond common sense experience of ineffable states of consciousness, giving us access to the unfamiliar, the unknown, or those levels of knowing that cannot be translated into words. These are precisely the states of being least addressed by our culture at large.”[vii]

A Zen garden has been described as a “locus of stillness, purity, and silence in the midst of ephemerality and sensation, a refuge that intentionally avoids (in the short run) any reference to the outside world.”[viii] Many of us have found such “holy” spaces not only in religious constructions, but in art and nature as well. And whether for refreshment, renewal, or revelation, we are drawn to visit them, to dwell for a time in their aura and remember what the culture has forgotten.

Orthodox icons have long striven to provide a window into a transcendent world. The Light and Space artists, while shunning any theological presumptions for their “disorienting metaphysical enigmas and wordlessly ecstatic experiences,”[ix] seem to take us right through that window to put us inside. As Eric Orr said of his Zero Mass (1972-3), “an uncanny feeling of merging with the space may occur when the viewer loses an absolute sense of the boundaries of the room and perhaps of their body.”[x] Using faint ambient light and coved corners to inhibit visual perception of edges or walls, he dematerialized the space, making it an apparently boundless void where “our selves are tenuously held together in some sort of rapprochement with the surrounding emptiness. If at first it appears that we are surrounded by nothing, to what are we responding and why?”[xi]

These artists all stress the materiality of their work. Their environments are not just metaphors for something else. They are actual physical events, even if not as solid and tangible as traditional art. Doug Wheeler, describing one work, said it “was a real space – not illusory – it was a cloud of light in constant flux. That molecular mist is the most important thing I do. It comes out of my way of seeing from living in Arizona – and the constant awareness of the landscape and the clouds.”[xii]

So is anything being intimated or shown besides the specific phenomena of these environments? Does a hidden reality or transcendent dimension lie behind the physical experience? Where does experience meet faith? And how important is it to put language to the experience? Does conscious reflection about such experience diminish or deepen its effect on us?

Whatever these artists believe, think or intend with their work, those of us who think theologically can’t help but find them revelatory, pointing beyond themselves. A sacramental view of things regards matter as the essential means of encountering Spirit. The givenness of the material world – light and water, bread and wine, flesh and blood – is how we begin to know anything, including the divine.

James Turrell, one of the best known of the Light and Space artists, has spoken of “the need and thought of spiritual sensibilities or dimensions beyond us,” though he avoids the “vocabulary of religion.”[xiii] His Quaker sensibilities prefer direct, unmediated experience. But when he speaks of the “thing-ness” of light which “becomes the revelation,” he blurs the opposition between material and spiritual, leaping across the either-or dualities as adeptly as the mystics.[xiv]

But whatever happens, whatever is encountered in these works, is it merely private experience, a matter solely of personal perception? Olafur Eliasson, an Icelandic artist, is insistent about the social dimension of his work, which is designed not only to produce wonder but also a collective “co-presence” in the sharing of the experiential space.

Olafur Eliason, The weather project (2003) at Tate Modern, London

Olafur Eliason, The weather project (2003) at Tate Modern, London

In The weather project (2003), he installed “a giant yellow orb like a dark winter sun” in the 500-foot long Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern. Sixteen nozzles sprayed mist into the atmosphere, filling the space with a light fog. Three hundred mirrored panels on the ceiling reflected the people below who glowed in the brownish-yellow haze of the sun’s two hundred sodium lamps.

During that winter season, two million people visited the museum to stand, sit or lie beneath the sun. It had the effect of Scheerbart’s fictional glass buildings: Delightful! Wonderful! Incomparable! Even if they arrived by themselves, people were immersed in provisional community. Sometimes they spontaneously arranged themselves into geometric patterns, symbols or even words. As Madeleine Grynsztejn observed, “This kind of participation calls us out of and beyond ourselves, an effect reinforced when witnessed and shared by others.”[xv]

The weather project, like many of the Light and Space artists’ “experiential processes,” bears resemblance to my ideal of church: a “holy” space, differentiated from the “ordinary” world, dedicated to the participatory experience of being called out of ourselves into an experience of wonder and praise. Not everyone shares this conception of Christian worship spaces. The stricter liturgical theologians argue that God is only present in the assembly and its liturgical actions, not in the physical space itself. Early Calvinists used to lock their churches during the week to discourage the idea that a space without a congregation at prayer retained any residue of holiness.

Peter Hammond, in his influential book, Liturgy and Architecture, argues that a church is not a place for a casual visitor to have a worship experience. It is not a shelter for an altar but for an assembly, and it has no meaning or symbolic power apart from its liturgical function. While I would agree that the primary function of a church is to shelter and enable the communal liturgy, I am sympathetic to Joseph Campbell’s view that one can be “reborn spiritually by entering and leaving a church.”[xvi]

The Light and Space artists would not make such large claims. But something unique and even significant can happen in their alternative spaces. Maybe colored glass can’t destroy hatred, but can certain kinds of experiences in certain kinds of places work on individuals and communities over time in positive, formative ways? In Dawna Schuld’s view, “we take the work with us: our heightened senses, now attuned to the subtleties of the conscious fringe, encounter a more vivid world than the one we left behind.”[xvii]

Eric Orr’s Sunrise (1976) was a nine by twelve foot room sheathed in lead, cutting off all sounds from the outer world. The space was quite dark. “I am engaged in using silence as a color,” Orr explained.[xviii] But the darkness was not total. A single bar of sunlight, guided into the space by a series of mirrors, moved slowly up the wall as time passed.

It reminded art critic Thomas McEvilley of the secret inner chamber of an Egyptian temple, and he reflected on the effect of being there: “Orr’s goal of producing spaces that will transform everyday experiences was mildly fulfilled here. Yet no one flew out the door like a bird. Rather, one walked out as one went in, but with a certain mental aura, as of secret ambiences and veiled promises of transcendence.”[xix]

Related posts

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration

“Owl among the ruins” – What shall we do with empty churches?

[i] Dawna Schuld, “Practically Nothing: Light, Space, and the Pragmatics of Phenomenology,” in Robin Clark, ed., Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 111

[ii] Paul Scheerbart , The Gray Cloth, tr. John A. Stuart (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 3

[iii] Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003/2013), written and directed by Thom Andersen, Part 1, chapter 12: Modern Architecture

[iv] quoted in Michael Auping, “Stealth Architecture: The Rooms of Light and Space,” in Clark, p. 103

[v] Jan Butterfield, The Art of Light and Space (New York: Abbeville 1993), 24

[vi] Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, ed. Madeleine Grynsztejn (NY: Thames & Hudson, 2003), 22

[vii] Butterfield, 16

[viii] Lindsay Jones, The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Integration, Comparison, Vol. Two: Hermeneutical Calisthentics: A Morphology of Ritual-Architectural Priorities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 280

[ix] Ross Weszsteon, referring to James Turrell, q. in Butterfield, 78

[x] Clark, 45

[xi] Schuld, 120

[xii] Butterfield, 121

[xiii] ibid., 82

[xiv] Michael Govan, “Inner Light: The Radical Reality of James Turrell,” in James Turrell: A Retrospective (Michael Govan & Christine Y. Kim, New York: DelMonico Books, 2014), 49

[xv] Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, ed. Madeleine Grynsztejn (NY: Thames & Hudson, 2003), 19

[xvi] I can’t find this citation, which has been in my church architecture notes for years, but it does sound like authentic Campbell!

[xvii] Schuld, 121

[xviii] Butterfield, 159

[xix] ibid., 160