In 2009 I spent some time in Portland, Oregon, volunteering as a Gallery Assistant in the Art Museum there.
‘M.C. Escher and Paradox’ was an exhibition which within the pictures contained the everyday drama of life. Each picture was a stage. On this stage were people in a scene – most of the time not communicating with each other. It reminded me of the world we now live in. The stage of the theatre is a place where people communicate. The stage of life – as in these pictures – is a place where people do not. In this article I wanted to explore the theme of ‘encounter’. Opposites, incongruities and tensions all have to be dealt with and faced and this is something the Church of England is having to do a great deal of at present. I would venture to take this further and say that the characters in Escher’s pictures represent the divisions in the Church at the moment both internally and with other members of the faith. I want to show that whilst Visual Art is not Theatre per se, it is a presentation of the drama in daily life – whether it is dramatic or un-dramatic is probably down to the viewer to decide.
Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) was a Dutch printmaker who crafted hundreds of prints from woodblocks of impossible worlds, hard to explain without looking at his prints. Yet to look at his worlds they seem logical and neat. The fact is, his worlds are beautiful and perfect to look at but display an uncomfortable tension because of this: the viewer knows they are not. He intermingles different worlds – of sky and earth merging purely by the transformation of shapes where one thing becomes another. To look at the surface of these prints is to see one thing and to look within is to see another as the volume of the print takes hold of you. There are multiple vanishing points as he experiments with depictions of infinity. He suggests possibilities yet never can they be possible…the suggestion of a reality is the itch that keeps you looking at his work since his worlds should be real and yet are dysfunctional.
Annette Dixon, Curator of the exhibition, says: ‘Escher’s work is rational and logical, yet strange and incomprehensible. Though bizarre, his morphing forms evolve systematically. Though uncanny, his interpenetrating worlds seem orderly. Whether suggesting the perfection of the harmonious, or the shock of the incongruous, paradox is central to his work.’
The characters in the impossible worlds are disconnected and unaware of each other. Escher is really saying something here: our world now is impossible because people are these things. The characters in the prints bump into each other because they don’t notice each other – they move in different directions to the same destination but never get there because the structure they are in (and have built) contradicts their chosen path. I cannot help feel how appropriate Escher’s pictures are to our post modern, cranky society – we can’t see how tangled we are because we fail to talk to one another or see the hostile structures we have created (including the boundaries in religion which only we have made) go against our nature.
I’d like to quote from the Declaration of Creative Rights by Oregon Poet Kim Stafford, Oregon Arts Summit, May 2009. The quote draws the theme of encounter with the other – whether fellow human or God, together with the need to be done through Drama and the Arts. The last line is particularly inspirational.
We hold early Creative Experience to be indelible, and that all children need be offered, equally and abundantly, certain Rights that secure access to the formative Encounters of Art—and that among these are making original Work, savoring creative Practice, and the Pursuit of one’s own generous Vision and articulate Voice. At every Stage of our state’s history we have recognized the power of creative citizens to encounter, to consider, and in Good Company one with another to resolve by Insight, Wisdom, and Work together any difficulty that may confront us. And just as a River, in order to thrive in passage through the Tangle of Civilization, must begin pure at its source of Oregon Origin—Applegate, Rogue, Umpqua, McKenzie, Santiam, Chetco, Siuslaw, Trask, Deschutes, Malheur, Grande Ronde, Wallowa—so must a Child begin with pure encounter in the Ways of the Maker, the Inventor, the Architect of personal Image, Craft, Hue, Print, Dance, Drama, Song, and Story.
However poetic (hyperbolic, you may say) this is, it does ask us to return to our roots: clearly the artistic ones but I read something grander in the last lines as well. If we become unable to nurture our creative energy, we destroy the Creator in us and shut ourselves off from civilized communication. With the Arts and charities being hit hard in the economic downturn, we should remember that the giving of bank bonuses or the endless amounts of time we spend in our office jobs passing papers around and staring into computer screens, was never and will never be the thing that unites people in life, and that such a self orientated culture was certainly not one we were cut out for.