Category Archives: Art

How Real Are You? Bill Viola’s ‘Martyrs’

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The installation at St Paul’s

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, I went to see Bill Viola’s video art installations at St Paul’s Cathedral.  The two moving-image works, Martyrs and Mary, are gifted to Tate and are on permanent loan to St Paul’s.  I will in this piece focus on Martyrs because talking too much about Mary would be a great spoiler – its meaning is only in seeing it, and reading anything descriptive about it will destroy its impact.  You will understand if you go and view it.

Born in 1951, when Viola was 6 years of age he fell into some water and nearly drowned. Looking back many years later, he says that while he was under water, he was able to register the beauty of this new world that he witnessed. The notion of the ‘real’ being under the surface is a key theme throughout his work, and this draws from his early experience with water.

He says ‘Art is, for me, the process of trying to wake up the soul. Because we live in an industrialized, fast-paced world that prefers that the soul remain asleep.’  There is no more of an appropriate time for this than Easter.  The installations, parts of which can be seen here, begin with, in Martyrs, humans in the process of beginning to be martyred, and in Mary, new life – a baby, but ending with death.  It got me thinking: the Christian faith is about Crucifixion followed by Resurrection, and recalling these events in Holy Week is a prime opportunity for us to start over and ‘wake up’. But actually, in our daily lives we are presented with such opportunities constantly but so often allow them to pass us by, and so the moment has gone – and we fall asleep again.

Viola sees cameras as keepers of the soul because of what they capture – an example being the filming of his mother as she died (she was in a coma).  He read St John of the Cross aged 16 which, like the experience with water, was highly influential and is evident here where his work seems to have an integral feeling of bringing back the numinous and focussing on the interior landscape of the human person.

The use of film to communicate to the audience is significant – we are used to being spectators but in this instance, we are not to be controlled by this usually controlling medium.  Going back to the theme of being asleep, in our daily lives we have allowed screens to dictate far too much to the point of being so addicted that an alien visiting earth would think our souls were stored in our phones rather than in our very being.  Well, these installations remind us that it is the latter: yes – I hate to break the news but your soul is not in your phone.  The essence of the humans in these installation is so intense – we are not controlled by them, or the screen in which they reside, but rather we are at one with them, as the tangibility of the flesh behind the screen is raw.

In Martyrs four actors are shown left to right, in isolation.  One is a man buried under earth, who gradually stands up and pushes through the soil; the second is a woman bound at her feet and wrists, and hanging from them as she is blown in the wind; the third is a man sitting on a chair surrounded by a circle of flames encroaching on him, and the fourth is a man hanging upside down with water pouring down on him, his arms outstretched.

Viola does not say what anyone is supposed to see in these or in what time period they are set. The man in the earth has overtones of Adam (man made from the earth) – or it could be a civilian caught in an earthquake; and the man hanging could be St Peter who was crucified upside down – or it could be someone undergoing waterboarding. These are just some of the reactions St Paul’s has received from the many visitors to the installation. There is a phrase which is something like ‘comfort the distressed and distress the comfortable’ – this work is an example of this process. The point is we should be affected in some way – not indifferent. It is the encounter that matters.

Whatever we think, as viewers we look and then walk away. Which is exactly what we do in life, at our peril. We condemn those who torture or kill others, and apparently empathise with the victims, but these actors within the screen seek to reflect us back to ourselves (as all good art does) and show our failings, which in this case is inaction – and force us to re-examine the term ‘martyr’. It can be ill used in today’s world.

The main issue I had with the martyrs is that there is no evidence of pain in their faces – even when a martyr accepts death willingly (alone, in order to stand for the truth – they do not impose this on others or wish to destroy others in their death), they would physiologically feel the agony of flames, or the horrendous pressure on their body hung upside down battling to breath with water blocking their air passages. Perhaps suffering is aestheticized, and too gentle in these installations? Are these martyrs too archetypal – to the point of being unreal?

But maybe that is the point – we don’t need to be ‘controlled’ by being shown four actors screaming and writhing in agony. We know this to be the case – and having to think for ourselves about these four human beings who appear peaceful and serene only makes manifest the real life current situation – it is the peaceful who have become martyrs at the mercy of many a brutal regime. Viola’s film medium has indeed subverted the idea of control – we have got it wrong if we are controlled by it and become its puppets. This is about what we do in response, as are the daily news pictures on our screens…

The study of Theology, in general, throws up more questions than it provides answers.  Likewise with these installations, and likewise with Easter. We simply cannot know answers to everything and it is increasingly difficult to find meaning in everything. If we are constantly looking for rational explanations for our experiences, including our sufferings, then we are missing the point. It is far more important to engage with the situation and in that moment, take a note of how we feel, and react. How we react makes us real, and if we don’t react we are perhaps the ones who are unreal.

As Disraeli said, ‘never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologize for the truth.’

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The power of the Every-Day: part 2

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‘The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper‘  W.B. Yeats

A quote from the Exposat 2013 exhibition in South Kensington (Imperial College), London, currently showing.  Here is what it is about –

Exposat: The theme is based on pieces and images suggesting how time and space can be re-presented. The title ‘EXPOSAT’ is an acronym of the phrase ‘EXploring Perceptions of Space and Time’. This is also a Catalan word meaning ‘exposed’ and is linked to ‘exposar’ – expose (reveal, uncover) which is a nice coincidence. The pieces are intended to portray one or many moments in time and space. These images or sequences are intended to reflect events, structures and processes and our perception of them. The objective is to provide experiences that link to the model of events in space / time that the pieces are intended to suggest. The intended mood of the exhibition is to portray interesting and perhaps novel ways of achieving this. The theme allows for exploring different techniques to capture moments in time and space and to record and present them and the linking of these to create a dynamic process of perception and re-perception.

The photographs and video installations show how we’re caught up in our everyday lives not knowing what we pass through.  The quote at the start of this article comes from the set of photographs produced by Kayode Disu, as does this quote:

‘There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception’ Aldous Huxley.

His set of photos show this brilliantly – people immersed in their own bubble and yet part of a whole.  Here is one of his many superb photos – this one shows the bubble of the underground – many private worlds in one public world:

Perspective

It is so easy to form a decision about something or how someone is and yet it would be easier to leave our imagination open:

‘The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favour that theory’ Thomas Jefferson.

Let us turn to Liverpool Cathedral where the expressions of the divine are certainly not caged in!  The striking sculpture on the front of the cathedral has not been made within any framework – there is no theory and because of this, it can be seen through the eyes of anyone:

Christ

Christ

and provokes individual repsonses such as the one inside of the cathedral:

I felt you and knew you loved me

I felt you and knew you loved me

Whether the quote is religious or not, whether the man on the front of the cathedral is Christ or not, when approached openly, the viewer is the one to benefit.

The power of the Every-Day: part 1

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The current Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain in London is brilliant and moving.  The title of the exhibition is ‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’ and I had no idea just how modern his works are.  They are timeless because sadly, the struggles of people that he paints are still present.  I guess it is down to the individual as to how they interpret these paintings but it is hard to see them within their own time only – they go beyond.  They show working class people on their way to work, events such as a football match, or children coming out of school.  They don’t show intricate detail but the paradox of this is that they show it all: less is more.  Lowry saw drama in the everyday – in crowds and people together.

Early Morning

Early Morning

In the picture above, people are leaning forward to show they are on a mission to work – not unlike today.  What you get with Lowry is the backdrop of the poverty in the North of England at the time which you might not see so easily in the paintings that are being done today of a city in Britain but it doesn’t mean poverty of spirit is not there.  Let’s face it, when you smile at someone on your journey to work these days (especially in London), how often do you not get a look in return that looks positively puzzled? – unfortunately communicating nicely is not the norm these days and we know that years ago – at the time of the two world wars – people had less, but there were fewer choices and somehow sticking together seemed easier.  You were equal to the next person – these days it is all about being better.

In 1845 in ‘The Salon of 1845’, Charles Baudelaire says ‘the heroism of modern life crowds in on us…We are stifled by our true feelings, therefore cannot recognise what we they are…The painter, the true painter, will be the one who can seize from the life of the present its epic dimension, and make us see and understand, in colour or contour…’

If I didn’t know this comment came from 1845, I would have thought it was of now.  Yet, Lowry’s paintings show the results of industrialisation and modernisation.  It did move forward life in many ways such as creating housing for people but this revolution in particular folds in on itself in Lowry’s lifetime, in the 1970’s – it is then temporarily repaired with the boom of the 1980’s…and then this folds in on itself again in the bust of the 2000’s.  We would do well to read what John Berger in ‘LS Lowry: New Society’ (1966) says:

‘These paintings are about what has been happening to the British economy since 1918, and their logic implies the collapse still to come…Here is the recurring so-called production crisis: the obsolete industrial plants: the inadequacy of unchanged transport systems and overstrained power supplies…the shift of power from industrial capital to international finance capital…’

Yes, Lowry’s paintings are gloomy – they are beautiful but the beauty shows us the problems and suffering in society.  We rarely see details and Lowry was not interested in communicating sentiment but his paintings show peoples’ struggle in life whether he wanted to show this or not.  His paintings are life as it is and his landscape paintings are not unlike the war paintings of Nevinson and his contemporaries – Lowry’s landscapes show stark chimneys and mills – buildings which have overtaken the people that operate them.  There are all sorts of parallels you could draw with his work and the work of the Vorticists who were part of the anti-Futurist movement and believed that the technological machines of the war were the indication of what was to come.

On the theme of war, Lowry’s painting of the The Cripples reminds us that the legacy of war bites hard into society.  This is a rare painting where he shows the fear in his peoples’ faces – his ‘matchstick men’ now inhabit the pain of everyman:

The Cripples

The Cripples

…and is as meaningful today as then.

Message of Thanks

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I wanted to say a big thank you to all the bloggers who’ve looked at my blog during its first year.  I’m grateful for you stopping by and hope you’ve got something out of it.  Thank you for your messages of support and interest.  Like all of you, there is something liberating about speaking into the midst of humanity even if like Amy Adams in the film ‘Julia and Julia’, I don’t always know who I am speaking to.

So, here are 3 paintings on the theme of hope for 2013.  The first is a favourite of mine – ‘Hope’ by G F Watts:

Hope by G F Watts

The second is totally appropriate for our time – ‘Hands of Hope’ by Anthony Hodge:

Hands of Hope by Anthony Hodge

The third shows hope through the eyes of nature – ‘Petals of Hope’ by Thomas Kinkade:

Petals of Hope by Thomas Kinkade

All three I think are beautiful.  I also have a quote which I found in the newsletter of a small charity doing wonderful work – Hands Around the World – www.hatw.org.uk

If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve obviously never been in bed with a mosquito.

Lots of small acts make a big difference.  One person can’t change the world but one person can change the world for one person, or one animal.

The Script Within Us

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We write a script for ourselves that sits within us – we probably don’t know we do, and we often use the wrong words or write the wrong story.  There’s an internal monologue in our heads that narrates our lives.  Are we always our most honest narrators?

It’s why art forms which use no words are necessary and valuable.  Matthew Bourne, known for his radical reworking of classic ballet, says dance is telling a story without words.  His new project, Sleeping Beauty, has been turned into a gothic romance where Tchaikovsky meets Twilight.

Sleeping Beauty

In many ways, non-spoken arts forms offer us a more neutral commentary on our lives.  Our lives are so full of words (which are not always truthful) – our own and other people’s, they crowd our heads.  Images, dance, puppetry, leave things open.  Bourne says ‘if you’re telling stories, it’s important not everyone looks the same.  I’m drawn to people who can act, who are “searchers”.’

We can look at a piece of dance, and it will communicate something different to each person, whilst letting us escape ourselves for a bit for ‘time out’ but at the same time, ‘time in’ to focus on other truths which we might not have considered.  The novelist Barbara Kingsolver says ‘It’s about how people can look at the same set of facts and come away believing different things.’

If you think about it, this comment applies to other areas in life as well as the arts – apply it to religion, love, people, the world…remember the ‘duck rabbit’ – which is it, and how do you know?

 

Matilda’s wise words

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Matthew Warchus, Director of Matilda the musical, said at the Olivier Awards this year that like for the character of Matilda, the creative imagination is the key to surviving life.  Matilda escapes her difficult life, where she is persecuted by her parents for her love of reading, by opening a book to access another world that in turn opens her mind.  Matilda feels she can be who she is through books.

In today’s world, children are encouraged at school to be someone – the trend in life is to become someone – rather than establish who you are: you are already someone!  Celebrity, and Reality TV emphasises the need to be someone – to have great expectations that you can do anything.  But, what about the everyday person who quietly and genuinely goes about their everyday life – just being themselves – trying to be real.  Matilda could be herself, and feel that her realness and indeed her reality, mattered, through her immersion in books.

Essentially it is better to be a ‘real nobody’ rather than a ‘fake somebody’ – to steal these two phrases from the film The Talented Mr Ripley spoken by Tom Ripley – Matt Damon (although Tom thinks the reverse and prefers to be a fake somebody).

The extremity of the power of masks (Tom Ripley wears one throughout the film) can be seen to frightening measures in the sketches of Spanish artist Francisco Goya.  Goya made a series of 80 etchings in 1799 called Los Caprichos (‘Capricho’ can be translated as ‘whim’, ‘fantasy or expression of the imagination’).  Goya has the courage to depict human beings at their most grotesque – when humans spend so much time ‘unbeing’ themselves that the effects on their identity make for shocking viewing:

Goya does what Matilda does and uses his imagination to expose others and speak the truth.  He says: ‘The world is a masquerade.  Looks, dress and voice, everything is only pretension.  Everyone wants to appear to be what he is not.  Everyone is deceiving, and no one ever knows himself.’

To turn to another artist, Giorgio Agamben, in his book ‘Man Without Content’, thinks that art opens up reality – it opens a space.  Art is the space between the melody of everyday life – like a grace note in music.  It is where the little bits of truth come in and arrest us from the actuality of life.  It reminds us that we are ‘in-between’ this life and possibly something other.  Art is the suspension and without this, life is mechanical.  Suspension doesn’t mean a rejection or a moving away from real life: a piece of music is not that same piece of music without the grace notes; it is the grace notes – the space – that make the music what it is.  A suspension is just a bridge between actuality and possibility, and potentiality.

I will hold on to Matilda’s courage at being herself and showing others up through what she loves most: in the end her creativity pushes Miss Trunchball away and inspires others to stand up to the people and powers that crush them.

Everyday Drama in Art in Oregon, USA

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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.