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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 Arts as vehicles for Identity and Truth

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In his statement to his film Mr Turner, Mike Leigh says:

“Back at the turn of the century, when ‘Topsy-Turvy’ was released, I wrote that it was “a film about all of us who suffer and strain to make other people laugh.”

Now I have again turned the camera round on ourselves, we who try to be artists, with all the struggles our calling demands. But making people laugh, hard as it is, is one thing; moving them to experience the profound, the sublime, the spiritual, the epic beauty and the terrifying drama of what it means to be alive on our planet – well, that’s altogether something else, and few of us ever achieve it, much as we may try.

Yet Turner the man was eccentric, anarchic, vulnerable, imperfect, erratic and sometimes uncouth. He could be selfish and disingenuous, mean yet generous, and he was capable of great passion and poetry.

Mr Turner is about the tensions and contrasts between this very mortal man and his timeless work, between his fragility and his strength.”

I enjoy films which are about complex people and I read this after seeing the film. Too often it feels as though society puts people into boxes and has no time to consider those who are outside the box. The business of the arts is to explore characters and the world they lived/live in.

Timothy Spall as Turner

Timothy Spall as Turner

Turner seemed not to engage with the reality of his own responsibilities yet his paintings engage realistically with the world of nature. I look at the paintings and their wildness strikes a chord with me – the emotions I can’t always engage with are almost acknowledged by the art and artist instead – on my behalf.

The same could be said of Beethoven the composer.  The classical pianist James Rhodes says ‘his music is the very definition of “interiority” – music became about feelings, about looking within and expressing things hitherto unsayable…Study Shakespeare and he will show us who we are.  Listen to Beethoven, a man tormented and isolated, who wrote simply to justify his artistic and intellectual existence, and he will show us who we could be.’

Beethoven

Another who was labelled as odd was Alan Turing – the code breaker in World War Two.  At the time, he didn’t behave or talk like ‘the group’ he was working with, but they learnt to respect and work with him – all portrayed brilliantly in the film The Imitation Game. We should be careful of the word ‘odd’ – life is complex, and we sometimes need complex people to illuminate our own lives, whether we see our lives as black and white, or grey.  As Oscar Wilde says ‘the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.’  And let us remember we are all human – so complexity generally comes with that.

The superb Benedict Cumberbatch as the persecuted Alan Turing

The superb Benedict Cumberbatch as the persecuted Alan Turing

Everything Is Connected

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I have an interest in physical theatre – both participating and watching it.  It earths you.  The workshop I recently attended focussed on movement and meditation.  It involved various simple movement exercises such as standing in a circle and throwing a ball to other people in the circle.  We were simply asked to pass and catch.  We realised very soon though that is was not so simple – that we were sorry, embarrassed or annoyed when we dropped a ball.  Some of us found it funny; some of us were cross and felt we had failed; some of us felt responsible when the person we threw it to did not catch.

We then discussed how we feel when we drop bigger balls in life – the ball of relationships, the ball of responsibility at work, the ball of ‘keeping it all together’.  We discussed how so often we worry too much over actions which actually do not matter – yet do not worry over actions that do matter.  We are told by society that certain actions are important when actually they are not – it is so terribly important that we run as fast we we can in life to achieve as much as we can and never mind the implications on others.  Whether in the world of business, investment, trade or academia there are too many of us intent on getting to the top at the expense of others.  Treat people badly but no matter as you will achieve what you want.  Just get to your destination and ignore the journey (which is probably more enjoyable and enlightening anyway but you’re running so fast you don’t notice or don’t care).

Consider VAT.  The tax we all pay on most items and services in the UK.  It stands for ‘value added tax’ but in life, our actions or non action could be called ‘value added tension’.  When we pass something on to someone – e.g. a piece of work we’ve worked on, we pass it on feeling some responsibility I guess, hoping we’ve done our best and that it will be appreciated.  But, there is nothing more we can do so like the ball in the game, we should just pass it on and not worry perhaps.  However, when we pass on the world to the next generation we have much less concern on what we pass on.  It is strange I find.  We care less for something that actually matters more.

cloud atlas

In the film ‘Cloud Atlas’, we see the major message of the film is that everything is connected.  Actor Tom Hanks who stars in it says ‘It’s above my pay grade to say what’s going on beyond this life but I embrace the mystery of it all.  And as a layman who studies history, I am firm in my belief that the human condition throughout the history of the world has never evolved until someone did the right thing, which is a version of saying “it’s important the karma you put out right now because it’s going to affect eternity.”

It is a great thing that film and theatre can remind us of the priorities in life – I don’t think many people listen to their message but at least it is being said.  The film ‘A Late Quartet’, focussing on music, rightly suggests that music is not separate from life.  It is not just something experienced in the concert hall and then forgotten.  Like great fiction, it is a drama that draws from and is inspired by the choatic nature of our lives.

A Late Quartet

We ignore what we think is unimportant and sooner or later it will come back to bite us.  Modern business and academia does not invite us to live ethical lives that care about other living beings.  Ego is the name of game.  Well one day, the ball we throw out that should have been thrown with more care and value will come right back and hit us much harder.

The Arts and Theology: Creativity, Communication and how the Arts can save the world

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‘The arts are part of being human’, says Jude Kelly (BBC Radio 4 Loose Ends, 26.7.08), former director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, now at London’s Southbank.  And I think a great many people would agree with Kelly if they thought about the arts in their broadest sense.

Looking back on my study of theology I realise I did it because of an unstoppable urge to look into the human condition and communicate my curiosities.  University was a safe, thriving and raw environment to do this.    Likewise, I went to drama school three years later in 2006 to do the same thing (I also happen to enjoy acting).  Both subjects contain one central paradox: by studying both, I felt more anchored in the world and therefore more able to face it but at the same time, less able to comprehend it.  With drama especially, I escaped from the world by immersing myself in an imitated reality (which paradoxically often represents reality in a more honest way than reality itself) but at the same time sought to understand it (the world).

Isn’t this one of the reasons why people go to the theatre? – as an audience member you watch a play to briefly dismiss reality but by watching ‘real’ people on stage, some thing in some way will resonate with you.  David Hare in his terrific book ‘Obedience, Struggle and Revolt’ has the same thought:  “It is hard to understand why anyone would choose to go into the theatre in the first place unless they were interested in relating what they make happen on a stage to what is happening off it” (p.108).  As a violinist, I also agree with Daniel Barenboim when he says of another arts discipline: “music provides the possibility, on the one hand, to escape from life but, on the other, to understand life much better.  It is one of the best ways to learn about human nature.

Investigation into anything can be troubling, even if ultimately fulfilling.  But it is unavoidable; we do it just by being.  But why was I so interested in thinking about life via two potentially emotionally draining disciplines?  I didn’t need to choose them and moreover, I didn’t need to ask questions at all about humanity and the meaning of life.  Or did I?

During one of my Alexander Technique classes at drama school, I got talking to my tutor about this.  She reassured me I was not alone and explained that her teacher, Walter Carrington, a pupil of Alexander, had a choice to either become a Jesuit or a teacher of Alexander Technique (used by many people, not just actors and musicians).  He chose the latter because he felt he could still reach people through creative work on posture and balance; a less explicit way of bringing people to their centre, and yes, allowing them to be present – a desire I would say all people want for themselves whether people of faith, actors, a combination of these or nothing to do with art or belief at all.  We all search, some less obviously than others.

Alexander Technique in action

Joseph Rowntree (we’ve all had his sweets), another pupil of Alexander, said we all desire the Unknown and that the Unknown is approached via creativity.  The Known on the other hand is simply ‘habit’.  The latter is unfortunately the category we fall into because of the pressures of daily life.  If we wish to have mortgages and bread on the table, we succumb to patterns to earn our wage and ‘stay safe’.  We have routines that are often un-enjoyable – we knock ourselves out in order to live (funny irony that) and we call this being alive.

'The Commuters' sculpture at Nasher Sculpture Centre in Dallas, Texas USA

Alexander Technique is employed for this reason with actors, to release them from habit and find neutrality and honesty with which they can approach their craft.  Another paradox: the stage is the home of pretence, yet there exists no more of a genuine, unrehearsed place to be, and where any element of routine in fact results in the worst acting.  Every moment is new as if for the first time, and cherished.  Life is not a rehearsal and the stage and film set is the forum for ‘stuff’ that goes on in life.

Most people assume my main interest has to be religious drama but this would be too much of an easy link.  I am interested in anything artistic that challenges us to think how we treat the world and its contents, and if in the process we ask “Is there a God?” or “Is there something rather than nothing?” then fine.   There is an argument as to whether or not Beckett’s plays are symbolic or not.  Sir Peter Hall says Waiting for Godot is, and when he directed a production of it during the Cold War, it carried with it overtones of this period (much like Miller’s The Crucible during 1950s America).  Other commentators say that Beckett is not symbolic but is about actualities and possibilities. In Godot, he literally writes about the human ‘state’: what is it to wait?  What are we really waiting for?  What is it to wait – when there is the possibility of nothing happening?  And in Godot, nothing does.  Is it a play about nothingness where we see characters in a state of anxiety and despair?  It is absurd, tragic and at times funny.  So is this not something?  This is not nothing.  There is stuff happening here and if we were not living as hectic lives as we possibly could (yes sorry folks, routine), are Estragon, Lucky and Vladimir not us?  Take away our routine and we would be searching and waiting for something to happen (and I’m talking about ‘social life’ routine as well as work – take away the pub and the office, and anarchy would reign).

Take Lucky’s speech which goes from a “crazed jumble into one of unmissable significance.  Despite our hopes, moral pretensions, scientific advances – everything – humanity continues to ‘stink and dwindle’, ‘waste and pine’.  Even the smug, bullish Pozzo is left cramming his hat…over his ears in an effort to avoid the truth.”  (Benedict Nightingale, The Times, April 2006).  Symbolic or not, because of its absurdity and unreality, Godot and other plays less ‘real’ paradoxically become terrifyingly lifelike.  Hare calls this “artistic paradox”: “that by telling lies we reach truth” (p.73).

It is not for nothing that Plato thought music should be banned because it could bring audiences to a state of frenzy.  Barenboim again: “music teaches me that you cannot separate the heart from the head.  If they don’t go hand in hand something is wrong” (Radio Times, September 2001).  I recall the amazing Stephen Fry at one BAFTA Award Ceremony earnestly saying how films and the arts were so necessary in a world like ours; keep creating, he said, as this is humanity at its best.  Hare says: “The world is not tired.  Our reactions to the world are not tired.  What becomes tired is the deadly habitude of our descriptions of that world.  The artist exists only to externalise what we all do internally anyway.  By making the descriptions new, we do not create alternative worlds.  We remind people of the breathtaking beauty of the original” (p.86).

The artist David Hockney at his “Life, Love, Art” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006/7 remarked: “What an artist is trying to do for people, is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing: you wouldn’t be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought.”

Sharing.  Yes.  But what do humans do most?  Answer:  Conceal.  Emotionally and culturally.  And these stunt us socially.  We live in our own bubbles as individuals and as groups, but we don’t break out of those.  We don’t even think about the impact of the “way we live now” on others.  All art forms can burst bubbles.  We should let them.  Continuing the theme of sharing – what about the “bringing people together” aspect of the arts?  It does do this, as much as any church, in fact these days, more so.  Big names in all artistic fields have used their talent to do this in order to send a message.  I don’t say Bono is the Pope – but neither do I say the Pope is more important.  They are different.  But because of the urgency in their art and the way it is related to the common man, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Sting, Bono, Annie Lennox, Bob Geldof, David Hare, Harold Pinter, Al Gore, George Clooney, Bruce Springsteen…have made our ears prick up at some point or another in relation to Vietnam, Africa, Iraq and so on, because of their artistic clout.

In a National Theatre Platform (9.11.2005), director Declan Donnellan talks about all of us living out our humanity positively: actors are people who automatically do this since acting is really about “being”, not pretending.  Good religion is about this too and the phrase “living out humanity positively” is certainly heard amongst theologians.

Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George is a musical about this very experience: George has lived in his art and put life on hold; I am suggesting we put neither life nor art on hold and use one to enrich the other: “an acceptance by the younger George that attachment to people in the form of love is as crucial to life as art” (Nicholas De Jongh, Evening Standard, 24.5.2006).

Life in art and Art in life in 'Sunday in the Park with George'

My conclusion is nothing surprising: neither religion or the arts can be studied or lived in a vacuum.  People are less scared of theatre.  You can go for a good night out and in the process be presented with a range of issues that you can think about, or not.  There will always be an entertainment aspect I suppose; I’m not sure you would call a sermon entertaining (although whether you would call films like Boys Don’t Cry or Saving Private Ryan more entertaining than a sermon on eternal life I doubt).  The director of the second of the two films, Stephen Spielberg, says that you can pay psychiatrists a lot of money to work things out for you, or you can pay a film director to do it instead. He has a point. But I am not slamming Ministers of Religion or Psychiatrists and Psychotherapists: the theatre is not therapy and nor is religion.  I think they are both more if appreciated properly.

These two disciplines remind us who we are and what we are not.  Going to see the film Crash may not halt your racism if you’re racist, by seeing Matt Dillon exhibiting this characteristic in front of you.  But as soon as we form an opinion about a character, we need to remember that “realistic fiction” is no oxymoron, but facts, told as story  – so the arts can make a difference.  Take this next example: without the West’s ruthless hold on those countries it knows to be at the mercy of its trade and so-called development, films such as The Constant Gardener and Blood Diamond would not exist; in an ideal world the hellish subject matter in the films would indeed only be fiction.  Sadly it is not – these films are nothing less than brutally real.

The Constant Gardener

I’ll leave it to two other much more eloquent and experienced people to illustrate this with Sir Richard Eyre’s quote from his Foreword to Arthur Miller’s autobiography ‘Timebends’: “he [Miller] wasn’t a political play writer, nor was he a moralist; and he was only a realist in the sense that he was concerned with the realities of the forces that affect people’s lives rather than the superficial appearance of reality…If there was a touch of the evangelist in his writing, his message was this: there is such a thing as society and art ought to be used to change it.  Though it’s hard to argue that art saves lives, feeds the hungry or sways votes, Death of a Salesman comes as close as any writer can get to art as a balm for social concern.”