Christian theology has the tendency to exalt the abstract and immaterial over the corporeal and transitory parts of creation. When I was baptised, a scripture from Second Corinthians was given to me that spoke about how “the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). This understanding, when not tamed or tapered with an understanding of the full bodily incarnation of Christ can become dualistic and dichotomising (God “up there” far away, and us “down here”).
Here at Sputnik, we fully hold to the idea that “thought shapes art, and art shapes life”. The heaven-up, earth-below theological-thought-attitude that holds an inseparable chasm between ‘heavenly realities’ and ‘earthly things’ has undoubtedly infiltrated our art. The almost alien-like faces of Byzantine iconography stripped of any imperfections bears witness to this. When our understanding of life is stripped of all materiality and ‘flesh’, our art follows suit. Historically, we seem to have forgotten about the God who descended into clay, and then used dirt to restore sight to the blind.
Certain modernist artists have attempted to make their visual-theology more ‘earthy’ and have succeeded in their representations (Graham Sutherland, or Otto Dix are great examples). What I would like to ask in this short post is whether we should be going further than simply allowing some earth into our timeless representations?
Where film necessitates considerations of time and change in art, standard pictorial representation generally seeks to freeze it, glossing over it, and preserving the static. ‘A good painting is one that stands the test of time’; symbolically and physically. Should our creations continue in their insulation from time and mutation though? Are we to keep making monuments to eternity? Or does the unique incarnational story of Christ instead push us to become partakers in the mutable creation? Are we instead created to be collaborators with a fluid cosmos?
Anya Gallaccio is one of the generation of Young British Artists whose direct engagement with cultural materials and objects created both a sense of immediate recognition (the work is not too abstract, it is created with tangible objects that are instantly recognisable,) and contemplative dislocation (the work is somewhat transformed and ‘edited’, creating a realm of possible understandings of a given artwork) within the viewer.
Gallaccio’s most widely recognised work, currently housed in the Tate Britain, is Preserve ‘Beauty’ (1991-2003), a four panelled composition of 2000 gerberas encased in glass, fixed against the gallery wall. During the installation of this work the flowers wither and die, leaving stains on the gallery wall. What begins with a fresh smell and vibrant colours finishes with an odour of decay and an image of putrefaction.
Though Gallaccio’s wider body of work deals with natural processes of transformation, from melting 34 tons of ice from within with a 1.5-ton boulder of rock salt (intensities and surfaces, 1996) to the erosion of a 60-ton column of locally quarried chalk wrapped in plaster at sea off the coast of Hull (Two sisters, 1998), I find Preserve ‘Beauty’ particularly instructive because it actively speaks in to the aforementioned dialogue. The material and very ‘stuff’ of Gallaccio’s art is the changeable; the mutable objects through which Augustine claims we see “the God who made things, through the things which He made.”
This work serves as a soft critique of the institution (Tate) that it currently resides in. When ‘beauty’ is preserved, it dies. How can we then, as Christians and as creators cooperate with the transformability of nature, as agents of change and metamorphosis? A friend of mine described this different approach to participating in a changing creation rather than stagnating it and trying to ‘eternalise’ nature as the difference between a still pond and a flowing river.
A ‘good’ portrait sketch freezes and immortalises an ever-changing biological form. Is there a space for an art form that instead takes pleasure in the divine authorship of what St. Augustine aptly calls “these beautiful changeable things” in his Easter sermon of 411AD? Perhaps Gallacio’s work points us in the right direction.
Benjamin Harris considers himself a student of art and theology, but somehow gets paid to teach them both.