Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)

This is the final part of my commentary on Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters, a multisite exhibition in Amsterdam running from March 6 to April 22. (Read parts one and two.) Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

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STATION 10. This is the one station I did not get a chance to see, due to its more limited opening hours. Anywhere, Anytime by Masha Trebukova is a temporary installation in the Mozes en Aäronkerk (Church of Moses and Aaron) in Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein neighborhood. It consists of a nine-foot-tall octagonal structure (a “columbarium”) covered with paintings on newspaper, as well as six large-format “books” of paintings on glossy magazine pages.

Columbarium by Masha Trebukova
Masha Trebukova (Russian, 1962–), Anywhere, Anytime, 2019. Temporary installation at the Moses and Aaron Church, Amsterdam, consisting of an eight-paneled “columbarium” with paintings on newsprint, each panel 60 × 290 cm, and “How to spend it,” six painted-over magazines. Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

A columbarium is a room, building, or freestanding structure with niches for the public storage of funerary urns (which hold the ashes of the deceased). Ancient Romans decorated theirs with frescoes, often of peaceful scenes of the hereafter. Trebukova, on the other hand, has painted this columbarium with images of war and violence, exposing the savagery that causes death. This is not a celebration of paradise gained; it’s a lament for paradise lost.

Hear the artist briefly introduce the piece:

Columbarium (detail) by Masha Trebukova
Masha Trebukova, Anywhere, Anytime (detail). Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

Trebukova used as her painting surface pages from newspapers and magazines, the headlines often creating consonance with the images while the ads create dissonance. The sleek photos selling vacations and luxury goods, enticing you to treat yourself, contrast starkly with Trebukova’s slashes and smears of color that depict masked gunmen terrorizing families, mass executions, refugees on the run, and individuals huddled over the corpses of loved ones. This contrast urges viewers to consider how our own self-absorption might be restricting our view of what’s going on in the larger world. What incinerations are being carried out as we casually engage in our leisure reading and other entertainments? The vaults in Anywhere, Anytime are fictive, but they prompt us to imagine the many bodies and places being turned to ash as armed conflict and acts of terrorism persist globally. [Images below sourced from the artist’s website]

 

The books are too fragile to be handled by visitors, so they are displayed open in glass cases, laid flat on a black-clothed table, and a video screen nearby loops through all the images in succession. Here is an excerpt from the video, a showcase of book five:

The book appears to have originally been a dance magazine, but Trebukova subverts the elegance associated with controlled bodily movement by recontextualizing these found images of dancers. A woman walking down a rustic road in pointe shoes is given a heavy burden on her back—a child—and a head scarf, recasting her as one of the many mothers fleeing violence in the Middle East. On the following page spread, another dancer’s graceful backbend is re-envisioned as an involuntary response to his having been shot; unlike on stage, this movement will end with a fall.

The Moses and Aaron Church is home to the Amsterdam chapter of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay association committed to prayer, the poor, and peace. Existing in over seventy countries, Sant’Egidio seeks especially to serve the sick, the homeless (including displaced persons), the elderly, and the imprisoned. “War is the mother of every poverty,” they say, and they have been key players in peace initiatives in Mozambique, Algeria, the Balkans, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other areas.

Trebukova, Masha_Columbarium (detail3)
Masha Trebukova, page spread from “How to spend it.” Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

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STATION 11. Erica Grimm’s Salt Water Skin Boats, a collaboration with artist and arborist Tracie Stewart and soundscape specialist Sheinagh Anderson, is an installation of five sculptural coracles made of interwoven willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; animal skin and gut; cheesecloth; and bathymetric ocean maps imprinted with scientific measurements of things like glacial melt, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification. These are suspended from the ceiling along the nave of the Waalse Kerk and are lit from inside, and they are accompanied by an ambient soundscape that viewers activate by scanning a QR code.

Salt Water Skin Boats by Erica Grimm
Erica L. Grimm (Canadian, 1959–), Salt Water Skin Boats, 2018. Willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; cheesecloth; animal skin and gut; bathymetric ocean maps; layers of wax; earbuds; LED lights. Installation view at Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, in March 2019, part of Art Stations of the Cross.

Small lightweight boats without rudder, anchor, or keel, coracles are unstable watercraft, easily carried by currents and wind. Back in the day, Celtic Christian pilgrims would set sail in them, not having any destination in mind but rather trusting that God would steer their little boats to wherever he saw fit. In a sense, we are all “skin boats” afloat on a vast ocean, not knowing where we’ll end up. But Grimm’s incorporation of numerical data that highlight the dangerous warming, acidifying, and expanding of the world’s oceans pushes this metaphor in a new direction; the work “proposes an analogy,” writes curator Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, “between our bodies and the vast ecology of the global ocean: between the life-sustaining, precariously balanced ocean chemistry and the chemistry of our own salt-water-filled bodies.”  Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)”

Book Review: The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts by Cameron J. Anderson

The Faithful Artist
296 pp. | 5 color plates, 38 halftones | Trim: 6 × 9 | Published 11/10/2016 | InterVarsity Press

“I write fully persuaded that art, in its most exalted form, can be used by God to transform women and men, to extend his common grace to the world and to lead the church to worship,” writes Cameron J. Anderson in the introduction to his book The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts, the second in IVP Academic’s Studies in Theology and the Arts series. Based on the title, I wasn’t sure whether the book was meant for me, a nonartist, but I found that it speaks to the evangelical church at large, whose ambivalent and sometimes hostile attitude toward art is kindheartedly challenged by this insider to both worlds. How Christian artists can faithfully pursue their vocational calling in contemporary culture is a major concern of the book, but so is how Christians of any professional background can pursue art as worship.

Since 2009 Anderson has served as executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), a North American organization founded in 1979 with the mission of weaving serious art and serious faith into whole cloth. (It was recently announced that at the end of the year he will be retiring from this position, while continuing to be active in the organization.) Born and raised in the postwar evangelical subculture, Anderson encountered tall barriers to his vocational pursuit of the visual arts. First was his church’s utter disregard for art—their ignorance of art history and palpable disdain for modern art—which left him without a mentor. But just as formidable was the art world’s hostility to sincere, conservative religious belief.

In chapter 1, “A Double-Consciousness,” Anderson describes his dual identity as both an evangelical and an artist and the alienation he felt from both communities while attending art school in the 1970s. He says it seemed his only two options at the time were to either privatize his religious identity in the art world or produce sentimentalized art for the church—neither of which were tenable to him. Why the impasse? Part of it is due to competing stances: while evangelicalism embraces absolutes and is determined to safeguard tradition, modern art aggressively dismisses absolutes and is given to renouncing tradition. But an even bigger factor is the stereotypes each world perpetuates about the other: artists are narcissistic, profane, rebellious, elitist, while evangelicals are unsophisticated, superstitious, naive, irrelevant. Rather than seeking to interact with or understand each other, the art world and the church simply characterize each other as ridiculous.

Combating the assumption that modern art is completely devoid of any signs of faith, Anderson discusses Wassily Kandinsky, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, and other canonical artists who regularly probed spiritual reality (including, in some cases, the Christian story) in their work.

Stations of the Cross by Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman (American, 1905–1970), Stations of the Cross panoramic view (stations 3–13), 1965. Acrylic on canvases. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Photo: Hillary Kelly.

In chapter 2, “The Body They May Kill,” Anderson explores the theological significance of our embodiment, challenging the assumption held by some Christians that the spirit is good and the body is evil. “A biblical understanding of the self,” Anderson writes, “must regard physical being as an essential component of true spirituality. . . . Corporeality is not the enemy of one’s spirit but rather the stage on which moral goodness and evil are both acted out and acted on” (69, 77). He looks at how the clothed and unclothed body has been treated in the visual arts over time and in popular culture. He also reflects on the ongoing discord between faculty and administrators at Christian colleges and universities over whether art students should be allowed to draw unclothed models (figure drawing is a fundamental building block of art education), and whether such works should be displayed on campus.

Chapter 3, “Secular Sirens,” highlights how “the biblical narrative accredits substantial virtue to our sensate being” (88)—our ability to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. We know the world through our senses, and yet evangelicalism too often bypasses a role for them, save for music, in many cases fearing that the senses can enflame sexual desire. While acknowledging that an unrestrained indulgence of the senses can lead to vice, Anderson also warns that hard-and-fast resistance tempers our ability to enjoy God and his good creation. He insists on the need to hold ascetic discipline (the denial of one’s senses for some greater spiritual good) in concert with aesthetic delight (the stimulation of one’s senses through the arts).

In chapter 4, “Be Careful Little Eyes What You See,” Anderson discusses the place and meaning of religious images in biblical history onward into Protestant culture. He examines God’s commands to tear down idols against those to construct an image-filled tabernacle, a bronze serpent, and stone memorials, and Christ’s command to remember him through bread and wine.   Continue reading “Book Review: The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts by Cameron J. Anderson”

Book Review: The Image of God in an Image Driven Age, ed. Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau

The Image of God in an Image Driven AgeThe doctrine of the imago Dei—which states that human beings were uniquely created in the image of God and continue to bear that image—is central to Christian theology, for it tells us who (and Whose) we are. The book The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2016), edited by Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau, delves into that doctrine, examining its implications for relationships, ethics, sexuality, consumer visual culture, art making, dissemination of the gospel, and more. Comprising twelve essays that resulted from the 2015 Wheaton Theology Conference, the book explores what it means to be made in God’s image and issues a challenge: that we resist all the false images that try to topple the one true image in our lives.

Two of the chapters revolve around visual images. In chapter 5, “Culture Breaking: In Praise of Iconoclasm,” Matthew J. Milliner starts out by stating that we live in an optocracy—that is, we are ruled by what our eyes see. Advertisements (billboards, commercials, magazines, web banners), celebrity coverage, and product packaging and store displays are high up on the throne, and we think and act according to their influence.

To illustrate the takeover of unedifying imagery, he cites Limelight Shops, a mini-mall in New York City that inhabits the deconsecrated Church of the Holy Communion. Where a Christian community once thrived, signage and shop displays now parody Christianity, beckoning shoppers to “be transformed,” to try on True Religion jeans in confession-booth dressing rooms, and to indulge in a “slice of heaven” at the pizzeria.

Milliner calls for opposition to the deleterious aspects of our optocracy, a reclamation of our iconoclastic heritage (which, he notes later with examples, belongs to all three branches of Christianity, not just Protestantism):

Evangelicals have spent the last half of the century embarrassed of their iconoclastic heritage and attempting to make themselves culturally serious. But the challenge that is so clear in the case of Limelight Shops might spur us to reactivate our iconoclastic heritage as well. Our charge may be not only to go about culture making but to do some culture breaking as well, for breaking is what the people of God do when they find themselves in Babylon. (112)

He endorses not a literal breaking but a mental and rhetorical breaking, much as the Israelites did when they were in Babylon (e.g., Jeremiah 10:5). We need to break the power certain images hold over us, say no to their attempts to shape and define us. God alone can tell us who we truly are, and we bear his imprint.

Many contemporary artists in the macro–art world would claim to share Milliner’s iconoclastic impulse, but in practice, most of them fail to effectively break anything, and Milliner gives a few examples of those failures. Then he recounts several successes from within his own immediate sphere: works by his art faculty colleagues at Wheaton College. Among the commendable works he discusses are Jeremy Botts’s Bee in Hand; Greg Halvorsen Schreck’s Lambertian photograph The Shroud and his American Trinity and the Cry of the Deer (I covered Botts’s and Schreck’s Via Dolorosa cycle in February); David J. P. Hooker’s Corpus (pictured on the book’s cover); and Joel Sheesley’s Camels and his Good Shepherd mural at the local All Souls Anglican Church—all of which are reproduced as halftones in the book. These artists demonstrate different ways to break by making and vice versa—to engage in “creative destruction,” as Philip Jenkins puts it in the final chapter (259).

Camels by Joel Sheesley
Joel Sheesley (American, 1950–), Camels, 1993. Oil on canvas, 58 × 53 in. In the narthex of All Souls Anglican Church, Wheaton, Illinois.

Continue reading “Book Review: The Image of God in an Image Driven Age, ed. Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau”