Advent, Day 5: In a Fog

LOOK: Blind Light by Antony Gormley

Gormley, Antony_Blind Light
Antony Gormley (British, 1950–), Blind Light, 2007. Fluorescent light, water, ultrasonic humidifiers, toughened low-iron glass, aluminum, 320 × 978.5 × 856.5 cm. Temporary installation at the Hayward Gallery, London. Photo: Stephen White.

Sir Antony Gormley OBE RA is a leading contemporary sculptor and installation artist whose work focuses on the human figure. His Blind Light installation from 2007 consists of a large semitransparent glass chamber lit by fluorescent light and filled with a dense cloud of mist. “Upon entering the room-within-a-room, the visitor is disoriented by the visceral experience of the fully saturated air, in which visibility is limited to less than two feet.”

One visitor took a two-minute video of the experience:

Gormley says,

Architecture is supposed to be the location of security and certainty about where you are. It is supposed to protect you from the weather, from darkness, from uncertainty. Blind Light undermines all of that. You enter this interior space that is the equivalent of being on top of a mountain or at the bottom of the sea. It is very important for me that inside it you find the outside.

Sometimes the human experience feels like a groping through fog. It’s hard to see the bigger picture. The not-seeing can be frustrating. There is a doorway leading out into the clear, into full vision—but our passage through isn’t granted us until the general resurrection. Meanwhile, “we walk by faith” (2 Cor. 5:7), stumbling alongside one another through mists of unknowing, but with God’s word and Spirit as guides, giving us glimpses of clarity and confidence to step forward. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face,” the apostle Paul writes in anticipation of the day of the Lord. “Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

LISTEN: “Clouds of Waiting, Clouds of Returning” by Jacob Goins and Hannah Wyatt, on in the twilighting (2020)

I’m quiet in cloudy waiting
Assured of little but weaknesses
Of faith and seeing
And I’m wanting only to be filled
In this day

And I know you’re coming soon
But would you show me where you are right now
In cloudy waiting

I’m craving the clouds of your returning
Assured of little but a strength
Beyond faith and seeing
But I’m wanting only to be filled
I’m wanting only to be stilled
In this day

I know you’re coming soon
But would you show me where you are right now
In cloudy waiting

I’m hopeful for the fruits of faithfulness
But they are slow in their growing
And I’m quick to accuse
When heavy silence comes

Advent, Day 5

LOOK: Christmas Tree by Shirazeh Houshiary

Houshiary, Shirazeh_Christmas Tree
Shirazeh Houshiary (Iranian British, 1955–), Christmas Tree, 2016/1993. Temporary installation at Tate Britain, London.

Every year from 1988 to 2012, and again in 2016 after the completion of a massive three-year renovation, Tate Britain commissioned a leading contemporary artist to create a Christmas tree installation inside the galleries. (In 2017 this tradition was replaced with the annual Winter Commission, where an artist is invited instead to decorate the museum’s Millbank facade with lights.)

The Tate awarded Shirazeh Houshiary the Christmas Commission in 1993, and she came up with a novel interpretation of the theme: a live pine tree suspended upside down, its exposed roots coated in gold leaf. She described the piece as “taking earth back to heaven,” and the Tate says it reflects the artist’s interest “in astronomy, mysticism and the interplay between light and dark.”

As Houshiary’s Christmas Tree was so memorable, Tate Britain asked her to reprise it in 2016 down the center of the museum’s new spiral staircase designed by the architecture firm Caruso St John. So in December of that year it could be seen under the glass dome of the rotunda of the museum’s Thames-facing entrance, viewable from three different levels.

Though I didn’t get to see the installation in person, the photos instantly reminded me of the inverted tree that appears in some of the woodcuts and batiks of Indian Christian artist Solomon Raj (see, e.g., here and here). For him this symbol represents the Christian’s being rooted in God and bearing fruit in the world.

Neither Raj nor Houshiary, however, were the first to develop this symbol. The Katha Upanishad, an ancient sacred Hindu text, references something similar: “There is an eternal tree called the Ashvattha, which has its roots above and its branches below. Its luminous root is called Brahman, the Supreme Reality, and it alone is beyond death. Everything that exists is rooted in that point. There is nothing else beyond it” (2.3.1). The inverted tree is also mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita 15.1 and the Rig Veda 1.24.7. Furthermore, in his Timaeus Plato describes man as a “heavenly plant” with its branches on earth and its roots in heaven—and I wouldn’t be surprised to find the arbor inversa present in other religious and philosophical traditions as well.  

Houshiary was not working from an intentionally Christian framework (nor a Hindu or Platonic one), but her installation’s linkage with the season of Christmas welcomes, I’d say, a Christological reading. As already mentioned, she acknowledged in her 1993 statement an interplay between heaven and earth—heaven being evoked through the tree’s gilded root system that towers above the viewer, catching the natural light from above. Our realm, earth, is where the ever-green life enters and expands.

I think of how Jesus Christ, the New Adam, human being par excellence and yet Eternal One who is from the beginning, came down from on high, bringing lushness, grafting humanity into the Divine.

Houshiary, Shirazeh_Christmas Tree
Photo: Guy Bell

LISTEN: “Love Divine” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1747 | Music by Thomas Waller, first published 1869; arr. Wilder Adkins, 2015 | Performed by Justin Cross and Wilder Adkins on Hollow Square Hymnal, 2016; reissued as a single, 2018

Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heav’n, to earth come down!
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
all thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion;
pure, unbounded love thou art.
Visit us with thy salvation;
enter ev’ry trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit
into ev’ry troubled breast.
Let us all in thee inherit,
let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be.
End of faith, as its beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty, to deliver,
let us all thy life receive.
Suddenly return, and never,
nevermore thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
serve thee as thy hosts above,
pray, and praise thee without ceasing,
glory in thy perfect love.

Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation,
perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” is one of my absolute favorite hymns. It’s grand and passionate, tender and communal, and its many invocations have an Advent ring to them: Come down, Love! Make your home in us. Bring all your faithful mercies to a climax. Visit us with your salvation. Enter our trembling hearts. Breathe your spirit into us. Give us yourself. Lead us to ultimate rest. Be Alpha and Omega to us. Liberate. Deliver. Let us receive your life. “Suddenly return” . . . and never, never leave! Finish your new creation. Restore us in you.

Note that the second line appears in some hymnals without the comma following “joy of heav’n” and with a comma for the end punctuation, which, instead of acting as a petition, would indicate that the joy of heaven has already come down. The ambiguity, which different hymnal editors have resolved differently, is a perfectly comfortable one, as Jesus did come to earth once, and we beseech his return.

I know the hymn best from its pairing with the 1870 tune BEECHER by John Zundel, but Wilder Adkins uses a slightly earlier tune from the shape-note tradition that I quite like. It was composed by Thomas Waller (ca. 1832–1862) of Upson County, Georgia, who taught at Sacred Harp singing schools in the mid-nineteenth century.

Thirst (Artful Devotion)

Thirst by Stephen Watson
Stephen Watson (American), Thirst, 2013. Shorter University Arnold Art Gallery, Rome, Georgia.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

—Psalm 63:1

+++

SONG: “Tzama Lecha Nafshi” (My Soul Thirsts for You) by Sasha Fishman | Performed by Shai Sol, 2016

Shai Sol is a singer-songwriter from Tel Aviv, Israel, and a Jewish follower of Yeshua (Jesus). Follow her on Facebook, Bandcamp, and/or YouTube.

+++

Artist Stephen Watson (previously) describes his 2013 installation Thirst: “These 2,500+ empty cups are arranged in the shape of a river. Unfilled, they create a dry river bed. In their multitude, they depict the severity of the thirst of an unquenched soul.”


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Alabaster Gospels, the lone cathedral-builder, Pacheco at Chichester, lamenting racial injustice

Alabaster page spread

New Gospel-book set promotes aesthetic reading experience: Photographer Bryan Chung and designer Brian Chung, both campus ministers (and no relation), believe that beauty is fundamental to understanding who God is. So they’ve teamed up for project Alabaster: a brand-new design of the holy Gospels, in four volumes, integrated with contemplative photographs. They’ve already well exceeded their funding goal on Kickstarter, which means there’s already a lot of interest in having Bible reading be a visual experience—and at a 7½ × 9½ trim, the books are definitely wieldy, meant to be regularly handled and read! If you want a guaranteed copy, be sure to back the project on Kickstarter, as the number of names in the system will determine the size of the print order. You have until October 7; the publication month is April 2017. This project aligns so well with my mission here at Art & Theology, and I’m thrilled to see it in the works.

+++

90-year-old man spends lifetime building a cathedral by hand: From Great Big Story: “For 53 years, Justo Gallego has been building a cathedral by hand on the outskirts of Madrid almost entirely by himself. Gallego has no formal architecture or construction training, but that hasn’t stopped him from toiling on this herculean task. At 90 years old, Gallego knows that he will not be able to finish the project in his lifetime. But he keeps at it anyway, day after day, driven by his faith.”

+++

Shadows of the Wanderer by Ana Maria Pacheco
Ana Maria Pacheco (Brazilian, 1943–), Shadows of the Wanderer, 2008. Polychromed wood sculpture, 260 × 390 × 605 cm. Installation view at Norwich Cathedral, 2010, via Pratt Contemporary Art.

Art installation at Chichester Cathedral speaks to the refugee experience: Shadows of the Wanderer by Brazilian-born artist Ana Maria Pacheco is on display in the north transept of Chichester Cathedral through November 14. A multipiece figurative sculpture in polychromed wood, it has as its centerpiece a young man carrying an elderly man on his back—a reference to the Aeneid’s Aeneas carrying his lame father out of the ruins of Troy. The cathedral has organized events around the installation, including a lecture by Christopher Wintle on the representation of suffering in Pacheco’s art (audio here, transcript here); a series of workshops for schools and colleges exploring the refugee experience, developed in partnership with Amnesty International; a debate titled “Refugees: Problem or Gift?”; an interview with the artist; and a woodcarving workshop. The photo above is an installation view from 2010 inside Norwich Cathedral; to see photos of the work in its current location at Chichester, click here.

+++

Addressing racial injustice as a church: Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship has compiled an excellent list of resources for churches looking for ways to address racial tensions in America with an eye toward healing, including a prayer service of lament by Paul Burkhart; two litanies by Fran Pratt; a list of relevant hymns, curated by the Hymn Society; an article by Sandra Van Opstal, “Reconciling Witness And Worship: Six Ways To Begin”; and materials from the 2016 Reconciliation and Justice Network conference. I’d like to add to it the lecture series “Race and the Church,” especially Jemar Tisby’s “Understanding the Heart Cry of #BlackLivesMatter,” which I live-streamed with my church back in July. (It definitely sparked fruitful conversation.) For common objections to the movement, like “What about black-on-black crime?” and “Don’t #AllLivesMatter?,” he refers listeners to the video below, produced by MTV.

+++

SONG: “Light a Candle”: Also on Neeley’s website I found a video performance of the song “Light a Candle” by Mary Louise Bringle (words) and Lori True (music). It’s sung here, to a ukulele accompaniment, by Becky Gaunt, director of music and liturgy at St. Jude of the Lake Catholic Church in Mahtomedi, Montana.

She posted it on her Facebook page in July along with this note:

We cannot continue to let language divide us. We cannot continue to let language distract us from loving one another. We cannot continue to let words like “black lives matter” or “all lives matter” cause us to keep missing the point!

I’m sad and tired. And you probably are too. But now is NOT the time to be neutral! The Sun may be shining outside, but we need to come together and light a candle in this oppressive darkness. This beautiful song by Lori True (amazing text by Mary Louise Bringle) is my prayer right now. I invite you to pray this with me.

Boy with a Candle by Gerard Sekoto
Gerard Sekoto (South African, 1913–1993), Boy with a Candle, 1943. Oil on canvas, 46.2 × 36 cm.

Roundup: Art & Theology on Twitter, Van Gogh earthwork, flowers overhead, God in pop culture, Raised documentary

After years of hesitance, I’ve finally decided to try out this whole Twitter thing. My handle is @artandtheology. I will be sharing posts from the blog as well as retweeting others in the field. Feel free to engage with me there.

+++

Van Gogh’s Olive Trees reinterpreted as earthscape for aerial viewing: Last year the Minneapolis Institute of Art commissioned earthworks artist Stan Herd to recreate Vincent Van Gogh’s Olive Trees, an important painting in its collection, on a 1.2-acre plot of land so that people flying into the Minneapolis–Saint Paul Airport could look down from their windows and be welcomed to the city (and invited to the museum!). Watch Herd at work on the project in the video below.

+++

Deconstructed flower garden suspended in air: To herald the start of spring, London-based installation artist Rebecca Louise Law has suspended 30,000 live flowers from copper wire in the atrium of the concept shopping mall Bikini Berlin in Germany, giving shoppers a perhaps unexpected taste of natural beauty. Natural materials, especially flora, are Law’s specialty. Visit her website to view more of her stunning works (The Yellow Flower from Sasebo, Japan, is probably my favorite), or stop by Bikini Berlin anytime through May 1 to experience Garten.

Garten by Rebecca Louise Law

Garten by Rebecca Louise Law

+++

10 best representations of God in culture: My friend Paul Neeley alerted me to this recent list published in The Guardian. Culled from film, theatre, and visual art, several of these are new to me!

+++

Book and documentary collaboration on the Resurrection: In 2014 Zondervan published Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection by Jonathan K. Dodson and Brad Watson to demonstrate why the bodily resurrection of Jesus is believable and the possibilities it offers for a life of hope. As a tie-in to the book, Moving Works created a four-part documentary in which Benjamin and Jessica Roberts tell the story of how Christ’s resurrection has personally impacted them. Watch the documentary below, and click here to access related materials for small group study.

Discarded life jackets used by artists to raise awareness of refugee crisis

Last month the six front columns of Berlin’s historic Konzerthaus were decked out with fourteen thousand bright orange life jackets—an installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, titled Safe Passage. A tribute to those who have risked their lives on the Mediterranean Sea to escape persecution in the Middle East and North Africa, the work was made to coincide with Cinema for Peace’s annual award gala on February 15, part of the Berlin International Film Festival. The money raised at this year’s gala was used to purchase five thousand rescue blankets and one thousand emergency baby kits (for births that have taken place at sea), which the Cinema for Peace Foundation delivered this past week to the Greek island of Lesbos, the most popular port of entry for people fleeing to Europe through Turkey.

Safe Passage installation
Ai Weiwei’s crew finishes hanging life jackets on the sixth column of Berlin’s Konzerthaus, just before putting up an inflatable dinghy with the title of the installation: Safe Passage. Photo: Markus Winninghoff.

Safe Passage installation
Safe Passage: installation of fourteen thousand life jackets by Ai Weiwei, Konzerthaus, Berlin, February 14–17, 2016. Photo: Oliver Lang.

Weiwei visited Lesbos in December to see for himself the human faces of the current refugee crisis. He shared on Instagram photos and videos he took inside a refugee camp, to show the world what’s going on in Lesbos, and has opened an additional studio there.

One thing that visually struck Weiwei were the giant mounds of life jackets heaped up on the beaches. Refugees shed them as soon as they disembark their boats, setting foot, at last, on land, and ready to start their new lives. Seeing in them a poignant symbol of the crisis, he asked the mayor of the island if he could take a small portion—and yes, fourteen thousand is only a small portion—with him to Europe to use for an art installation. His request was granted. Wrapped around the grand facade of Berlin’s nineteenth-century concert house, they bear witness to the scale of the crisis and even allude to its human cost: last year, a reported 3,770-plus refugees died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, and the death toll for this year has already exceeded 400. Some of these deaths were due to defective life jackets sold to migrants by a Turkish company looking to cut down on production costs.

While some have questioned the efficacy of staging such a large awareness raiser in Germany, a country that has taken in more refugees than any other European Union member state, others point out that several antirefugee organizations have emerged there, such as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), which calls on the German government to enact stricter asylum laws. Not all the German people are proud of the measures its country has taken to invite in Syrians, Afghans, and other huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Instead they fear the repercussions. Weiwei’s Safe Passage protests against that fear-based mentality that denies and excludes.

Weiwei has not been the first person to recycle used life jackets into art. Last December British artist Arabella Dorman incorporated three life jackets into her installation Flight in St. James’s Church in Piccadilly, London, which has them tumbling out of a capsized dinghy hanging from the ceiling. She also filled the Christmas crèche at the front of the church with a few dozen more: they cushion the ground where the sculpted figures kneel in adoration of the newborn Christ child.   Continue reading “Discarded life jackets used by artists to raise awareness of refugee crisis”