Articles

Acts of Surveillance: Tim Winton’s That Eye, The Sky

Acts of watching, and being watched, are deeply ambivalent phenomena. The English language has a range of more or less positive terms for these acts: vision, seeing/understanding, perception, discernment, as well as a host of imaginative, even fantasy conjunctions around seeing: imagining, envisioning, fantasising, displaying, spectacle. However, it has to be said that the negative or potentially malevolent terms for watching and being watched trip off the tongue more readily: voyeurism, spying, surveillance, scrutiny, leering, ogling, peering, staring, eye-balling, monitoring, inspection, bugging.

In relation to the age of so-called ‘capitalist surveillance’ (Zuboff, 2019), critic James Bridle defines this age in terms of human belittlement. More than ever, writes Bridle, subjects are captured and categorised by pervasive mechanisms of surveillance, producing a ‘litany of appropriated experiences … repeated so often and so extensively that we become numb, forgetting that this is not some dystopian imagining of the future, but the present’. Shoshana Zuboff, the author of the 2019 work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, which Bridle is reviewing, argues that around the year 2000 there was in many societies, globally, an exponential shift in modes of surveillance at both personal and social levels, through digitalisation. ‘Being watched’ takes on personal and transpersonal, ideological and more sinister overtones in Zuboff’s research into the netting of information by social media and governmental data collecting. Wikileaks is one, ongoing response to these phenomena, releasing as it has done over 10 million documents garnered by government and military media. In many ways the shift Zuboff describes might be better understood as an amplification of what prophetic novels such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and, differently, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) imagine. They are among many futuristic literary texts that evoke the suffocating and pervasive fear of being watched, hunted, categorised, known. The popularity of these dystopian texts is evidence of a widespread frisson, if not fear, amongst readers and film audiences, of the circumscribing of individual selfhood.

Zuboff’s research is prophetic, seeing into the consequences of present actions for a future hurtling towards us; and it enables me to take a fresh look (yes, the critic as watcher) into a 1986 Australian novel, That Eye the Sky, by well-known Australian author Tim Winton. Many of the texts named above probe threatened innocence and selfhood, as does Winton’s novel. However, That Eye the Sky is not dystopian. It is gentler, humorous, vernacular. Its brooding watcher – that eye the sky – takes the form of a glowing cloud hovering over the family house, and is mirrored in another watcher, a young, vulnerable boy entering early manhood, who sees things. Watching is part of the boy’s fertile and curious imagination, rather than being registered as malevolent. Theological, biblical, and mystical ideas about suffering, human love, trust, and hope flow through the novel’s vision of present and future, as the characters and their precarious forms of innocence are threatened by trauma, and by a wider urban world encroaching on their frugal existence. This is a remembered – mythical? – time before social media, set on the fringes of the urban, a time when children could go out and play alone, down by the creek, unsupervised.

Along with humour and the use of vernacular, That Eye the Sky creates its theology through a simplicity that underscores the darker, ongoing questions: is there an eye out there, watching? Is that eye benevolent, protective? Or neutral, deaf to human existence, or worse? The main character, twelve-year-old Ort Flack, asks these questions, as do readers, as the plot darkens.

Every ontological and social category in Winton’s That Eye the Sky is written under erasure, as already passing: childhood, hippiedom, Christianity, church, the bush, God, trust, knowledge, grief, love. As so often in the novels of Winton, the child, and a child’s eye-view, are central. Ort lives in a run-down house in the middle of the bush with his semi-hippy parents and sister. He is the narrator. He sees and feels things: clouds hovering over the house, red eyes peering in from the dark of the bush, a sky, benevolent or otherwise, looking down on him and his family, as trauma strikes. Ort is innocent, different, ostracised. He is sensuously alive to the smells and textures of the bush, to the sound of wind across the tops of the trees, observing the luminousness of moon and stars and the moods and feelings of his mother and sister as they grapple with the tragedy engulfing them. And he carries with him a constant sense of being watched over.

But Ort is also a voyeur. Turning thirteen, on the cusp of sexual awareness, and also alive to mystical possibilities, he peers through cracks and holes in the house’s walls, into bathrooms and bedrooms where he sees the desiring, lonely, threatened lives of his family: his mother, grief-struck and missing her husband Sam; his Dad, comatose, on the brink between life and death; his sister, Tegwyn, self-harming, promiscuous; Gramma, locked in dementia, and snoring; and Henry Warburton, the stranger who comes, in all his brokenness, to help, and to convert the family.

Outside the house – in the bush, down by the creek, with the chooks in the yard – Ort experiences a watching, brooding presence he cannot describe, but knows to be real. It is a force embodied in the cloud hovering above the house, in the stars and moon, in the beauty and ordinariness of the bush, in the strangeness of other people. It seems to be a presence neither malevolent nor benevolent, but Ort’s sensual experiences of it prepare him for the message from the stranger who comes to their door (Henry Warburton, injured preacher). Henry finally plucks up the courage to announce to the family that it is ‘God’ who hovers in everything, who watches over and cares for him and his family. Ort’s innocent openness allows him to receive the declarations Henry makes:

‘God told me to come to you’.

‘Who’s God?’

‘Ort, be quiet …’.

‘God is who made us and made the birds and the trees and everything. He keeps everything going, He sees all things. He is our father. He loves us’.

‘I thought it was just a word. Like heck. Is he someone? Mum?’

‘I never really thought about it, Ort … I, I …’.

‘So what did he send you here for?’ I ask Henry Warburton.

‘To love you’.

Tegwyn groans. ‘I thought you said you were alright’. [to Henry]

‘Did you get our names from God?’ I ask him. ‘How did you know our names? You knew all our names, and you knew about Dad’. (88)

The novel’s theology is alive with humour and with Ort’s openness, if not naivety. Mother and son are persuaded by the stranger to give ‘God’ a go, although teenage Tegwyn is a harder nut, sceptical, infused with sexual more than metaphysical needs. Ort is particularly intrigued with the promise of being known, named, understood. This openness rings true psychologically, for Ort is a vulnerable twelve year old who is being confronted with the possible death of his father, a figure who has been completely benign and loving in his son’s life. Alice, his mother, is equally child-like in many ways, loving, trusting, unused to asking metaphysical questions: ‘I never really thought about it, Ort’. This is, clearly, a world before Google, before social media, where information, authority and knowledge have different parameters.

And so, the household receives another pair of eyes, another watcher, into its midst – Henry and his message – through need and trauma. Winton is rarely judgemental of the watchers and their objects of desire. All are whirled in a dance of fear and longing, a need for certainty when none is available. Alice and Ort find some comfort in the evangelist’s definitive theology and practical compassion, clutching for reassurance. Their baptism, acceptance of daily bible readings and communion lead to the wonderful (horrifying!), parodic account of the fundamentalist church just down the road, towards the end of the book. The haplessness of Alice and Ort’s one-time visit to the church at the back of the Watkins’ drapery store is superbly rendered, as Winton satirises a self-righteous, fear-mongering brand of 1960s Christianity. The church service is full of rigidity and surveillance: the mark of the beast, the wrath of God, plagues upon men; a place where ‘everyone in the room is looking at us’, and where the preacher declares in a booming voice: ‘Read the signs! Read-the-signs! The Antichrist himself comes … The-need-is-greatPressing. Urgent. How will we stand in the tribulation?’. Winton creates the jerky stresses and freighted vocabulary of the preacher who condemns the heathen world, a world against which salvation is available for a narrow band of believers. But it is the innocence and intuitiveness of Alice that wins the day. Refusing to succumb to the judging eyes and exclusions of the congregation, she jumps up to leave, pulling Ort with her. Alice declares, in the full force of her outraged innocence:

‘You don’t have to shout. We’re not animals, you know. And not even God’s animals should be shouted at like they’re made of mud’. (126)

Simmering in the background of the narrative, across these events, is the presence of the father, Sam, comatose, hovering between life and death, watched over by Alice, Ort, Tegwyn and Henry Warburton. There is never any doubt that all the family, and the stranger, unconditionally love and watch over Sam who seems to see nothing, staring vacantly as they feed, bathe and talk to Sam, taking him for walks in the wheelchair.

The novel draws rapidly to a climax. Against all this festival of watching and being watched, the characters and the readers are drawn inexorably to a scene, narrated by Ort, that resolves nothing, finally, but that points towards new possibilities:

Everywhere, in through all my looking places and all the places I never even thought of – under the doors, up through the boards – that beautiful cloud creeps in. This house is filling with light and crazy music and suddenly I know what’s going to happen and it’s like the whole flaming world’s suddenly making sense … [I] burst into Mum’s room and there’s my Dad with these tears coming down his cheeks, pinpoints of light that hurt me eyes … His eyes are open and they’re on me and smiling as I come in shouting ‘God! God! God!’ His face is shining. I’m shaking all over. ‘God! God! God!’ (150)

Ort’s eyes are opened – ‘the whole flaming world … suddenly making sense’. His father’s eyes are open, and expressive for the first time. And ‘that beautiful cloud’ has moved from symbolic, ambivalent presence to a sensuous, infiltrating, clarifying atmosphere, bringing father and son to a crucial moment of … resurrection? Renewal? Clear-sightedness?

The reader is left in a place that is not certainty, but something is coming to a climax. Ort’s innocent expectations are turning to action, and images of eyes, seeing, tears, ‘pinpoints of light’ predominate in the final scene. Ort says his father’s eyes are ‘on me and smiling’, and miracle, or at least a change, is happening. Certainly Ort – full of hope and love – is expecting miracle.

So what does That Eye the Sky offer readers, when we reflect on the phenomena of watching and being watched? God had been unknown to Ort – ‘I thought it was just a word. Like heck. Is he someone? Mum?’ But the child entering into early manhood has also long intuited, in the natural world and in his family relations, a presence that ‘keeps everything going … [who] sees all things’. As the child literally takes to heart the biblical injunction to anoint with oil and pray for the ill, he grabs the safflower oil and the big black family bible, believing, hoping, seeing what he so desperately needs to see, his father, eyes open and smiling at him; light and music filling this house of trauma; the whole world suddenly making sense. For this climactic moment, and possibly into the unwritten future, that watching eye is powerful, intervening and benevolent.

[Reposted, with edits, from Ethos.]

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Lyn McCredden is Professor of Australian Literary Studies at Deakin University, Australia. She is the author of Intimate Horizons: the Post-colonial Sacred in Australian Literature (with Bill Ashcroft and Frances Devlin-Glass, 2009), Luminous Moments: the Contemporary Sacred (2010), The Fiction of Tim Winton: Earthed and Sacred (2017), and a poetry collection, Wanting Only (2018). She LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

On the Gifts of Street Art

Artist/s unknown. Presgrave Place, Melbourne. Photo by Jason Goroncy, taken 21 September 2016.

In this year’s ARPA Awards, the Australasian Religious Press Association awarded silver prize for ‘Best Theological Article’ to Jason Goroncy for his little essay ‘On the Gifts of Street Art’, which was published in Zadok. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the essay, it’s encouraging to see theological engagement with the arts recognised in this way.

Draw near in faith, and …

This simple A5 diary, part of the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project, explores the role of memory in my experience of faith and within the context of public worship. The first page of the book is a simple response to words from scripture as I heard them in public worship: ‘Draw near with faith, and …’. I stopped listening at this moment and began to wonder about my own response to what it is like to draw near with faith, and in doing so I discovered a myriad of possibilities beginning to emerge. As 2019 became 2020, the drawings in this small diary explore the shift into virtual worship and so my experience of embodied memory in the process of drawing became increasingly important. In leafing through the virtual pages in this work, I now see faith being formed and re-formed with and through the memories that have been imprinted in my experience of being in worship alongside other people. What began as a record of the past has now become a map for the future – an invitation to consider the freedom of unknowing and the gift of turning the page, to begin again once more.

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Libby Byrne lives works and plays of Wurundjeri land. She works as an artist, art therapist, and theologian following the invitation and discovery of art into new ways of being with people in liminal spaces. Within her studio practice Libby works with ideas, images, and experiences to extend the way we think, perceive, and respond to questions of meaning and existence.

Reading the Magnificat in Australia: Unsettling Engagements. An invitation to a book launch.

Readers of Art/s and Theology Australia are invited to the launch of a new book by Dr Anne Elvey, called Reading the Magnificat in Australia: Unsettling Engagements. The launch will take place via Zoom on Monday 14 December 2020, at 7.30pm (AEST).

Please email Anne directly if you would like to be added to the list to receive the Zoom link nearer to the day.

Further details below.

Sky News, Sun News

What news are you listening to?
Is it a disembodied voice bouncing fear and anger
from a rusting satellite dish destined
to join the cloud of space junk in the stratosphere?
Is it sky news or Murdoch’s sun that only shines on him?
Hubris to name them so, a small fox has more wisdom and beauty.

Today I fled ‘civilization’, racing through green fields
lush from late spring rain,
flooded rivers filling lakes where water birds nest,
pelican and black swan, ibis and duck.
Flocks of swallows dart across blue skies
and cockatoo in full yellow crest plays dare with a crow for seed.

At midday rain clouds gather leaving a rainbow in its wake.
Why are grey skies over green hills so beautiful?

Old homesteads and miner’s cottages with rose gardens
and windbreaks of cypress, driveways lined with elegant poplars.
I feel my grandmother here, the scent of quinces and lemon,
homes not painted fashionably black and land not for sale.

By evening I arrive at the coast where a heaving sea
crashes against the cliffs in the sacred marriage of earth and water.

The sun finishes the symphony of colour
turning the sky tangerine and pink and the ocean to mother of pearl.
Rays of light dazzle and blind as sun surrenders to the horizon.
A melting that reveals the moon and stars
granting you the experience of infinity.

Now that is Sky News, that is Sun News.

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FRANCES GUERIN IS A CERAMICIST AND PAINTER, AND FORMER COUNSELLOR. SHE LIVES ON DJA DJA WURRUNG COUNTRY. Her studio is located outside the spa town of Daylesford in the Wombat State Forest. Her studio serves both her creative spirit and visitors who come for open studio visits, community exhibitions, and meditation practice. Her background in philosophy and transpersonal psychology lends itself to deep inquiry into human consciousness which informs and generates her prolific art practice.

Awakenings IV, 2020

Awakenings IV premiered for Artweek Auckland 2020 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell Auckland. It is an installation artwork that offers an immediate and potentially sustained encounter. A large levitating partially concealed object of uncertain substance is illuminated in a field of white and gold coloured light. It speaks of the unknowable and unfathomable spiritual mystery and beauty of natural phenomena, and acts as a threshold into the terrain of the numinous. The concept of the numinous speaks to the realms of our experience which cannot be quantified, explained, or contained – our intuition, and our feeling-states; our connection to the cosmos, and, for some, a sense of the divine. I am interested in the intersection of art with spiritual experience, and aspire to create installations that activate spaces for audiences that offer a possible awakening to wonder. This exhibition aims to explore relationships between abstraction, colour, light, and space, contributing to the conversations around the connections between abstraction and spiritual experience.

The circle is the primary geometric symbol in this work and relates to sacred geometries which have long and rich histories dating back to 2000–1001 BCE in Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. The circle or sphere is a universal symbol with extensive meaning. It represents the notions of totality, wholeness, original perfection, the Self, the infinite, eternity, timelessness, life, and all cyclic movement. Sacred geometries, termed by Galileo ‘the language of the universe’, are trans-cultural existing in nature, architectural structures (in particular sites of worship) and art. The music of the spheres, harmonics, and music are related to the planets and their distance from one another and the sun. The sphere can evoke the heavens. The veiling of the sphere references the shroud, the veil between the seen and unseen realms, between the heavens and the earth.

Awakenings IV, 2020. Installation from custom pvc sphere, helium, air, organza mesh, light, 2 x 2 x 6 m. Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand. 

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Karen Sewell is a visual artist who lives and works in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland. Sewell graduated with a Master of Fine Arts (Honours) in 2016 from Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design. She is interested in the intersection of art with spiritual experience and aspires to create artworks that activate spaces for participants to be able to experience liminal moments of awareness of the unseen and unknown. Sewell works across multiple media specialising in installation practice. Her work has been selected for multiple awards, winning The Trusts Award in 2011 and is represented in private collections including The James Wallace Arts Trust. Sewell has exhibited work across New Zealand with a highlight being Awakenings IV at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in October 2020. Her work is represented in private collections including The James Wallace Arts Trust. In addition to her creative practice, Sewell founded The Bonfire and now facilitates this national artist network. The aims of The Bonfire are to assist and support the thriving of other artists, through online blog posts and face to face regular meet-ups involving workshops, retreats and events.

Dappled Shadows Underfoot

It’s been a difficult year my friends.
So I do the only thing I know how to do,
Like a stubborn frustrated buddha,
I sat. I knelt. I prayed.
And as always, I cut.
Quickly I became aware of two things:
Pain
And time.
Two things that translate strangely to the screen.
Knowing, I’ll forget the pain: the cold floor, the bruises, and the way my legs screamed
‘be here’.

And I’ll forget the hours I sat,
now condensed to minutes.
Seconds depicting moments.
Leaping into the future
Fitting tightly into the screen.
I have been thinking about time a lot.
How people say, in hindsight, it took me 10 years to really know what that period of my life was about. And how
that simple sentence erases seconds of self doubt, minutes of struggle, and hours of tears.
I’ve been doubting, and struggling, and crying. A lot.

I know why I cut paper, it helps me find my edges.
It hedges me in when I start to leak out
I just cut away what isn’t there.
The stuff that isn’t ‘the thing’.
Until only ‘the thing’ is left.
And yet,
I will always know the perimeter of what has been discarded than the evidence that has been left behind.

Mostly,
I cut in silence.
A quiet prayer. An emptying. A time of no self.
As I mark out the thoughts, broken lines of poetry, and old traumas.
I thought about the word ‘present’ and the word ‘present’ being all a game of inflection and yet how differently
they speak to the world.
Because I know I can present well, it is a safety net that has gotten me through the last difficult long year.
But I also know that someone that presents well, can present as present.
And how I can only get better at the latter as I let go of the former.

So here I am,
And I’m thinking about Moses now.
And I’m thinking about this burning bush that I am carving.
Be here. Be here.
I am,
I am.
I am that I am.
I’m always thinking about God.
And the way I am entranced by a tree branch as much as the light that filters through
And the dappled shadows cast underfoot.

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Pearl Taylor is a Melbourne-based visual artist, art therapist and Uniting Church youth facilitator, invested in the ways faith forms our personal narrative. Pearl’s art practice is informed by a pinch contemplative traditions, a healthy dose of the radically-inclusive, and a touch of humour. As she dabbles in theological spaces, it is through creativity that she expresses, connects, and invites others in. She lives on Wurundjeri land.

Paul’s Thorn Illuminated

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The Apostle Paul, c. 1657. Oil on canvas, 131.5 x 104.4 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

 

It is disorienting how a space so beautiful and lovingly fragrant
has the life-indwelling potential for such a magnitude of pain.
Like summer days sitting in the shadow of a wild rose,
pressing one’s nose into the sun-kissed petals of smooth velvet.

Covered in the yellow grains of life-producing possibilities
the closeness brings visceral reminders that home, like roses
bring pain to those who have been so near and then pull away.

Thorns break into flesh when your presence is left.
Time with you appeared to have no end, the young were confident in this.
Years passed, service, mission, duty, and love beckoned us to foreign lands
requiring an unperceived and misunderstood sacrifice as we tread a well worn path.

Why must these woody cells with pointed intentions persist?
Year after year they’ve remained comfortably under the folds of our skin
obstinate towards the desires for forgetfulness.

Scar tissue envelopes their presence, covering over reminders of what once was.
Slight pressure applied by a seemingly insignificant force
ushers in once more aching pain that consumes the senses,
disorientating the best laid plans.

Can one not walk away from the enjoyment of your presence without consequence?
Does a thorn ever complete its task; reminding one of the beauty journeyed from?
‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ is a wretched truth.

To behold home once more as the memories insist upon being true
is an impossibility brought by the metamorphosis of time.
Returning overlays the deepest of memories overtop unknown changes,
conjuring up moments of confusion and feelings of foreign.

And yet we yearn again for a moment with the fragrance, presence
and place, if only for fleeting and hurried relief from the ache.
All the while knowing that the time will come when
we must pull away, left with another thorn in the flesh.

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The poem found above has been something in the works for over the past three months and is most likely a guttural reaction to the strong lockdown Melbourne has had to endure. Being an expat for over fifteen years, I and others like myself have often struggled with the strange heart reaction of homesickness that ebbs and flows with the passage of time and events. Recently, I’ve been wondering about Paul’s thorn and whether it could have been something as often overlooked as homesickness. We like to assume that Paul’s thorn was persecution or perhaps some bodily ailment as that is perhaps a more holy possibility. But what if it was something as simple as his longing for home? Perhaps he was wrestling with the pulls to go home and the calling to go elsewhere, working within the broader church family? Maybe it is a bit arrogant to presume that someone called by God for such an important task as Paul’s could share something in common with me? I don’t know for sure but I like to wonder.

What I do know is that many of us expats are struggling with the affliction of homesickness in the current Australian climate due to being told that visiting home is not an option. The latest news from the Prime Minister is that the Australian borders most likely won’t reopen to many SARS COV2 infected countries until 2022. That seems like forever away and is hard to accept when our family had plans for a visit in the next eight months. I have found in my experience that many whose roots have never shifted from their homeland do not understand the difficulties around homesickness or the lingering pain that home imbeds within the hearts of those who uproot. This is something I try to shed light on in Paul’s Thorn Illuminated.

This poem intentionally does not end in hope. There are moments when answers should not be hurried and instead we need to acknowledge that the emotions of the present conflict are real and difficult. After a time, we can move on from that recognition of pain towards the hope that God provides in God’s Word. For the expat, that hope is found in our eternal citizenship and home. Texts like Psalm 68.5–6a (‘Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home’) and Philippians 3.20 (‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’) remind us that God understands the need for home and belonging. God cares for the lonely by providing a home. God reminds us that God is making one for us where we are the citizens. In our eternal home, there will be no ‘rings of steel’, curfews, or border restrictions. Presently, we may feel the physical pain and loneliness of earthly separation, but we can find comfort in knowing that even now God is thinking of our need for belonging and rootedness by providing us with church family when our biological families are beyond reach and the promise of an eternal home to come.

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MEGAN FISHER SERVES AS A MANAGER IN THE MCKINNON REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, HOMESCHOOLS FOUR OF THEIR FIVE CHILDREN, AND TEACHES ENGLISH AND CITIZENSHIP CLASSES FOR WOMEN IN THE MELBOURNE AFGHAN COMMUNITY. SOMETIMES SHE IS SUCCESSFUL AT FINDING JUST ENOUGH SILENCE TO CREATE THE ART THAT IS RUMBLING AROUND IN HER HEAD. SHE LIVES AND WORKS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Sanctuary

Corona came shouting STOP!
You heard Greta Thunberg say, How dare you!
Dear David Attenborough agreed then
Jane Goodall said she was going to plant five million trees.
Stop the traffic, stop the pollution, the bombing, the rocket launches,
the oil tanker spills, the logging and manufacturing all that junk.
Corona said, And most of all stop torturing and killing animals
in the way you do as if they can’t feel pain,
as if they don’t experience love, bawling, chasing
the trucks carting away their newborn to be slaughtered.
Lamb of God!
They are sentient, intelligent, the essence of beauty.
Listen, Clean your house, take care with people,
watch yourself because if you don’t I just might kill you.
Smoke haze over the big cities clears,
In Delhi you can see the Himalaya again.
America burns.
In the sanctuary of the Wombat forest,
I rake the debris on the forest floor and burn off
praying that summer will not breathe
her fiery breath on this place, all hell breaking loose.
Under the ancient trees where the Dja Dja Wurrung women gave birth,
I see an archway,
something moves amongst the leaves, the wind perhaps.
The spirits of the those not considered worthy of life,
chanting their song of the Dreamtime,
The trees remember them.
Listen! I place my head against the gnarled lumps of bark
about the size of an infant’s head.
The hollow interior of the tree is quiet.
The sun shines his rays through the great lofty branches
of the dense forest that meet like a vaulted ceiling of Gothic architecture.
This is my chapel, this is my cathedral.

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FRANCES GUERIN IS A CERAMICIST AND PAINTER, AND FORMER COUNSELLOR. SHE LIVES ON DJA DJA WURRUNG COUNTRY, WHERE SHE SENSES THE PRESENCE OF THE PAST ELDERS IN THE ANCIENT TREES AND THE ROCKS, AND SHE ACKNOWLEDGES THE PRESENT AND EMERGING CUSTODIANS OF THE LAND.

Lost Time: Dementia, Theology, and the Arts

Alexandra Banks, Lost Time, 2020. Drafting paper, wool, soldering wire, 110 x 60 x 15 cm.

Looking at Lost Time, it might not be immediately clear what this object is or how to read it. The deliberately evasive title doesn’t help the viewer very much either. Nevertheless, the sculptures form and wearability captivate the imagination. This fragile object with its volumetric complexities of transitional shapes and spaces, the varying levels of translucency, and the repetition of the origami balloons have come together in this form to solidify a theme that has been present and growing in my work for a number of years. However, this artwork came about almost by accident. I was asked as a last-minute inclusion to participate in an exhibition. This show was held in a textile gallery and the exhibitions theme centred on the question: What are the hopes and aspirations we carry on our shoulders as vulnerable and compassionate human beings? Having recently returned from a conference focused on anamnesis and liturgy, I was interested in creating a work that integrated a clerical stole, dementia, and community. This exhibition gave me the opportunity to materially explore memory.

When one looks at the public perception of dementia it is profoundly negative, it has become a highly stigmatised illness. As a result of this negative perception people today are more afraid of developing dementia than cancer. The consequence of stigmatising an illness is it reduces people to labels, ideas, and abstract bodies. There is an inherent violence associated with stigmatisation. In relation to dementia the violence is subtle. There is an element of dehumanisation and detachment as the individual slowly becomes the label of their illness. Another social outcome for the person with a clinical diagnosis of dementia is they may become the misunderstood and scary villain to their close acquaintances. It is not uncommon for friends and family members to drift away from the person, stating: ‘I’d rather remember her the way she was’. As such, in the hypercognitive western society, where intellect and reason are prized over love and relational connections, the fear of loss of cognition drives our response to dementia.

It is this communal response to dementia that I wished to explore in Lost Time, in addition to how the community can reframe their response to the deep-seeded fear that is fuelled by the threat of losing one’s autobiographical self. The question is, therefore, who holds our memories? According to John Swinton, a theologian working in the field of disability and dementia, the memory problem is not with the person who has dementia but with their community. Swinton claims that a person cannot remember who they are without the help of others, as such identity is formed and given by the community that they inhabit. It is the identity given by one’s community that is the most fragile and vulnerable, as it is out of our direct control. As such you can lose yourself and your sense of belonging if your community loses connection with you and struggles to identify who you are becoming. What does this mean theologically in a community of faith when a person may be losing their cognitive agency and are facing increasing limitations?

Deborah Creamer, a disability theologian, makes the case for the application of embodiment theologies to be applied to people who are ‘differently-abled’. I would maintain that someone with dementia is ‘differently-abled’. Embodiment theologies argue that when we reflect theologically, we inevitably do it as our embodied selves, for our bodies influence our theological perspectives, as it is through our bodies that we experience and relate to God. It is the experiential aspect of embodiment theologies that led me to consider the notion of how body language, gestures, and touch can, for people with dementia draw seemingly lost memories into the present. I wanted to disrupt the assumption that all memory is linked to cognitive recall but can be experienced through our bodies with the aid of our community. How then does one depict embodied theologies, dementia and community visually?

Alexandra Banks, Lost Time, 2020. Drafting paper, wool, soldering wire, 110 x 60 x 15 cm.

In the work Lost Time, the materials of translucent paper and wool, in conjunction with the sculpture’s wearability, present the viewer with a visual metaphor of an embodied theological response to dementia. The translucent paper folded into origami water balloons functions symbolically on a number of levels. Firstly, the process of making origami balloons requires the creator to spend time preparing the paper square, pre-folding the creases, tucking the corners into the little pockets, and blowing into the deflated balloon to expand it to its final shape. This method of manipulating paper brings to mind the process of making memories. The very considered and ritualistic way we construct and breathe life into what we understand as meaningful for our own identity creation. Secondly, the choice of translucent paper, not opaque or transparent paper, adds to the notion that memories are created through communal transmission. The translucent paper points to the communicative action required for others to remember us. Likewise, the use of wool an organic material to stitch all of the memory balloons together, replicates the role of our neurobiology in the form of brain synapses, and the physical processes of embodied remembering.

Alexandra Banks, Lost Time, 2020. Drafting paper, wool, soldering wire, 110 x 60 x 15 cm.

However, to fully depict how community can respond to the ongoing cocreation and the holding of memories, the sculpture needed to be worn. The fragility of the sculpture indicates the vulnerability of our memories, and the act of wearing another’s memories implies the responsibility and privilege it is to journey with someone who is navigating the emerging ‘differently-abled’ person. The human experience is an evolving reality, and none of us will avoid being touched by the changing nature of our own physical and cognitive abilities. The purpose of Lost Time is to challenge our own perceptions of how God, community and self relates to memory.

[A version of this piece appeared in The Cooperative]

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ALEXANDRA BANKS IS A PHD CANDIDATE IN THE FACULTY OF THEOLOGY AT ST FRANCIS’ THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE, CHARLES STURT UNIVERSITY.