Articles

Imagining Difference: The Spectacle of Terror

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It has been an exhausting few days and it still continues, as names, faces, and lives are recounted in the death toll from the Christchurch shootings. It is communicated primarily as a media event as we are swamped by the pictures and video of those directly affected expressing their grief. And this was the intention of the ‘shooter’. It had to look good on TV. Texts were posted online explaining his motivation. Live feed was broadcast using a camera mounted on his assault rifle. All the guns he used were emblazoned with written texts, white on black, proclaiming racial supremacy with the names of his heroes listed along the handles. Even when we saw him in a photograph taken during his brief court appearance with his face blurred out, his right hand was clearly gesturing a supremacist logo of the black circle, a gesture clearly meant for a select audience of knowing viewers. This ‘shooter’ has used the technology to give himself a starring role in his own narrative, a narrative of hate that is meant to inflict maximum pain and offence to values based in tolerance and love. He has acted out what his small community of belief have visualised for some time.

Seeing is a powerful force in our image-driven media age. Discerning, therefore, how we are taught to see is an important process of living with visual awareness in a media culture. Attitudes about religion, race, and gender are mediated in and through images which may, on the surface, seem natural and self evident but actually work to structure our performance as humans. Abdul Abdullah is a contemporary artist well aware of the power of looking and of being looked at. As a young emerging artist, Abdul Abdullah won the Human Justice Award, part of the Blake Prize for Religious Art in 2011. His work was a photographic work that made plain the power of such a gaze, and was titled ‘Them and Us’. The work is something of a self-portrait, with the young artist depicted in the frame with his brother in the background. Both figures seem to swagger into focus dressed in jeans without a top, leaving their dark skin the feature of the work. The work captures that moment of encounter, when walking down the street as two young males saunter into the proximity of one’s personal space.

In the framework of a pedestrian encounter the viewer tries to locate these two young men quickly into a category of safety or of threat. As a viewer, I am unsettled by the ambiguous stance of the main figure addressing me through his gaze. It sets up a relational space that is fraught with choices, assumptions, and my own prejudice now made visible. I know in a pedestrian context I would be looking away, if not walking around such a figure. The artist through this means has been able to make me aware of the visual stereotypes I use to evade real engagement. In the process of looking at this figure I become aware that I am being invited to take a next step, to respond. It’s my move. How do I respond to the visual cues found in the figure, dark skinned and tattooed. The tattoo in the second figure is clearly Arabic script which pushes this figure into an ethnicity and religious identity beyond my everyday circle of social comfort. I am on the edge, so how do I respond?

I need to divide the world into safe and unsafe, mine or yours, for life is filled with hidden boundaries. These boundaries provide safety and order, until of course they are transgressed. But this figure is looking back at me and I wonder what he sees, as looking goes two ways. This tension is best found in the image of the tattoo on the flank of Abdullah that depicts both the Southern Cross and the crescent star and moon. The artist comments: ‘Australia is one of the best places in the world to live. But growing up a Muslim in this country, you get used to seeing Muslims portrayed negatively in the media. In the popular imagination … you are the bad guy. You start to feel the divide of – them and us’.

Here on the skin of the artist are iconic references to both Australian and Muslim identity that creates something new. This is a mark that confronts my expectations about whether this figure is in my tribe or not, or more correctly whether I can widen the boundaries of what constitutes an Australian identity to include this person who is different. The marking of skin is an act recorded in this photograph that unhooks expectations and creates something new – a space for change and new understanding. Abdullah comments: ‘The figures look out at the viewer expectantly, trying to build some sort of bridge’. 

The artist has in this image achieved two things. He has sympathetically helped us find our way alongside the skin of another. But, secondly, he offers us a way to bridge the space of separation by imagining something new – a Muslim Australian identity that broadens our sense of who ‘we’ are, that invites inclusion and an expansion of our definitions of identity. This is an offer that is in stark contrast to the manner in which hatred has been structured in the Australia media through images that link Muslim identity with terrorism, or through the way the debate on immigration has been shaped around religious difference. We have visited upon those who are different our corporate fears and uncertainties. Abdullah, in contrast, offers us a mirror so we may investigate more clearly our prejudices which cloud the manner in which we see. Seeing, and being seen, is an invitation to step outside the stereotypes that straight-jackets behaviours and to be surprised by the creative diversity of human culture. Diversity might be our culture’s greatest resource. It may also be our greatest challenge. To see and receive what is different and other, is in turn an opportunity to recover a fuller sense of seeing ourselves.  

A video interview with the artist Abdul Abdullah where he talks about this work is on the Blake Prize YouTube channel.

Abdul Abdullah is an artist from Perth, currently based in Sydney, who works across painting, photography, video, installation, and performance. As a self-described ‘outsider amongst outsiders’, his practice is primarily concerned with the experience of the ‘other’ in society. Abdullah’s projects have engaged with different marginalised minority groups and he is particularly interested in the experience of young Muslims in the contemporary multicultural Australian context, as well as connecting with creative communities throughout the Asia Pacific.

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ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL AND WORIMI LAND.

God, did you see the news today?

God, did you see the news today?

We’re killing one another.
We’re killing in places killing has gone on so long we don’t know how to stop …
We’re killing next door.
We’re killing one another.

God, did you see the news today?

We’re laying waste to the world
to consume, consume, consume
an appetite “stuff” cannot sate.
Our elders know. Our elders tell us.
We ignore their wisdom.

God, did you see the news today?

People are saying hateful, hurtful things
what is right, what is wrong
what is holy, what is profane
… as if we know. As if we could know.

God, did you see the news today?

Were you there when we turned the boats away?
We are denying people food, electricity, sanitation, shelter, medical care…
We are denying people their basic human rights.

People are grieved and weary.
Longing for a world that is different
but not knowing where to start.
Not knowing how to start.
All victims, variously blind.

I’m not pointing fingers, I’m raising my hand.
I need Your help. We need Your help.

Amen.

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Talitha Fraser is a Kiwi urban contemplative theopoetics-dabbler who lives ON WURUNDJERI LAND. Her poems and reflections can be found at itellyouarise and thelightanddarkofit.

Seeing our own Backyards, Part 2

With thanks to Rod Pattenden for his recent article, Seeing over the fence.

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The trauma of truth revealed. Mixed media on canvas, 500 X 300mm.

I return this week to the images I have begun exploring how remain regular attenders in public worship experience and exercise power in the congregation. This second image is an exploration of what it looks like to really experience the trauma of truth revealed.

This second image of power and control revealed a provocative and powerful expression of wounding that also offers the hope of possibility. The strength and depth of the colour and light in the painting dwell beneath the surface. The warm glow of strong yellow light is visible as it is breaking through the darkness leaving open wounds in the surface. Light seems to be pouring through the surface and reflecting toward the viewer from beneath the surface of the painting. The central focus of this work is obvious, and it is hard to look away but equally hard to stay with what may be an eruption, an injury or the trauma of birth. There is however a soft veil that seems to shroud this image offering some form of grace or protection from the trauma of truth.

The following vignette from a minister in a suburban Anglican parish illustrates the possibility that there are those in the church who will be offended by the need to be regulated and leave the congregation in anger.

I had spoken with this woman about the need for us to do things differently from now on and she saw the regulations as an infringement on human rights. I agreed that may be so but assured her that his is how we will do things from now on. She said that she would not be willing to change and threatened to leave the church…and that is what happened. She left in anger and we have not heard from her since.

In this exchange, it seems that the minister is earnest in her desire to ensure that her church complies with the regulations and keeps children safe. She is surprised to hear that one of the members of the ministry team sees the regulations as an infringement on human rights but she is willing to agree that this may be so, noting that we will do this anyway.

This is a moment in a pastoral relationship when some deeper truth about each of their experiences might have been revealed. There was the possibility that this conversation could have been a moment when what was said about the impact of the changes was heard “… with the intimacy of care and of understanding at the same Time” (David Whyte). Unfortunately, the trauma of this truth was not seen or heard or held with care and understanding and so the relationship has been damaged. Conversations such as this are taking place in many congregations where a painful and open wound has been revealed. Having heard and seen this truth our congregational life will never be the same; but is it possible that this challenge to the status quo could be the catalyst for new growth? When confronted with the trauma of truth it can be tempting to react quickly with an attempt to fix the problem that is before us but Rowan Williams warns us not to miss the larger questions that lead us to deeper understanding:

We’re encouraged to assume that the solving of the problem immediately in front of us is what matters, and we lose track of the larger questions about the meaning of our social institutions, the purpose of our social institutions in the long term, and equally impatient of understanding exactly how we got here. (Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, 56)

The wound of wonder

Mary-Jane Rubenstein, in Strange Wonder, declares that wonder is a wound in the experience of the everyday. The findings from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse have created a wound in the experience of everyday life in the church and it is possible that this wound is an opportunity for wonder and new life in the church. The trauma of truth that has been told and heard has interrupted the ordinary experience of congregational life in a way that demands our attention. The way in which we attend to this wound will either promote healing and growth or compound the damage.

Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue considers the possibility that the wound may be the source a new voice requiring expression:

A wound awakens and focuses the reserve of the immune system. The overriding desire of the body is to seal the opening, to heal and restore its inner darkness. Yet the wound takes time to heal. While the wound is open new light flows into the helpless dark and the inner night of the body weeps through the wound. In the rupture and the pain it causes, a wound breaks the silence; it cries out…It is no wonder then that the wound as a sore point of vulnerability cries out for some new form in which to express itself. (Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, 190)

John O’Donohue claims that it is the work of the artist to stay with the wounds that interrupt our everyday experience, returning time and again to the threshold of disturbance in the hope of excavating something new. It is possible that in considering how to address the trauma of the truth that has been issued from the sore point of vulnerability in the life of the church, art and artists may be able capable of returning time and again to the threshold of disturbance, hear the cry and in doing so, discover something new that speaks to the larger question of how we find ourselves in this place. The challenge for the church is now to welcome what is discovered when we are called to these places and spend time with the emergent images as they seek to birth of something new.

LIBBY BYRNE IS AN HONORARY RESEARCH ASSOCIATE (WHITLEY, UD), LECTURER IN ART THERAPY (LA TROBE UNIVERSITY), AND MEMBER OF THE CENTRE FOR RESEARCH AND SOCIAL POLICY (RASP). SHE LIVES ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Seeing our own Backyards, Part 1

With thanks to Rod Pattenden for his recent article, Seeing over the fence.

I need not look over the fence to see the way in which the experience of being in church is changing as we gradually and collectively awaken to the truth of the experiences of abuse and trauma that have emerged from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. In my own backyard, my local congregation, I find myself seeing and hearing the impact of sexual abuse within the church and with each painful story my trust in the institutional church is further diminished. With each new story and conversation, there is an increasing challenge to the spiritual health of the people who remain in the pews. As I think about life in my own backyard, the spiritual health of my congregation needs time and attention before we can understand how to heal and reconcile what we now know about our lives in the church and our life in God. As an artist, my work is, as Rod Pattenden suggests, to help people visualise the trauma and pain of our experience, in sign, symbol, and art making. I hear the call to work in the studio making images that may bring healing and reconciliation but I am sitting with the question of how to ensure it is seen and appreciated in my own backyard, where rules and regulations seem to be the weapon of choice for defending the institution.

The Anglican church is currently investing considerable energy in the development of procedures and policies designed to ensure that churches are safe places for children and vulnerable people. It remains to be seen if this approach will be successful in eliminating the abuse of power within the church and also how this newly regulated relational environment will affect the spiritual health and emotional wellbeing of those invested in regular congregational worship. In his recent work, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, Rowan Williams warns us of the dangers of not understanding how we have become the people we are now.

Not understanding how we learned to be the people we now are has an immediate and highly dangerous effect on the kind of society we are and might seek to be, just as it might have a dangerous effect on any individual who tries to block out the memory of the experiences that have, as a matter of fact, made them who they are. (p. 57)

To consider how the church has learned to be the people they are now maybe we should begin by appreciating the impact of the systemic use of institutional power in pastoral and congregational relationships. How do the people in the pews who remain regular attenders in public worship experience and exercise power in the congregation? In the spirit of a Practice-led theological inquiry I have begun to explore this in the studio. The first of these images is an exploration of Tension on the Surface.

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Tension on the surface. Mixed media on canvas, 500 X 500 mm.

There are tensions on the surface of this image that have resulted in a furious working toward solutions with whatever materials are at hand. Having attempted to cover the content of this ambiguous and organic work with robust and impermeable house paint, the layering of white acrylic material has resulted in the creation of a non-reflective fragile surface that is easily damaged. The white acrylic paint is literally a skin that is being shaped and reshaped as it responds to external pressure. The wrinkles on the surface are points of interest but the tension also reveals a warm organic oil based yellow ochre that beckons the viewer to go deeper. The viewer’s focus is spread across the damage on the surface and it is hard to know whether to settle here or consider the deeper life of the work. It is challenging to consider what has been lost or gained in the frantic need to shore up a solid and impermeable surface.

The response to the new rules from those working within the church has been mixed with some people seeing them as self-evident statements of ethical behaviour and others feeling the burden of compliance mixed with the fear of retribution. Commentator Muriel Porter has even suggested that the rules are “… absurdly severe restrictions … imposed on the private lives of … clergy”. Her argument is built upon the biblical principle known as the priesthood of all believers which suggests that all parishioners are equal co-workers with priests in ministry. The reality of life in my backyard suggests that once we ordain and employ people to take up authority in the church the expression of this biblical principal is open to reinterpretation. The hope that is at the heart of the principal is reshaped each time power is exercised and experienced in pastoral relationships.

The systemic and structural power that remains central to the machinations of the Anglican church continues to shape pastoral relationships at the congregational level. For those who trust and love the church and their ministers, there may be a perceived need to come to their defence by opposing the restrictions on their behaviour. For others, their trust and love for the church has been so damaged that this argument only heightens the tension on the surface as it becomes a spurious distraction from the challenge to consider the nature of power and control that is still being expressed in the church hierarchy.

What does it meant to spend time with the trauma of this truth being revealed? For this I need a new image entirely.

LIBBY BYRNE IS AN Honorary Research Associate (Whitley, UD), Lecturer in Art Therapy (La Trobe University), and member of The Centre for Research and Social Policy (RASP). SHE LIVES ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Seeing Over the Fence: Visualising Trauma and The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

As both an artist and a pastor, I am well aware of the capacity for works of art to bring healing, to provide a container for grief and loss, and to create a future based in hope. I have also experienced the capacity for works of the imagination to break down the supposed barriers between the church and its community, between the holy and the profane, the sacred and secular, and to create a fruitful conversation about life’s meaning. I have great hopes that the arts provide us with resources for engaging the culture we inhabit and for dealing with any of the big difficult issues we face together. But despite these hopes, I am really struggling with how to respond at a visual level to the aftermath of the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, and the terrible stories that have surfaced into public consciousness. As an artist, I wonder how to help people visualise the trauma and pain of such experiences, and how the Church as an institution allows for this to be made present in sign, symbol, and art making. How might art help the healing process and bring reconciliation and understanding?

 

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Rodney Pople, Last Supper, 2008. Oil on canvas.

 

It was about fifteen years ago through my work with the Blake Prize that I first began to observe visual responses to this issue. In 2008, Rodney Pople submitted a work entitled Last Supper, a work that proved to be something of a premonition of the impending crisis for organised religious institutions. A reference to the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples has been pushed to the back of the picture as something of incidental interest. What takes centre stage is a vast chandelier that seems to shudder under its own weight of self importance. Not a light but a weighted piece of staging that is about to come crashing down. The metaphor is clearly about a structure that has become too focused on its own importance and grandeur, so much so that even the Last Supper has been pushed to the periphery. Rodney Pople went on to deal more directly with these issues. In one of his later exhibitions, held in trendy Paddington in Sydney, a group of pious folk camped outside praying for his soul and for those brave enough to enter the gallery under prayerful siege.

But Pople was correct in anticipating that there would be a shaking of foundations and a rattling of fences. It was during 2015 when the Royal Commission heard stories in the city of Ballarat that ribbons began appearing on the fence of St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. They were tied on the fence as a simple memorial to those who had died or still suffer as a result of a history of abuse. This simple act of remembrance has spread quickly around Australia and is now found all around the world. This gesture has, however, not always been well received by those on the inside. Whether it was Church authorities or parishioners there were reports of ribbons being removed. The visibility of the act of colourful ribbons fluttering in the breeze was perceived by some as a protest of anger at the Church or at least a criticism of its silence and lack of visible response. St Patrick’s Cathedral has continued to dialogue with this wider ribbon community and there are now plans for the fence to open up into a memorial garden where a more permanent space of recognition is be created. Through the visual form of ribbons, known locally as the ‘Loud Fence’, boundaries have been shifted and a new more open conversation has begun.

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In Geelong, at St Mary’s Basilica, the Loud Fence response took a different turn. One of the key priests on staff actively worked with survivors through the Life Boat Project and with the assistance of a group from a Men’s Shed found a means of preserving the ribbons and the heartfelt gestures that had created them. A container in the form of a boat has been introduced inside the Basilica where ribbons can be permanently stored after they have flown on the fence. This shifts the visual reception of the ribbons to a more permanent memorial where they are being treated with dignity and respect. This boat has become part of the interior fabric of the Church alongside other memorials that remember significant moments of national and local history. What is being preserved is not just silk threads, but the deeply-felt gestures that have been repeated over and over again as people express their sense of grief and loss. Gathering them up for preservation emphasises the importance of these small acts of grief and remembrance. Someone is listening, noticing, seeing. The Loud Fence project looks for a community of people who speak up and act on behalf of those who are victims.

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In my local city of Newcastle, like in many cities around Australia, ribbons appear and disappear off the fence of the local Cathedral. It is a disputed space between those who want this to be visible and those who wish it to remain hidden or at least managed out of sight. This is a pressing issue as in my city the extensive volume of abuse and the individual number of stories is staggering. Thousands of people in my local community are suffering the long-term effects of grief and trauma, including their families, neighbours, as well as the educational and religious institutions of the region. It must be one of the largest contributors to mental illness and social trauma in my local community and it is otherwise hidden. But it is also appearing more often in the work of local artists, like in the work Cracked by Janita Ayton. Here, the soft pages of a Bible have been repetitively folded over to spell out the word cracked. This is only observed when the Bible is opened and the word then literally spills out. Clearly, the culture of secrecy and power that once clothed the Church has now been cracked. For the first time in Australian history, the Church has been drawn to public account for its actions, inactions or shameful cover-up. This assumed privilege due to social power or religious authority has been found wanting. The Church is not above the law; it is accountable to the people it seeks to serve.

 

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Janita Ayton, Cracked, 2018. Bible with folded pages.

 

Cracked is an artwork that visualises the crisis of authority facing organised religion. But it also offers, to my mind, a way forward. When something is cracked, then what is contained inside can get out. Rather than fear being the first response, a response that reinforces denial and secrets, here is an invitation to find within the life of the Church a range of other responses that focuses on victims and those impacted by this history of abuse. The Church has nothing to fear in losing its well-preserved social power if it, in turn, recovers what is at its heart in terms of compassion, forgiveness, and love. Self-preservation cannot be the default position of the Church when facing this sort of accountability in the public square. Here is an opportunity to visualise compassion and a form of agency based on love. The loss to the Church in the face of this ongoing scandal is incalculable, but the opportunity for the Church to renew its purpose will be life-giving and renewing. Cracked leaves me with the possibility of such a hope.

Rod Pattenden is an artist, art historian, and theologian interested in the power of images. He lives and works on Awabakal and Worimi land.

 

For Leo, my Son, named after Lion

Will Small has been writing and performing poetry for about a decade. He uses poetry to explore unresolved questions, frustrations, doubts, and hopes, and to try to understand the world – or to surrender lack of understanding.

He is also the father of two sons – Noah and Leo. Throughout his life, he has heard people express fears for the safety of their daughters. He writes: ‘It only struck me recently that we should be equally afraid our sons could be part of the reason for that fear. In whatever way I can, I want to teach my sons to be brave and gentle, strong and sensitive, courageous and humble. So a year ago, after Leo was born, I wrote him the words in this poem’.

It’s a good meditation on masculinity.

Public Lecture: Jesus in Australian Art

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This lecture explored the ways in which the figure of Jesus has appeared in the history of Australian art.

Rev Dr Rod Pattenden is an art historian and theologian interested in the power of images. He considers that looking at art helps us see more clearly the culture we inhabit and what shapes our faith, hopes, and desires in this complex postmodern era. Rod has written and lectured widely on art and spirituality in Australia and for many years was the Chair of the Blake Prize for Religious Art. He is currently minister of the Adamstown Uniting Church where he leads a vibrant arts and community development ministry.