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.
Awakenings IVpremiered 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
The process of looking at art is not only a rational activity of the mind. Looking at images arouses deeper feelings and perceptions. Images sometimes get under our skin and seem to touch the life of our body, through memory, awareness, and desire. Images touch us, they want to be cradled, felt, and held against our fingers so we can feel their texture and physicality. There is a strong connection between seeing and touch. This haptic sense of touch links our fingertips and our eyes, when we describe sensations that arouse or invite our devotion, prayer, admiration, as well as provoke anxiety, horror, or even anger. Images touch us in ways that activate our tactile memory, reminding us that seeing is not just an abstract mental activity but one that resides in our existence as creatures with skins that record memory and anticipate hope.
This vocabulary of touch is clearly at work in the creation and the visual form of the work A Shorter Morning and Evening Prayer by Australian artist Karly Michelle Edgar. The work pictured here has been laid out on the white cloth of a communion table in a church. It has been created through the folding of pages from a small book of daily prayer. Each page has been folded in the same way through repetition, covered in wax, and then sewn together with bright red thread. As a viewer, we not only see but also feel the tactile process of making, with each gesture of folding, dipping, and sewing. Over and over again this work is formed through repeated gestures that remind us of the words on the pages of this prayer book, as it is turned by hand and the words on the page become breath across the reader’s lips. The repeated ritual of prayer becomes the fragile structures of wax pages curled to contain the uncontainable, the devotion, hope, and desire of the one who prays.
Karly Michelle Edgar suffers from fibromyalgia, a condition that has heightened her awareness of her own peripheral senses. She writes: ‘My life requires conscious management to survive and this has led me to a deep appreciation of ritual. Symbolic actions and rituals do not create sacred spaces but rather desire that our attention be directed towards the fact that we already live within one’. Through an artistic process, the artist has found a way of making art as well as expressing her spirituality as a ritual that supports the life of her own body. Her art-making has been a means of deeply engaging her own sense of embodiment as a place where she encounters the presence of God. In looking at this work, we see not only an object but a record of an activity over time. It is the record of a ritual that contains life in a form, conveying a sense of grace and support. Each page remains open, set in wax. It is a reminder of the way each prayer and turning of the page is like a container that holds time, a cup containing grace, giving all the time that is needed to take a full breath of life.
Having seen this work as it was situated on the communion or Eucharistic table, the aspect that remained in my memory was the random patterns made by the scarlet red cotton threads that edge each section and form the work into one long sinuous form. These vibrant fine lines reminded me of the capillary tubes that pump blood in and around our bodies, always pulsing to the rhythm of breathing and heart movement. This work activates such memories of human bodies here at the place where the body of Christ is remembered through Eucharistic practices. This work does not point to God being found in transcendence through an escape from the body to another realm. In contrast, this work invites viewers to find God in the life of their own body, in a gesture that is as close as their next breath. This work is therefore confronting in its intimate and incarnational nature. It is in our flesh, with all its unique particularity, that we might find the place where we will see God.
KARLY MICHELLE EDGAR IS A MIXED MEDIA ARTIST, TRAINED IN THEATRE, WITH AN MA IN CHURCH PRACTICE. SHE WAS FORMALLY THE LECTURER IN ART AT TABOR (VIC) AND IS CURRENTLY WORKING AS A LIFESTYLE ASSISTANT IN AN AGED CARE FACILITY. SHE ALSO LIVES WITH FIBROMYALGIA, WHICH EFFECTS LIFE IN VARYING DEGREES AT DIFFERENT TIMES. KARLY’S CREATIVE WORK FOCUSES ON THE NEED FOR REST, REPETITION, THE SEARCH FOR BEAUTY, AND CREATIVITY AS SPIRITUAL PRACTICE. KARLY LIVES ON WURUNDJERI LAND.
ROD PATTENDENIS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.
During the first phase of lockdown, I managed to break my arm while trying to keep socially distanced on a busy footpath. It was a clean break to my forearm, just below the elbow – no splint, no surgery, no complications. I was lucky. Earlier this year, my GP tripped on a tree root and broke her elbow into multiple pieces. It involved surgery, a lot of metalware, and months of recuperation. Breaking your arm can mean a lot of different things.
Not long after my fall, I was walking with a friend and her three-year-old who was curious about my broken arm. Since we were in-situ out in the street, I demonstrated the tripping over and landing on my arm. I may have been more restrained if I’d realised that his parents would be watching their lad re-enact this for the next two weeks.
My friend sent me a one-minute video of her little boy in his scooter helmet telling the story three times over. Initially the narration is hesitant: ‘I walk along the road … And what happened?’ It gathers force as he demonstrates the moment of tripping, bumping his gumboots decisively at the gutter’s edge. Then, as if he is taking a bow, he bends at the waist and lowers his helmeted head gently to the asphalt footpath – this moment in the re-enactment lends a dignity to my stumbling face-plant. After the bow, the little fellow stands up and with a triumphant flourish extends his arm, pronouncing with great finality: ‘I broke my arm!’ He flinches and holds it close: ‘Ouch!’
I felt honoured that this three-year-old took hold of the story so strongly. The quality of his attention was mesmerising to watch. As a colleague observed, it was a ‘beautiful example of how children work through disturbances in their lives until they integrate whatever the learning is’.
The three-year-old’s mother tells me that storytelling is becoming something of a rite of passage for her boy. Recently, after an episode involving a series of tantrums, he asked her, ‘What happened?’ She realised this was an invitation to telling about the episode and attempting to get a handle on it. In a continuation of this, when her son recently had a mishap on his scooter, she consoled him with telling how he had crashed when he bumped into a big stick. The story told, he was emboldened to get back on the scooter.
The capacity to story our experience is a powerful tool for reflection and understanding. As adults we learn that no story is pure and that we are capable of telling ourselves spin, but the shaping of experience into story is the bread and butter of our lives. Narrative, it has been said, is a primary act of mind.
My son was almost three when his sister was due to be born. He was bewildered by my absence. When I came home, he was waiting at the front gate: ‘Mummy, we losed-ed you’.
His baby sister took up residence with many visitors admiring her surprisingly bright blonde hair. Bedtime stories settled into a nightly repetition of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Our firstborn asked for it every night for those first weeks. I realised that the story of the blonde-haired female intruder needed retelling until he’d shooed off Goldilocks enough times to be able to give up his place as the singular baby bear of the family.
The two three-year-olds took hold of the tools for making sense; one by the telling of what happened, the other by adopting a story from the cultural storehouse. Meaning-making is a lifelong task that becomes more nuanced as we age.
Songwriters, poets, and musicians bring us narratives wrapped memorably in melody or honed words which allow us to see our own stories more clearly. They offer ways of naming love and loss, yearning, delight, gut-wrenching fear, and hooting hilarity. No matter if they adapt the vernacular or write in elegant prose, we receive the possibility of understanding ourselves in a new light. We may find we are not so alone after all.
It is self-evident that we need diverse artists from the varieties of ethnicity, gender, and geography if we are to see our lives reflected in these ways. Songs, poetry, and story become a shorthand whereby we integrate our own experience and find a common language. This doesn’t replace mental health-care but forms a fabric that connects us to ourselves, and to others.
Celebrity and commodification can sometimes disguise this process and lead us away from the message to being dazzled by the messenger. But there are artists, song-makers, poets, and writers who companion us and enable us to honour our ordinary lives. The best ones know that this is their job, that it is not all about them, but about where the songs or stories or poetry meet the listeners. Their words and melodies free us for the work of making sense of our un-famous lives.
When we understand what artists enable in us, it is no surprise to find outrage at their dismissal by the federal government. Notwithstanding rescue packages that give a cursory nod, the prevailing message is that artists are surplus to need. Even announcing his arts rescue package, the Prime Minister felt compelled to mention the benefit to the tradies, but unable to acknowledge the artists themselves. Earlier in the lockdown, in a move that has caused grave disquiet, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra stood down its musicians, overlooking their offer of taking a 50% pay cut, meanwhile maintaining 75% of their administrative staff. There is a disregard of the lifelong cost of what it takes to maintain a practice as an artist.
Because many artists work in an environment where casual or short term project work forms their income, the vast majority have had to apply for Job Seeker rather than Job Keeper. Both forms of funding are subject to undermining. Last year, the Prime Minister famously refused to raise the impoverishing payments of Newstart (the precursor of Job Seeker) by saying it would be ‘unfunded empathy’. It is now clear that it was a refusal not based on a lack of funds but rather on determined hoarding. The dispersal of taxpayer funds is still in acute danger of a sports rorts style disbursement.
Before the bushfires and COVID-19, the federal government had already started shutting down the arts – rolling the department into a lumpy bed with transport and infrastructure.
When Paul Fletcher (the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety, and the Arts) recently appeared on the ABC’s Q&A, the surety with which he asserted that there were no cuts to the ABC was breathtaking. He repeatedly interrupted other speakers with what acting-host Virginia Trioli rightly named as ‘dissertations’. In regard to the new arts rescue package, he demonstrated once more the side-stepping of established advisory bodies. The Australia Council will be consulted but not given oversight of the dispersal of the $250 million arts rescue package.
Now in a move that reveals a boxed-in version of what education is for, any young person with ambitions to explore history and philosophy in a humanities education is being made to pay double, and simultaneously instructed to train vocationally.
Educating in this way is setting the nation up for an even more gigantic failure of imagination than such policies reveal. We need people with the curriculum vitaes that show what they did when they didn’t get what they wanted – life stories that reveal their resilience and capacity to find another path.
If education teaches that A necessarily leads to B, you won’t get that resilience. You’ll get narrow minds that say, ‘What relevance does this have? Is this on the exam? Why should I participate, it’s pointless?’ The curiosity and inquiry that makes education vibrant gets lost. Occasionally, I’ve taught people with this mindset. You don’t want them on the crew when you are sinking.
And let’s stop saying that we are all in the same boat, because, actually, we’re not. We are in the same storm, but most of the artists, writers, and musicians are on hastily handmade rafts, watching the more-valued professions and high-end company directors cruise by in the shipping lanes. Meanwhile, the industries that flourish in association with a vibrant arts community are running aground; even if those boats are bigger, they’re still getting wrecked in the storm.Just as a broken arm can mean more than one thing, a broken economy costs some sectors more dearly than others. When you lose the arts, you lose more than economists can count.
We will always need creativity to open new pathways in the unknowable future. We need meaningful ways to engage with each other and a curiosity that interrogates our learning. The question is, will the economic measures that are supposed to save us simply serve to crush us? Thank goodness there are three-year-olds who know better.
JULIE PERRIN IS A MELBOURNE WRITER, ORAL STORYTELLER, AND ASSOCIATE TEACHER AT PILGRIM THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE, UNIVERSITY OF DIVINITY. SHE KEEPS A WEBSITE, AND HER MOST RECENT BOOK IS TENDER. SHE LIVES AND WORKS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.
Over these last months, I’ve had the great joy of watching unfold a series of beautiful and stunning images by Michael Galovic, based on The Fall and Expulsion from Paradise. In seeing the images evolve, step by step, I gained an increasingly deep respect for the complexity of the process – from the gessoing of the boards, through the creation of each layer of moulding and gilding, and then the layers of painting where specific features and the final delicate detail emerge. This truly gave me a deeper understanding of, and insight into, the sheer complexity and technical skill involved in successfully balancing each layer, with their different components and levels of permeability to create the works.
Michael is in the very rare position of being both an iconographer and an artist. It is these two aspects of his practice that underpin his work across different material and genres. His childhood in Serbia was visually enriched by art in general, his mother being an art historian and his step-father working on the restoration of frescoes that had been whitewashed during the centuries of Ottoman rule. He then followed this with five years of training at the Academy of Arts in Belgrade.
This eclectic background gave him an enormous appreciation of the skill, subtlety, and sheer brilliance of medieval art, through from Romanesque to the early Renaissance, especially in the religious context. As a painter of icons, he had a wide-ranging technical understanding of the qualities of the media involved as well as a fascination with the imagery and symbolism portrayed in a variety of different forms. This has informed the diversity of directions in his art practice over the last thirty years he has spent in Australia, with many of his works depicting his fascination with concentric circles representing spheres, similar in effect and purpose to the almond-shaped mandorlas from which they evolved, such as those found in icons of The Transfiguration, where the viewer’s gaze is drawn further and further into the image.
Michael’s current journey began with ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’, a title which both referenced the 1997 film and was inspired by a small segment, often barely noticed, of ‘Madonna della Vittoria’, painted in tempera in 1496 by Andrea Mantegna to commemorate the purported Gonzaga ‘victory’ over the French in the Battle of Fornovo. He has taken up this small image of Adam and Eve, depicting the moment at which Adam is about to bite the apple, which forms part of the dais on which the Madonna is seated, and has paid homage to the sculptural quality of Mantegna’s work by creating the scene in bas-relief, embellishing the Tree of Knowledge with delicate gilding. This image has then been placed against a predominantly dark field, evoking the night sky, that extends around and far above the figures, highlighting the momentousness of the act about to be taken. Mantegna’s work, as a whole, places the fall in relation to redemption, expressed in the standing figure of Christ on the Madonna’s knee.
A vivid visual contrast is provided by the second work in this series – ‘Before Night Falls’ (the title being another filmic reference!) – based on the Romanesque ‘Fall of Mankind’, a section of the wooden Hildesheim painted ceiling, created c. 1230. As in Mantegna’s depiction, the figures of Adam and Eve are captured at the moment of decision, backgrounded by a rain of golden apples and enclosed in a vivid red circle, highly evocative of the icon images of Elijah’s ascent in a chariot encapsulated in a fiery circle. In both instances, the circle symbolises the ‘otherness’ of the protagonists – in Elijah’s case, a positive movement beyond the earthly plain and, in the Hildesheim ceiling, the imminent loss of paradise. There also seems to be an interplay between the falling apples in the Hildesheim image and the Greek and Norse legends of the golden apples which conferred immortality. However, the Hildesheim image gives a clear message of the potential for redemption, highlighted in Christ’s gesture of blessing.
To the original image, Michael has added a dais made of strongly geometric images. These are an homage to the vivid and startlingly modern geometric nature of the usually overlooked painted divisions and ‘rounding-off’ of frescoes in Romanesque art. Again, the image of the circle as a representation of a sphere or other realm is highlighted and provides a strong visual link between the two parts of the image.
The third work, ‘The only Paradise is Paradise Lost: To Gauguin’, is Michael’s exploration of Gauguin’s perception of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands in relation to the idea of Paradise and Paradise Lost, by someone who is arguably one of his greatest admirers! In the image, Michael references aspects of five of Gauguin’s works – ‘Tahitian man, woman and cat’, ‘Parua na te varua ino (Words of the Devil)’, ‘Nevermore’, ‘The Meal’, and ‘Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?’, as the basis for creating an enormously vibrant and dynamic image. The devil’s masked and humanoid presence in the background has been transformed into a serpent that flows to the foreground of the image, confronting the viewer, while the figures representing Adam and Eve are highlighted against an ovoid shape in tones of vermilion and orange, echoing the red disc encapsulating Adam and Eve in the Hildesheim ceiling. Other fascinating elements are the transformation of the man’s cigarette (in itself a signifier of the often-negative impact of French colonialism on the islands) in ‘Tahitian man, woman and cat’, to an apple and that of the hermaphroditic figure reaching for a fruit in ‘Where do we come from’, into Eve reaching for an apple. Her nakedness is covered by a softer version of the raven of Gauguin’s ‘Nevermore’, while Adam’s is placed behind a hand of bananas from ‘The Meal’.
Through the use of these images, Michael has evoked a deep sense of the highly ambivalent nature of Gauguin’s experience, while also creating a new work in which these elements coalesce with an acknowledgement of indigenous Australian dot work techniques to form an intensely vital exploration of The Fall, which complements the ‘frozen in time’ moment of decision captured in the first two works.
The final piece in the series, a replication of Giovanni de Paolo’s ‘The Creation of the World and Expulsion from Paradise’, brings alive a wonderful work of 1445, discovered while researching the different forms of covering used in portrayals of Adam and Eve. In his religious paintings, Giovanni resisted the trend towards more strongly naturalistic and scientific representation. His depiction of the creation is tremendously dynamic in its portrayal of God, accompanied by seraphim, creating the earth at the centre of vivid concentric circles, representing a medieval cosmography including the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The image with the radiance emanating from God brings to mind Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘God’s Grandeur’:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
Counterpointing this is the Expulsion from Paradise, with is verdant and stylistically portrayed flora backgrounding Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise by a fiery-winged angel. Both Adam and Eve look backwards towards what they are losing, and it has been suggested that the unusual depiction of the angel naked suggests his empathy and compassion for their fall from grace.
Giovanni has drawn upon a rich heritage of symbolism in his depiction, as is shown throughout the visual references in his work both through his cosmography and his referencing in such touches as the four rivers flowing out from paradise. This backgrounding creates a sense of mystical ‘otherness’ which could not be achieved in a more naturalistic work. Sadly, the original is not in a great state of preservation, with its overall craquelure and discolouring, so it is especially wonderful to have this replication that brings to life the great beauty and intensity of the original.
Michael’s ability to create this is a great tribute to his outstanding work ethic. I have been repeatedly amazed by how he finds the most difficult tasks and complex works energising, rather than exhausting, but delighted that that is the case.
In conclusion, these works give a wonderful sense of God’s immanence in creation. They highlight that inherent in the Fall is the prospect of redemption, whether this is shown in Christ’s blessing or in the empathy of the angel. Even though this is understandably less explicit in ‘The Only Paradise is Paradise Lost: To Gauguin’, there is a sense of the strength and vibrancy of creation. They help to revitalise our sense of wonder and to give us a renewed appreciation of the art that has contributed to it.
I can find no better ending than these lines from T. S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’:
We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started … and know the place for the first time.
Kerrie Magee has had a deep interest in icons and medieval religious art for around 50 years, and has been painting under Michael Galovic’s tuition for over 20 years. Her academic background includes an MA in Medieval Studies. She has worked in teaching and gifted education. She lives on Wallumettagal country.