When: 28 January – 1 April, 2021. M–F, 0900–1700.
A window. A garden. A bench. An Artist. A Poet. A passion … to hold this community in Scripture.
In the quaint suburb of Fairfield, stands a small church. With a large glass window.
Replacing the stained glass window with transparent glass was a conscious choice – to let the community see what happens inside.
An invitation. But what happens when nothing is happening inside?
During Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown, this thin sheet of glass became a liminal space for connection with the community.
In March 2020, a collaboration between lay preacher Nickie Williams, poet Kirsty Sangster, and artist Pearl Taylor formed, guided by the liturgical calendar and inspired by poetry. The words simmered for Pearl, resulting in a response artwork in the window. Helping people engage, feel connected, ponder, laugh, stay curious, and contemplate.
The Speaking through Glass exhibition captures this collaboration of community installations – from Lent to Advent. As we step back towards each other, the gallery experience walks you through a taste of how creativity can connect with a community to speak the values, wisdom, joy, and lamentation when the church doors were shut. Centered around artworks by Pearl Taylor, the body of work comprises of drawings, etchings, lino prints, paper cuttings, and paintings. Alongside this walkthrough is a display of Pearl’s pigeons, a growing body of work that discusses the hierarchy of purity and the relationship our culture has to the pigeon/dove dichotomy. Pearl asks us to see these humble creatures as the daily expression of the sacred and to reassess the essence of the divine. Juxtaposing the lofty white spiritual connotations with the lowly domestic everyday dweller, Pearl’s passion is in reclaiming the Paloma, the Columbidae, the pigeon, the dove.
Fairfield Uniting Church and all exhibition artists recognise the Wurundjeri people as the traditional owners of the land upon which this collaboration is taking place.
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.
[A version of this piece appeared in The Cooperative]
ALEXANDRA BANKS IS A PHD CANDIDATE IN THE FACULTY OF THEOLOGY AT ST FRANCIS’ THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE, CHARLES STURT UNIVERSITY.
UPDATE: This exhibit has been postponed until next year.
For more on this exhibition, see George Gittoes: Prophet or Provocateur?
For the last two years I have been working on the exhibition ‘George Gittoes: On Being There’ which opens at the Newcastle Art Gallery on 8 February 2020. It has been a wonderful opportunity to work alongside a unique artist who is more at home in a war zone than the usual haunts of inner-city cafes favoured by creatives! This exhibition covers fifty years of Gittoes’ artistic production from the heady days of his involvement in the Yellow House artist community in Kings Cross, through his documentation of the working conditions of the steel mills of Newcastle, to his work in the field in war zones, the creation of another Yellow House in Jalalabad, Afghanistan and his most recent sojourn in South Side Chicago, a place which has the worst statistics for gun violence in the USA. In each situation, Gittoes has sketched, painted, photographed, and, more recently, produced feature-length documentaries about what it is like to be there, in a way that draws in viewers to consider the ethical and moral dilemmas of what it means to be human in these difficult and limiting environments.
Rather than the usual structure of an artist survey, this exhibition offers a unique opportunity to get under the skin of what motivates this artist. It seeks to address the questions about why he goes to such inhospitable places to make art and why he puts his life at risk. His answer is as simple as it is profound: ‘I feel privileged to have been able to spend much of my life creating beauty in the face of the destruction of war. I have been waging a personal war against war with art’. These works offer insights into the manner in which Gittoes works and how he sees, what catches his attention, and how this shapes his responses through his art-making. Against the backdrop of dangerous and emotionally charged contexts, Gittoes is drawn to empathise with the human person, as a site for bravery, resilience, hope, and despair, inviting our involvement as compassionate participators in a world that has moral and spiritual implications.
During 1969–1970, Gittoes was involved with the creation of the Yellow House artist community. Through his Puppet Theatre, Gittoes was able to play out the human dramas of heaven and hell, and life in between, using his skills in storytelling and the making of an extraordinary range of puppet creatures. His deeply imaginative work made a sharp response to the Vietnam War and contains some of the strongest responses to the war found in Australian art. Gittoes speculated at the time about how he could take the Yellow House experience, of incubating a creative artists community, to Vietnam, in the midst of this terrible war. In many ways, his life work has been to play out that possibility. Since 2011, Gittoes has worked regularly in the eastern part of Afghanistan, setting up the Yellow House Jalalabad. Here he linked with local filmmakers and actors renewing his earlier experiences of artistic collaboration. This process is documented in the award-winning film Love City, Jalalabad, which highlights the possibilities for hope in making art in such an unlikely context.
Through the Yellow House, Gittoes leaves aside the usual goals of western artists to highlight their own originality and prefers to embed himself in communities of creative people. Here, collaboration and the trust that is afforded to each person’s own gifts and creativity is highly valued. Gittoes’ work in Afghanistan has had a major impact on the film industry in that country incubating actors, directors, and technicians who are following through on their own projects in a country with a rich artistic heritage. Here we see culture as a form of renewal that provides stable images for a possible future. The results of this manner of working returns art-making to a community base that is concerned with the common good, the search for justice, and the creation of hope. It is a profoundly different model of valuing creativity that reaffirms the role of art to form the future as a social experience. One might say that the making of community might be the most profound art form practised by humans.
This film explores his encounters with the communities of Englewood in South Side Chicago, and uncovers the social impact of gun violence through the stories of both victims and perpetrators. It is a film filled with tragedy, pathos, and hope, developed while living and working together with the local residents. White Light is his most beautiful and evocative film, yet it is filled with the harsh social impact of gun violence. It is a moving and deeply empathetic narrative that uncovers the vitality of human beings looking for conditions that will allow them to reach their full potential. Gittoes focuses on the stories of young lives who through the means of their own creativity deeply yearn for a life that is better.
One of the paintings produced during this period is ‘The Scream’, which is his take on the anxieties of our current time. This work examples his capacity to provide a prophetic perspective on the history that is unfolding around us. The work was based on a street mural that depicts the yawning face of Donald Trump as it looms over the poverty and violence of the inner city. The scream is echoed as despair or protest by the lone African-American figure in a mask, which allows for the possibility that they see things differently, and look towards a different future. The prophetic imagination uncovers the structures that create injustice, it works to unsettle the status quo, and to question the myths we accept for what is considered normal. Prophecy works towards an alternative future based on justice where every creatures matters. This is deeply echoed in the Christian tradition and Gittoes takes us to the churches and activists who live this out on the streets of South Side Chicago. This frightening and disturbing image is linked to the emergence of hope in the darkest of situations.
The final work in the exhibition is a stunning 2.5-metre high ceramic form based on a traditional Afghani ewer. A collaboration with ceramicist Cameron Williams, Gittoes has decorated it with symbols from both Muslim and Christian traditions. Here both east and west come together in an act of potential hospitality. The work is entitled ‘To Cleanse the world of war’, it brings together into an imaginative conversation, cultures that are more often seen at enmity. The work evokes the ritual of welcome through the washing of hands and the serving of refreshments. it also offers a perspective that religion might contain resources for healing, understanding, and reconciliation. Religion is often considered in the popular imagination to be the problem, and yet religious faith from both Muslim and Christian traditions offer deep inspiration for mutual understanding and the solving of common problems that rob us of a peaceful future.
George Gittoes provides an extraordinary record of an artist willing to create in the face of chaos and potential destruction. While Gittoes might be a prophet, he is certainly a provocateur, alive to the ethical and spiritual dimensions of what it is to be human. Gittoes is also alive to the positive resources that religion and culture provide. This exhibition will give privileged access to his process through paintings, prints, visual diaries, field drawings, photography, and film. Through these works, we experience an amazing human journey that holds out the hopeful power of creativity in the face of prejudice and fear. This is a magnificent visual record of a creative imagination that provides a visual resource for the difficult times in which we live.
George Gittoes: On Being There is on exhibition at the Newcastle Art Gallery (8 February – 26 April 2020) and will travel later in the year to Casula Powerhouse Art Centre (opening 26 September) and Wollongong Art Gallery (opening 28 November).
ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.
It’s amazing what can happen when we get together! Better still if, when we get together, we come right out to our own edges to meet each other. Of course, this requires courage, boldness, and respect: all traits that we should not take for granted but that we can, of course, cultivate and practise together.
In my own exploration of the question – how can we be autonomous (or self-determining) and belong together? – the phrase ‘holy, honest confluences’ helps. A phrase of theologian Catherine Keller, it reminds us that recognition of our own limits is critical to our best being in the world and our being together. The world itself might even depend on it. Such a future will require (at least) more complex practices of relation in which bodies are understood in their ‘holy, honest confluences with the self, the neighbor, the stranger, the other: with these beings who matter, in relation to whose infinite need and newness my finitude is called to its capacity’.[i]
Who better to reflect with on matters of matter than artists? The eighteen artists in the exhibition Holy, Honest Confluences, currently on show at ACU Melbourne Gallery, respond to this question of autonomy and belonging in various ways.
Some works contemplate embodied, relational, and spiritual experiences (and their related specificities) of autonomy and belonging. Other artworks constitute actual and ritual remembrances of life and death, of other beings with whom we are or have been in relation. Some artists materially and conceptually focus on relationships with and between non-human others. Other artists examine singular human bodies in their consideration of the self-determining subject. Some artworks speak directly to the systems, conventions, and histories that limit and oppress autonomy and belonging. Still others, in their own languages, return us to the creative possibilities of all material natures.
Importantly, from the beginning, there was no mandate for artists to respond to the curatorial callout in any particular way or in accordance with any particular religious tradition. Artists (professional and established or emerging) working in any mode or medium, from any background, cultural, social or political context, and out of any religious tradition or none, were invited to draw from their own creative practice and experiences of autonomy and belonging, to reflect on the key exhibition questions and themes. This seemed to me the only way, if I were to take Keller’s imperative of confluence seriously. (Besides, however, is art about spirituality, faith, and/or religion to imaginatively invigorate new cultural and social (let alone theological) possibilities if we consistently demand more of the same?)
As I emphasise in the catalogue essay, the value of multiplicity in Holy, Honest Confluences cannot be overstated. The many (sometimes congruent, at other times contradictory) perspectives gathered together in this exhibition sustain the creative collaboration as a confluence rather than an exercise in unity. And this is precisely the point. At a time when complex legal, ethical, and social questions concerning communities (for example, religious communities and their relations to power and ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ more broadly, culturally, and linguistically diverse communities and their multiple histories, and ecological communities diminished by present and imminent climate change impacts) challenge and implicate us all, Holy, Honest Confluences returns us to our own bodies and relations in search for answers.
The artworks exhibited here lead us to alternate, multiple and sometimes-ambiguous visions of matter and corporeality by which ‘space and the bodies that constitute space might better be thought of as liquid’, as Whitney A. Bauman states: unfixed and flowing with or alongside (but never as or instead of) each other.[ii] This is a necessary turn if, following the lead of Keller and others, we seek to honestly and reflexively cultivate more ethical and sustainable futures for our selves, each other, and all matter.
Holy, Honest Confluences is curated by Rebekah Pryor. The exhibition continues until 15 December at ACU Melbourne Gallery (26 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy). For more on the exhibition, including the full catalogue containing artist bios and statements, and essays by Rebekah Pryor and Mel Dixon, visit www.rebekahpryor.com/holyhonestconfluences.
Rebekah Pryor is a visual artist, curator, and academic living and working on Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri country. Her artistic and research practice is interdisciplinary and currently explores the spatial and iconic potential of the body via a range of media and disciplines, including philosophy of religion, feminist theory, feminist theology, and architecture. Rebekah was a finalist in the 65th Blake Prize in 2018 and currently works in research and teaching in the Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne.
[i] Catherine Keller. ‘The Lost Fragrance: Protestantism and the Nature of What Matters’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65, no. 2 (1997), 368.
[ii] Whitney A. Bauman, ‘Queer Values for a Queer Climate: Developing a Versatile Planetary Ethic’, in Meaningful Flesh: Reflections on Religion and Nature for a Queer Planet, ed. Whitney A. Bauman (Earth, Milky Way: Punctum Books, 2018), 115.