Michael Galovic has created a rich and complex work in response to the bleak situation in Ukraine. The work incorporates three juxtaposed images whose origins reach back to the tenth century, which are backgrounded by Pablo Picasso’s profound depiction of the destruction of Guernica, bombed by Nazi planes in 1937. Guernica was a symbolic target, being the first place where democracy was established in Spain’s Basque region.
Each of the three superimposed images is particularly apposite to the situation in Ukraine. The top image is an ethereal rendering of the Archangel Michael’s defeat of Satan in the form of a dragon, both as imagined in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and as described in the Book of Revelation: ‘And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven’ (Rev. 12.7–8). St. Michael is the patron saint of Kyiv, possibly since its founding in c. 882, and certainly since the eleventh century.
The second image is an icon of the Theotokos and infant Jesus. In 1037, Yaroslav the Wise, the Grand Prince of Kyiv, dedicated Ukraine to Mary. She is revered and sometimes referred to as the ‘Queen of Ukraine’. In a similar vein, on the Feast of the Annunciation this year, Pope Francis pronounced an Act of Consecration: ‘Mother of God and our mother, to your Immaculate Heart we solemnly entrust and consecrate ourselves, the church and all humanity, especially Russia and Ukraine’.
The third image is that of a Hellmouth, an image envisaging hell as the gaping mouth of a huge monster. Galovic has used a particularly vivid image from the Winchester Psalter of the twelfth century, where an angel is portrayed locking the gate of hell on the damned, who are being devoured by demons. The completed work is phenomenal, in every sense of the word!
Picasso’s Guernica captured the first instance in history of the saturation bombing of a civilian target – an occurrence that has become all too common in Ukraine. The horror and destruction of Guernica unalloyed by any sense of hope or renewal. Galovic has overlaid this bleakness with three images that challenge that evocation of despair. At the centre is the Theotokos and infant Jesus. The tranquillity of this image contrasts with the dynamism of the other two images: the Archangel Michael is captured in the moment of victory, with the defeated dragon falling from the sky, and, in the Hellmouth, the damned are being devoured by demons as an angel locks the gates of Hell.
The balance of concepts and ideas is formidable – each element is a part of history, yet given new sense and relevance in this new context. The sheer amount of thought, care, and effort that has gone into this project is awe-inspiring.
Kerrie Magee has an MA in Medieval Studies and lives in the area of the Wallumedegal people. Michael Galovic is a renowned iconographer living in the area of the Darkinjung people.
The prophetic imagination invites us to lay aside old ways of being and sources of authority, and to imagine new futures.
Claire Beausein, who divides her time between Broome and regional Victoria, formed her work by stitching together over 600 wild silkworm chrysalises gathered from the wild in Indonesia. Chalice is a powerful work that draws you in close to experience the glorious sheen on the work and the lace effect of the shadow and to stand away from it and see the possible image of a face that some have described as the face of Christ. Claire began her exploration with thoughts of a shroud which symbolises the metamorphosis of the human person into eternal life. From there, her thoughts developed into a search for wild cocoons. The colour range is from gold to very pale yellow, and they are carefully patterned. Claire described the process of putting the artwork together as a meditative act. Some of the silk thread used to assemble this work is intentionally visible on the surface but much of it is hidden as is so much of our spiritual development. Our various spiritual metamorphoses in life are often hidden from sight but seen in effect and in our witness to what has occurred within. The work is suspended by museum pins, reminiscent of the moths and butterflies displayed as collections, standing away from the cotton rag paper background. The curved shape of the lower edge speaks of the shape of a chalice which holds the wine to be transformed and the gold colour also speaks of sacred vessels. Claire speaks of the ‘gravitas of profound change with the fragility of lace’. These opposites are in tension as in our spiritual lives.
Michael Iwanoff’s work, fromlittlethings, evokes the endless nature of change in all of creation, including within ourselves. He describes it as a ‘poetic meditation on the transformative seed each of us is able to sow into our awareness, experience and life’. The whole of creation is in the process of continual transformation, metamorphosis, as Paul says: ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now’ (Rom. 8.22). When the work of God is finished, when the whole of creation has been returned through the glory of Christ, we shall all be one in God. What is required is to wait in hope. In fromlittlethings the hope is symbolised by the seeds held in a small bag at the base of the painting, hanging from a mantle on which there is a small copper bowl from which water evaporates. There is so much in the work that is symbolic of all manner of change, some of which we are subjected to and some that naturally flows from our very nature. In the judges’ description, they spoke of the painting holding themes of ‘homecoming, journey, and acceptance’. There is a cosmological level too in the semblance of stars, and at different angles one catches a small glittery flash of light. In Michael’s description, he speaks of ‘this metamorphosis that is honoured and that so exquisitely grows the joy of being’.
Terre Verte, a particular green pigment, is revealed in the central section of Susan Roux’s free-hanging work. She begins her description with: ‘Adrift in rivers that divide and bind lands, I chart a home anew’. Susan’s original material for this work was a series of maps which symbolise the journey upon which she has personally embarked, and the journey of life that we all travel. The maps were washed and dried and stitched on a sewing machine using a completely free form of working the material. It is an extremely laborious way of building a fabric but the effect is rich and unpredictable. For Susan, it is also a deeply meditative way of working. There are structural wires inside that speaks of our own physical structure, our skeletal strength that is unseen but completely necessary for our embodied life. As the judges said:
Viewed from a distance the piece is reminiscent of a rock, geode, or even a distant universe, evoking an almost geological sense of time-scale and transformation.
Inside, however, the terre verte, the green thread used in free stitching on a material that is then washed off the stitching leaving a lace effect, is burgeoning forth. Life and creation continue in the green, growing heart of her work. This is the sense of Spirit, of re-creation, that Susan seeks. The metamorphosis marks many places in our journey. The great metamorphic actions in scripture include Abram’s journey west, the exodus from Egypt, the exile in Babylon and the return, and, of course, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. For Christians, there are many changes along the way, but the greatest is our baptism where we are changed into a new creation in Christ.
Angela Stewart’s artwork confronts you from the full distance across the gallery in the opening exhibition. There is a sense of compulsion and a desire to know the story. Her artist’s statement centres around grief, death, silence, love, loss, helplessness. Two years ago Angela’s son, a horseman, died. This artwork depicts the growth from out of the loss, the metamorphosis that grief insists upon. She will never be the same, but the horse is the symbol of the strength needed to get out of the depths of loss. It is a powerful work. In the Hebrew scriptures, the images of horses are important. If you had a horse, you went into battle with a better chance of survival than if you were on foot. In Psalm 33.17, however, we hear that the ‘war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save’. If we rely only on the things around us, the things we wrap our humanity and strength in, then we will not be rescued from our distress. It is these times that trust in the Lord is required and a time for us to move through the grief, as Angela says, to ‘recalibrate, begin, breathe, the horse, the rider, my son’. The judges’ comments say this succinctly:
The insistence of the image to be expressed captures the unstoppability of the prophetic voice – of the Divine voice – arising in unexpected places, disturbing and comforting, undeniable. This technically accomplished work plays with the inversion of light and dark, and evokes movement and disquiet with multiple images, ragged edges, and lines pulsing with energy.
The array of artworks for the 2022 Mandorla Art Award each offer us a way in which to view the theme of Metamorphosis – a profound or radical change. ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ (Isaiah 43.19). In times of discontinuity, faith becomes an important ingredient, and this has been evident in times of radical change. With the pandemic, we have all experienced the need for change, and war and climate change continue to impact us all. Yes, we need to change and the challenge is to make it positive on the large scale as well as the small. The artists chosen as finalists gave expressions of metamorphosis that are both challenging and beautiful.
Dr Angela McCarthy is Chairperson of the Mandorla Art Award. She lives and works on Whadjuk country.
their smells are distinctive on this zoom conference one Catholic, advocating the Pope’s universal love for the creation one Protestant, speaking of the gospel’s power for all people their eloquence and passion point to unity and faith
still they smell different
their voices, tones, looks, manners postures and positions give unique smells as herbs display themselves in a tea house for visitors of the Zoom
after steeping them in water – reflections, Q&A, more reflections aroma rising from their words
after tasting which tea are you going to buy or simply walk out?
XIAOLI YANG IS A THEOLOGIAN, POET, AND SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR. SHE LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND AND IN THE MIDDLE KINGDOM.
Mary spent about three months with Elizabeth. – Luke 1.56
If you have ever had visitors stay with you, you know that a three-week visit is huge. A lot can happen in three weeks. For Mary to stay with Elizabeth for three months, while both were pregnant (by the grace of God), has to be very significant for both. Just as the movements of particles and planets cause resonances that last billions of years, so the long stay of Mary with Elizabeth, traditionally named ‘The Visitation’, has had a ripple effect that can be detected in the Gospels, and beyond.
For four years, I pondered how I might fulfil a commission by a family at Christ Church, Anglican Church, Bundaberg to do a painting about ‘The Visitation’. In my searches, most artworks I could find on the theme were figurative – of Elizabeth’s greeting or of Mary’s Magnificat. I wanted to find a connection with the theme and express it in a contemporary manner.
I can’t remember when my focus became the many weeks Mary spent with Elizabeth, and their ordinary activities together while their pregnancies progressed. What was the detail of this prolonged experience only touched on in one sentence? Mary might have talked about it later in life.
Conversation was always going to be my starting point with the work. A red and white check, well-used tablecloth, inherited from my mother, lent me the structure for the painting. Many pivotal conversations are experienced over coffee or lunch. Mary and Elizabeth would have sat and eaten together daily and talked. They would have shared much, and deeply, making sense of their experiences, of their pregnancies, and of their encounters with God. As I considered this, I painted every inch of the painting with as much variation and nuance as I could manage, hoping that the parish might accept such a simply-structured work. I loved painting it, right down to the brushing on of the rickrack edging. This work is now happily installed in the church in Bundaberg.
The ideas kept flowing and with it has evolved a series, ideas sifting through multiple drafts as the paintings take shape.
As I thought about what they might eat, I drew on a memory of my grandmother coming from wheatbelt country, Western Australia, to stay with us at Christmas time. She would seat herself at the bench in the kitchen saying, ‘Give me the beans’. Then while slicing them finely for the pot, she and my mother would be catching up on all their stories, and sometimes there would be tears. Three paintings in The Visitation series are called Tears on the Beans, as I imagined Mary and Elizabeth with pots of beans and the tears flowing as they talked. By this time, I was layering with spray can and oil paints.
Some years ago, the Art Gallery in Western Australia acquired the Stanley Spencer Christ in the Wilderness paintings. I have always been intrigued by the way Spencer referenced scripture that is not directly related to the wilderness passages. He makes it work. Recalling this, opened possibilities for me. I could draw on other passages of scripture.
I considered how Mary and Elizabeth probably walked through the fields and talked, their hearts burning and bellies expanding as they considered God’s action in their lives. I saw a connection with the road to Emmaus passages and my own experience of heart burning in conversations. A painting of Juan Miro entitled The Lark’s Wing, Encircled with Golden Blue, Rejoins the Heart of the Poppy Sleeping on a Diamond-Studded Meadow (1967) came to mind. A long title for a minimal painting that moves me deeply. I noticed a diamond-patterned tea towel over the oven door. All these things, and more, fed into the ideas for my painting Hearts Burning in a Field of Diamonds.
Everything is connected. A dear friend lent me her mother’s tablecloth with poppies on it. My own mother had shared with me her love of wildflowers. I am convinced that Jesus was aware of the lilies of the field because of his mother. Perhaps Mary and Elizabeth picnicked among the brightly-coloured wildflowers as they contemplated the future for themselves and their babies. A time of peaceful, abundant hospitality spread in the face of potential trouble.
There are nine paintings in the series, and more to come. I intend to also include ceramics.
The Visitation exhibition is currently showing at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, St Francis College, Queensland, where it will stay throughout December. It is a part of the Art and Justice project for Milton Anglican Parish.
Kerry Holland lives on Meanjin country and is a Brisbane-based artist working with paint and ceramics exploring narrative, imperfection, and tenderness. She coordinates the Art and Justice Project for Milton Anglican in Brisbane, and gives Ignatian Spiritual Exercises with the Faber JISA Centre.
After W. H. Auden had visited the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, and seen Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, he went away and penned the following words:
About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters; how well, they understood Its human position; how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The American theologian William Willimon recalls Brueghel’s painting, and Auden’s poem, in his book On a Wild and Windy Mountain (Abingdon Press, 1984), wherein he observes that we trudge past bleeding crosses with a shrug of the shoulders, that Good Fridays are so commonplace among us as to be unnoteworthy, and that tragedy achieves nobility only in the theater. ‘Everydayness and ordinariness’, he writes, ‘become our best defenses, the most effective relativizers of the tragic in our midst. Some young Icarus falls from the sky every day, so one had best get on with the business at hand until the extraordinary comes. For now, go to work, eat, make friends, make money, make love, mind your business – that’s the best way to cope, for the time being, with the expectedness of the tragic. The old masters knew best’ (p. 15).
Willimon proceeds to compare Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with another of the Dutch masters’ works: Numbering at Bethlehem. He notes the ordinariness of the depiction, a day mundane and unpromising – in its highlights at least – and nothing beyond the expected.
But then … they appear.
They appear. ‘An inconspicuous, thoroughly ordinary young woman on a little donkey led by a stoop-shouldered, bearded peasant who carries a saw. Here is Mary, with Joseph the carpenter, come to town to be counted. They are so easily overlooked in the midst of ordinariness. Old masters like Brueghel’, Willimon suggests (and we might add Rembrandt, for example), ‘were never wrong’. Rather, they understood, and bore witness to in their work, the truth of Emmanuel, the scandal of the unostentatious God living – and dying – with us, of God stained with the sweat of human bondage and soaked – baptised – in the blood of human violence, of God incognito. ‘They understood our blindness not only to the tragic but also to the triumphant in our midst … In life, the Presence goes unnoted as we thumb through the evening paper. And so we wait, sitting in the darkness of the everyday until something extraordinary breaks in. Someday God may break into this world, we say. But for the time being, it is best to work, eat, make love, pay taxes, fill out government forms, and mind our business. The old masters knew it best’ (p. 16).
I have posted elsewhere on the pseudonymous activity of God, suggesting that ‘in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise’. It is precisely that we may see what Willimon so beautifully refers to as ‘the triumphant in our midst’ that we are graced, and that we might witness to the day when good will triumph over all, certain that the grace of holy love will win at last because it did not fail to win at its most decisive time. In the meantime, such seeing typically requires what is another great advent theme: waiting, or what R. S. Thomas, in his poem ‘Kneeling’, referred to as ‘moments of great calm’:
Moments of great calm, Kneeling before an altar Of wood in a stone church In summer, waiting for the God To speak; the air a staircase For silence; the sun’s light Ringing me, as though I acted A great role. And the audiences Still; all that close throng Of spirits waiting, as I, For the message. Prompt me, God; But not yet. When I speak, Though it be you who speak Through me, something is lost. The meaning is in the waiting.
– R. S. Thomas, ‘Kneeling’, in Not that He Brought Flowers (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968), 32.
JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS 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.
‘And so it is not the painting that ‘speaks.’ A painting does not mean (to say) anything. Were speaking in fact its aim, it would certainty be inferior to speech and would need to be ‘sublated’ by language to receive meaning, and a clearly communicable meaning at that. Between the figurative order of the painting and the discursive order of language there exists a gap that nothing can bridge’. – Sarah Kofman, ‘The Melancholy of Art’
‘What you’re looking at is a combination of my efforts to say something and what the painting is saying independent of me. It’s saying more than me now. So, I can just listen, you know?’ – Chris Ofili, ‘Interview’
‘What guides the graphic point, the quill, pencil, or scalpel, is the respectful observance of a commandment, the acknowledgement before knowledge, the gratitude of the receiving before seeing, the blessing before knowledge’. – Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind
Somewhere among the connections, disconnections, and resonances between these lines from Sarah Kofman, Chris Ofili, and Jacques Derrida is where I locate the connections, disconnections, and resonances between my ‘art’ and my ‘faith’. Somewhere among them is what could be called a mysticism of sight. Not a mysticism of the invisible but of the visible. Not a mysticism of incarnation but of carnation. A mysticism of the intensity and wonder of the world’s appearing that painting receives and blesses.
Kofman denies that a painting has anything to say, otherwise why not just speak instead of paint? There is a gap between painting and language that cannot be overcome, and it is within this gap that painting offers its ‘truth’. Ofili thinks painting does speak, but it speaks as the combination of an artist’s efforts to communicate and the ‘more’ that a painting communicates beyond the artist’s (and perhaps also the viewer’s) intention. Surely both are right, even if they cannot be neatly reconciled.
If Ofili’s ‘more’ overlaps with Kofman’s ‘gap’, perhaps what comes undone between them is any notion of a sovereign, all-seeing ‘I’, or ‘eye’. There is, for both Kofman and Ofili, something about painting that confronts us with the unsovereignty of sight, with the world’s excessive appearing that overflows our ability to translate seeing into saying, or seeing into knowing. If sight were sovereign, if it could fully comprehend the world’s appearing, painting would be redundant, a mere reproduction or representation of what is known and grasped ‘immediately’ by vision’s power to receive the world as intelligible, or within the bounds of ‘discursive order’.
But sight is not sovereign. The world’s coming to appearance is never fully comprehended. No one could ever say comprehensively what a sunset means, or what the face of a child means, or what the colour blue means. Each are events or bursts of sense that are never metabolized fully within language. Painting responds to and plays with this excess. It does not represent the world; it presents its excessive appearing, becomes its appearing, supplementing, and carrying it further. Painting stages, within unending difference and variation, the wonder of existing in a world where what is visible is not a closed set of known forms but an infinitely open passage and variation of sense, never reducible to our systems of knowledge. Which is why what is visible must be shown or presented rather than accounted for or explained – every art form does this in its own way. Painting invites us to ‘listen’ to the fact that we see a world that goes far beyond any ‘discursive order’. It lets us acknowledge, as Derrida puts it, a receiving and a blessing that come before knowledge, before seeing. It opens the unsovereignty of sight.
Painting, then, might itself be understood as an act of faith – if faith is understood as entrusting oneself to and engaging oneself with a world that goes beyond our ability to master it, a world that goes beyond itself. A world that did not go beyond itself toward what religions call ‘God’, or toward what might be called the sacred or the divine, a world that did not open beyond itself beneath a sky that illuminates it from beyond, a world collapsed on itself, perfectly at one with itself, given, completed, finalised, could not be painted – nor could it be sung or danced or filmed or narrated.
Painting, like faith, risks itself within a world that is there not as a given to be reproduced, but as a blessing to be offered, shared, and formed. Painting opens for sight the opening that the world is. It gathers and intensifies the world’s visuality, like making love gathers and intensifies the body’s touch, like singing gathers and intensifies breath and language. Sight becomes no longer functional or useful. It tips over into pleasure, into joy.
When I paint, I never think of it as representing the content of my faith, even when I’m painting something religious. Perhaps this is because faith, for me, is not synonymous with belief, with having something to say about God. But painting is for me an act of faith, a way of staying faithful, perhaps to God, or to the open wonder of existence. Faithful to the gift and joy of the world, its carnation. Painting passes on the blessing.
Peter Kline is the academic dean and lecturer in systematic theology at St Francis College, which is part of the Charles Sturt University School of Theology. He is the author of Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology. The land on which he lives and works is that of the Jagera and Turrbal peoples.
The image of victims whose individual lives have been crushed by political or social forces is a common part of our media consumption in this period of increased international conflict and tension. While local circumstances contribute to such deaths occurring, there are clearly larger social interests at play when one death becomes a cry that their death will result in change and justice may prevail. This is the anger and hope that is reflected around the name of an African American victim of police violence, George Floyd, that has resulted in a movement towards justice that has been echoed around the world. This is heard, most especially, where social inequality prefers certain people based on their colour, race, religion, or gender to enjoy the luxury of privilege and power.
Robert Besana is a skilled painter, musician, and educator working in the Philippines. In an important solo exhibition in 2018, he explored the subject of martyrdom and the lens that it provides in looking at the meaning of death at the hand of political and social forces. The title of the major work in this exhibition is a quote from a sermon by St Augustine about the meaning of the death of a martyr: ‘It is not the punishment but the cause that makes the martyr’. Besana uses this phrase as a means to advance concerns about the meaning of death in contemporary society, in particular of those who die violent deaths as a result of government or political intent. Since 2016, the Philippines has endured a government-led ‘war on drugs’ that has seen many unlawful killings, including a bounty on murdered criminals and drug addicts. The subject of martyrdom also reflects on the longer history of political repression, especially by the Marcos regime during the 1970s and early 1980s, that forms part of the public consciousness of Filipino identity.
Besana has taken a historical work, The Martyrdom of St Matthew by Caravaggio (1599–1600), as the basis for his own interpretation. The original work, which is part of the cultural-religious imagination, has been enlarged to panoramic scale and then divided by angular gold bands. In some ways, the viewer has to reassemble the work and its subject in their own imagination. These gold bands – or as he calls them, slashes – are stained with black liquid, reminiscent of dried blood. At several points, a large red rose intersects the composition. The act of visual repair required by the viewer becomes a metaphor for considering an unjust death and the pursuit of freedom in the face of oppression and corrupt structures. It offers a visual link between these historical markers of martyrdom and the meaning of contemporary deaths caused by unjust actions. The red roses reference the daily practice of the rosary so familiar to Filipinos, a prayer that focuses on the suffering and redemption of Christ.
Contemporary art in the Philippines is engaged with questions of representation and their social and political implications. Artists are alive to the power of images for uncovering the effects of colonisation in the past and the nature of freedom in the present. Filipino culture has undergone over four centuries of European colonisation. It has been formed within a vocabulary that reflects Spanish Catholicism and inherent hierarchies of power. Set within an Asian context, these unique cultural forms of visual awareness deserve wider international attention. These perceptions also resonate for those in first world situations who struggle to uncover the ingrained habits of visual ordering that are based on the apparent colour of skin. In this work, Robert Besana offers a meditation on violent death that affirms the meaning of life itself, reflected in the sacrifice and redemption found in the Christian story of faith. Death is not an end, for like a seed it holds the possibility that it may break open the future with hope.
Reposted (with some editorial changes) from Artway
Robert Besana (b. 1976) is an artist, musician, and educator working in the Philippines. He is presently the Executive Director of the Asia Pacific College in Makati, Manilla. He has served on the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Philippines as Technical Committee Member for Multimedia Arts since 2011. Since 2008, Robert Besana has held nine solo exhibitions and has joined various group exhibitions in art galleries in the Philippines including Galerie Anna, Blanc Compound, Blanc Peninsula, Nineveh Art Space. He has exhibited in the Art Fair Philippines and Manila Art Fair. He holds a Master of Arts in Fine Arts and Design from the Philippine Women’s University, Manila.
ROD PATTENDENIS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.
My world has contracted, the dining table replacing my studio, my watercolours small enough to occupy that limited space. It’s my habit to begin each day with a watercolour reflection on the state of things around me. I’ve been comforted by small pleasures; knitting, cooking and our sunny balcony but saddened to see empty shelves and abandoned playgrounds, birthdays celebrated alone and embraces from afar. The idea that this too will pass sustains us and the creative impulse never wanes. – Margaret Ackland
I have become so very conscious of the empty spaces, and all the in-between manoeuvres that I have had to negotiate to keep my distance from other bodies. This is especially focused when I take an afternoon walk in my local park. It is filled with other bodies longing to break out of confinement. Bikes, wheelchairs, dogs, and runners are all vying for space on the footpath. At every potential meeting, there is an awkward hesitation of give and take as we work out who goes where. My eye is on the space to make it through, no time to recognise faces. I imagine this is what footballers do – looking for the opening space, with their eye on the prize. Freedom at last!
In the last nine to ten weeks there has been an abundance of space. My diary was the first thing to empty out; first in days, then weeks, and then for the ‘foreseeable future’, a phrase now in constant use. Space appeared as the garden called for nurture, half-finished projects reached their completion, my floors appeared from under piles of paper, and small things found an unexpected level of importance. Space appeared for cakes, slow cooking, vegetables, art-making, sunshine, and that elusive sensation of actually feeling time pass. I loosened demands that I had on myself. I got bored. I watched re-runs of old comedies. I felt nostalgia. I made no plans. I wasted time and did not feel guilty. I slowed down and actually felt life, like a pulse under my skin.
I could sense the expectations peeling off – of getting things done, of tidying up, of always being cheerful, on time, efficient, careful, spontaneous, and always great company! I lessened the strangle-hold that the consumption of products has had over me. I purchased nothing for weeks and found I was not in the need for anything. I discovered online shopping, and I thoroughly enjoyed the arrival of luxury in the post! I was inconsistent and enjoyed it. I have enjoyed this isolation. I have been an indulged introvert! As things begin to open up, I want to treasure this sense of finding the space in between. This might prove useful in negotiating the bigger spaces of my life and work, and especially how I judge my life to be productive, useful or full!
Artist Margaret Ackland has pictured it well. In a series of small watercolours, she presents moments of intense stillness and empty space that become the centre of her interest and awareness. This intensity of looking indicates a refined observation of things usually overlooked and pushed the edge of vision. Palm Sunday, the fifth of April, now so many weeks ago, Margaret Ackland captures the profile of a priest leading a televised service in a church empty of a congregation. The placement of this robed figure to the left of the page, leaves an accentuated empty space held in place by a shadow and a curled palm frond. It is as if there is a tug of war going on for our attention between the figure intent on religious ceremony moving to the left and the space that opens up to the right. There is an interplay between activity and rest, movement and stillness, presence and absence, that leaves this otherwise empty space alive with possibilities. I remember how busy I was, that time now so long ago, when this emptiness arrived and piqued my interest.
In another work, we see people busily going about their activities, jogging, shopping, or incessantly checking their mobile phones. This evidences a search for the new choreography that we have been told will express our consideration for others. Suddenly our personal boundaries are being pushed out and our physical edges take on new meaning. We need to find a distance that is clearly more than one breath away. Alert for coughing, and the slipstream of joggers and getting our tongue around that new phrase ‘respiratory aerosols’. The bright pink lines of geometry represent that process of retraining needed to find the correct level of distance between us and the other. Such is the evidence of this discipline that even the pigeons seem to be following the lead. We are all re-crafting our world with our eye not on things, or even people, but the illusive and moving spaces of the in-between.
Presumably on the kitchen bench, two cans of imported Italian tomatoes have sorted out their positioning. A larger-than-would-be expected distance between them accentuates this awareness of space. How did we not see this before, this negative space, this void, this shadow, that allows what is present to pop out into our visual awareness? In taking the time to look at these two objects in space, we become acutely aware of the space that is enveloping and giving frame to what has firm edges and solid shape. After a while, the two elements of what is and what is not play a game of grabbing our attention, taking it in turns to hold our awareness. Our eyes remind us that we live in this space, and that we are not the can of tomatoes! Life does not consist of firm edges, but also welcomes the shadows and empty spaces that are full of lively potential, or of nothing at all. How restful and yet also how exhilarating are these possibilities.
A space of potential is explored in a final watercolour, as two skeins of wool lie next to each other, with one strand rather seductively unravelling into the void between. Is this accident, or comedy, or fate, or chance, that a thread relaxes so easily into such a place. In the emptiness of this space, I begin to see my mind at work looking for meaning, connecting threads, cause and effect, patterns, portents, powers. I fill such empty spaces with signs that confirm my own anxieties, wants, desires, and hungers. In my mind, I can see this tendency to draw endless lines over the surface of existence. I am looking for meaning on every surface to reflect back to me my freedom or my struggle. And then I become amused by the meanings that a single twine of thread keeps generating in my mind; it shows me how furiously the wheels are turning to keep the world from dissolving into nothing. And yet there is nothing to be anxious about. In the end, there is nothing, and there is nothing I can do about it.
Living with space. Living in space. Who knew there was so much space! What I find in these humble and small works are scenes of the ordinary that have taken on the gravity of something keenly observed and considered. They carry the weight of significance and the attention to detail that is found in acts of contemplation. They carry an aura of devotion. This is the stance we would adopt in front of a religious icon, or a work of great spiritual significance. These works carry a sense of gravitas usually reserved for images inviting a form of devotion, where looking is rewarded by an experience of grace. This is a form of looking that leads to life, where my own insignificance is held in the gaze of another where I sense my own existence as a gift. These fine moments of looking become the empty spaces where we experience what we might term at this time ‘a choreography of grace’.
Margaret Ackland is a Sydney-based artist. The works referred to in this article are currently being exhibited online through Flinders Lane Gallery, in Melbourne.
ROD PATTENDENIS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.