Awakenings

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Karen Sewell, Awakenings I, 2020. Installation, Helium balloon, organza mesh, mirror, soft resting elements, 2.5m x 2.5m x 3.5m. Photograph supplied by artist.

Just days before New Zealand went into full level 4 lockdown due to the COVID-19 virus, my husband Graham and I spent an evening in a warehouse in Central Auckland, shooting this work titled Awakenings I. What we experienced that evening was surprising, strange, and otherworldly. As we worked in the dark with a video light, the huge transparent rainbow PVC balloon and organza mesh transformed. It became a levitating partially-concealed object of uncertain substance radiating dancing, shifting fields of colour and light that changed as we moved around and under it. The immediate encounter evoked a sense of wonder, acting for us as a threshold into an experience of the numinous.

Since that evening, I’ve wondered at the timing of this work; of how God might want to be at work in me, and in others during lockdown; of the possibilities waiting for us to be awakened to in these unusual circumstances.

‘Numinous’ means something mysterious, awe-inspiring, or supernatural; unknown or unknowable. It speaks to everything within the realm of our experience which cannot be quantified, explained, or contained. Our intuition, and our sweeping feeling-states. Our connection to the cosmos, and sense of the divine. The German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy (1923), explains it as a ‘non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self’. 

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Karen Sewell, Awakenings I, 2020. Installation, Helium balloon, organza mesh, mirror, soft resting elements, 2.5m x 2.5m x 3.5m. Photograph supplied by artist.

Artistically, my interest is in the intersection of art and spirituality. This interest has led me to seek and receive inspiration (often through prayer and contemplation) and then to mediate the creation of spaces for audience/participants to engage with and within. The spaces are an effort to open up the potential for a viewer/participant to explore and experience the terrain of the numinous, including an awakening to a sense of wonder, and liminal moments of encounter with the divine. 

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Karen Sewell, Detail of Awakenings I, 2020. Installation, Helium balloon, organza mesh, mirror, soft resting elements, 2.5m x 2.5m x 3.5m. Photograph supplied by artist.

A sense of awe and wonder is closely linked to our deep feelings and emotions, and is excited by something strange and surprising. With my work, I aim to provide a sense of awe and at the same time create a calm atmosphere, a sense of a place to just ‘be’; to observe, to explore, to create, to be present in the moment, to just breathe. It can be about connecting us with nature, with others, with our feelings, and developing a sense of things unknown outside of ourselves. 

As Albert Einstein once put it:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. S/He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead – his/her eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true spirituality.

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Karen Sewell, Detail of Awakenings I, 2020. Installation, Helium balloon, organza mesh, mirror, soft resting elements, 2.5m x 2.5m x 3.5m. Photograph supplied by artist.

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Karen Sewell is a visual artist who lives and works in Auckland, New Zealand. She is interested in the intersection of art and spiritual experience. She works across multiple media including sculpture, installation, painting, drawing, and photography, specialising in installation practice. She was the recipient of the Premier Award in the Waitakere Trust Art Award in 2011, and has exhibited work across New Zealand, with a highlight being Wonder Tree, 2019 at Splore Festival in February 2019. 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.

Is now the time to make art?

What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?

Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?

Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.

In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.

Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.

In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:

Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,

My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.

That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –

Why is this the time to get creative?

Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.

As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.

Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.

Love, Nick x

Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.

But is this the only or final word on the matter? Returning to Adorno and his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he suggests that:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects ­– this alone is the task of thought.

Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.

That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.

Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Safe in my Pocket

Paul Roorda, Pocket Bible, 2008. Leather from discarded bible, personal identification cards, credit cards, and cash, 8.9 x 11.4 x 11.4 cm.

The very material of this ‘Pocket Bible’ serves to provide an initial punchline for this work. It makes a direct connection between the felt texture of the sacred book in our hands and the polished familiarity of a wallet. It provides an unexpected and visceral connection between what we hold to be sacred and secular, and in a direct manner the kind of power we might hold in our hands. It’s also a male thing. It exposes the fetishlike manner in which men hold their wealth and social power through this often-beaten, sweat-ridden carrier accessing wealth, identity, membership, community, affections, and allegiances. I have to confess it makes me aware of the nervous fondling that goes on each day as I check for its place in my pocket. It is a constant devotion to this container of my social power. Lose your wallet you lose your life!

While this work has clear and initial visual impact, it also burrows down into essential questions about allegiances and affections that tell us who we are, and who we are becoming. These are the indications about what drives us, particularly for men, driven in some cultures to focus on success and social status. In contrast to the slim wallet containing the essential operational tools of identity for men, the seemingly bottomless mystery of handbags offers far more resourcefulness, providing anything from a first aid kit to a handy tool for fixing any household problem. In some cultures male power is found through individuality, while female identity is often expressed through collaboration, finding friends. Such generalizations based on gender roles are under rapid change as individuals attach themselves to smartphones with the promise of far greater control over their sense of self. History now becomes personal as individuals mark their progress through photographs documenting every fashion ensemble, every meal, and every cute dog they encounter on this journey towards an always beautiful future.

The artist, Paul Roorda, expresses well the multiple implications of this work. He comments:

How do we identify ourselves? By our religion, our citizenship, gender, etc., or by our financial status and power in the marketplace? At what point does the church become over-involved in financial matters? Do the tables need to be turned over once again? Or can sacred and profane identities, powers, and institutions live happily bound together?’

Money, power, and devotion have long been a challenge for religious institutions who seek to provide the tools to find freedom and yet require allegiance and financial support. The visual questions posed by this tender wallet of devotion leaves the viewer with the questions that need to be held without easy resolution, so that freedom might be maintained and that humans do not become slaves to their deeply loved idols. An understanding of money is found most clearly when in the company of a sense of gratefulness, rather than through any consideration of power or control.

The binding together of the operational means of identity, such as credit cards, memberships, and driver’s license, with the holy pages of Scripture, provides an object that exposes the anxious questions that arise in trying to straddle the realities of these two very different worlds. What belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar, is an age-old question that is never finally resolved. This work serves to hold open such anxiety as an ongoing question about where our affections really lie. It invites us to acknowledge the tension between living in the world and living by the words of Jesus. It invites us to lay open an awareness of the seductions that are present through living in a consumer society, and the manner in which our affections and allegiances are always being shaped towards products that need to be purchased. In an age where freedom is heavily marketed, where uniqueness has a cult following, we find ourselves somewhat all alike in our dependence on things sold to us as agents of life. Consumption is not the same thing as living a full life. This work provides a space for potential wisdom in making the better choice.

Reposted from Artway.

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ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.
Paul Roorda is a Canadian artist who transforms found materials to create two-dimensional art, sculptures, and outdoor site-specific installations that examine the relationship between religion, medicine, science, and environmentalism. He has exhibited extensively with solo exhibitions in Canada, the United States, and Germany and has been awarded grants from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts. Paul Roorda was a finalist for the 2016 K.M. Hunter Artist Award in Ontario. He was Artist in Residence for the City of Kitchener, Ontario, in 2007 and at GlogauAIR in Berlin in 2012 and 2015.

George Gittoes: Prophet or Provocateur?

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George Gittoes, Soljah, Love and Pain,  2019. Stencils, oil on canvas. 152.5 x 122.5cm. Artist collection.

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.

 

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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.

Gittoes most recent collaboration has been with the Yellow House South Side Chicago, an experience that is presented in his latest documentary White Light released in 2019:

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.

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George Gittoes, The Scream. 152.5 x 121.9 cm.

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.

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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).

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

Tears of the Mother

Rebekah Pryor, Saltcellars, 2017. Table salt, dimensions variable.

It was the flickering sparkle, like diamonds, that caught my eye. An ensemble of delicate jewel-like containers laid out on a small table. Not crystal but salt, and miraculously held together in fragile delicate forms like containers. They held no other function than to set out a table for beauty and light. The light flickered like fire in my eye as I moved around this display and as I drew in close, I held my breath, fearing its moisture laden content would shatter the magic of this fragile salt ensemble. I had been invited to be on the judging panel for Australia’s Blake Prize for Religious Art and this work had caught my full attention. Salt containers, a collection of tears, the spilling over of grief that marks the human journey. Here was an expression of the lament that is so much a part of the human experience and the global world in which we live. So much sadness, violence, and reconciliation, a never-ending cycle. How do we contain and understand such suffering?

Carl Jung has said, ‘The most outstanding properties of salt are bitterness and wisdom … Tears, sorrow, and disappointment are bitter, but wisdom is the comforter in all psychic suffering.’ This delicate ensemble of salt forms invites the viewer to value and make sacred the experience of tears in grief, as an accepted part of the human journey and therefore a place where God is. Rather than seeking an escape from our suffering and the pain we feel for others who also suffer, here is an honouring of the place of compassion. There is bitterness and also wisdom, and a spirituality that is embodied, earthed and compassionate that does not make us insular but interconnected. Far from being a sign of weakness, tears remind us that the journey of life is undertaken in a leaky boat. We cannot isolate ourselves from the complex and fluid dimensions of life, we float upon such a sea.

Rebekah Pryor, Saltcellars, 2017. Table salt, dimensions variable.

Rebekah Pryor is an artist wise to the learning found through ritual and sacred space. This work echoes the complex human experience of grief and wise containment. It is part of a larger project where she is seeking to visualise in particular the experience of the mother. In Christian imagery this is often limited to images of women who are models of obedience and passivity, well robed in blue and silent in their transcendent beauty. This work activates the role of mother to contain not only her own grief but the grief that results from being a nurturer and holding the pain of others. She writes, ‘Saltcellars is a motif of maternal lament. It is part of a larger body of work that seeks to critique traditional images of the mother in Christian religious art and generate new icons that might more fully, ethically represent real maternal experience’. She adds, ‘Saltcellars suggests that bitterness and wisdom exist at once in a womans maternal experience. Her body feels both’.

In seeing this work we also feel it in our own body. On the edges of our seeing there are always tears, washing clean our capacity to see what is going on around us. While God might ‘wipe the tears from our eyes’ (Revelation 21.4), I think tears also enable us to see ethically and morally in a world awash with spin, illusion and the seduction of images which try to tell us that we are living in a culture where heaven is now on earth. Instead of this portrayal of a perfect world, tears remind us that the world is a sorry place. It is grief that dissolves the false promises of such cultural tropes. We have not arrived and lament is the prophetic response. This work invites us into a space that looks to me like a sacred space. God the mother sheds tears for this creation and for humans in their habitation of this planet. There is wisdom here that invites a re-orientation to nurture this vulnerable world and to see a God exercising the power of compassion. Life, after all, is worth crying for.

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

Sixteen Earth Bowls

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Penny Dunstan, Dirt/Soil/Earth installation, 2018. Altar/d at Adamstown Uniting Church. Photograph by John Cliff.

I am standing on the river flats of the Hunter River at Warkworth (-32.490620,151.028671: paddock reference). It’s a narrow flat valley slashed through with a slow meandering river resting in a deep sinuous trench. The soil under the drought-browned pasture is black. It crumbles easily in my hand. In the distance, there’s a mob of kangaroos grazing on the remaining plant roots. Across the river, there’s an old farmhouse that in times past belonged to a breeder of stock horses. I stayed there once as a guest but the family has long since moved out. Now it belongs to a mine with an overburden wall that rises up like a frozen tidal wave, forever threatening the house and the surrounding river flats.

Here, soil is a commodity. Soil is not as valuable as the coal that lies underneath it if we think in short term economics. But thinking intergenerationally, these black-soiled river flats should be preserved. One day, once again, humans may need them to grow food.

How shall I talk about the absolute importance of soil to human civilisation? Soil, along with air and water, is one of our most fundamental natural resources. Soil grows food for us and earth-others. It grows trees and grasses and fungi and a host of micro-lifeforms that we never see but are dependent upon to survive. A teaspoon of a well-cared-for soil can contain up to one billion bacteria, several meters of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Soil contains vast quantities of carbon and is a holder of surface water.

In the transitional zone between open-cut mining and rehabilitated post-mining landscape, soils are a carpet of hope rolled out to pacify the requirements of legislation. Mines managers assume soils will be resilient and cover up the mountains of Permian stone piled high. The small lives contained in soil often don’t transition well from pasture to the manufactured lands via heavy machinery, trucks, piles, bulldozers, and ploughs. It is asking a lot of one of our most valuable resources to cover up the sins of avarice.

Michael Northcott (theologian and ethicist) puts the problem this way:

… the earth and we are in co-creaturely relationship and … when we neglect the beneficence of God’s good earth and the prudential use of what God has granted to us, and subject nature … to our devices and desires, we not only frustrate the capacity of our fellow creatures to give God praise; we also put at risk the very services that the earth renders us.

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Penny Dunstan, Merriwa soil bowl in Sixteen Earth Bowls 2018, installed at the Hyatt Canberra for the National Soils Conference. Photograph by the author.

Making earth bowls is a way of thinking about my ethical responses to soil use in a post-mining landscape. It is a way of thinking with my heart and not just my head. As I work with each Hunter Valley topsoil, I come to understand each as an individual, a special part of God’s creation. Each soil behaves according to its own chemical nature and historical past when I fashion it into a bowl shape. Some hold their shape, and some don’t; or perhaps, is it that some won’t? The agency (or will) of the soil is expressed by the way the bowl keeps form. Soils with good health often crack or crumble. Sad soils, those mistreated and overworked, stay where they are put.

Each bowl is made from a Hunter Valley topsoil, except for one. The grey bowl is mudstone doing its best to impersonate soil. It’s having trouble as it hasn’t been to the surface of the earth for 250 million years. Of all the soils, this one is the most sterile. This is the soil that will be found on the surface when we run out of topsoils rescued from mining. It is a legacy that our grandchildren will not thank us for.

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Penny Dunstan, Sixteen Earth Bowls, 2018. Installed at Holy Trinity Church, Merriwa for the Festival of the Fleeces. Photograph by the author.

So here is a question: What were those earth bowls doing on the altar? And on a white linen cloth? This is where you, the reader, come in. Art should make you question the world. Are those bowls made of dirt (plus all those beasties) that we should sweep out of the door and into the bin? Or are they made of soil that we should at least put on the garden, but really, they have no place in church? Or are they made of earth to be examined, to be questioned, to be listened to as earth-others?

These soils, full of tiny lives, are responsible for growing our food, making our air and storing atmospheric carbon. Our very lives as humans on the earth depend on them. By fashioning these soils into bowls and placing them in sacred places, I hope to remind us to honour the earth that we stand upon, that earth that speaks to us by pushing back at our feet. Soils deserve care and nurture, as they reciprocate to care and nurture us. Tangled in the web of earth understandings is a call to think about an intergenerational issue such as postmining land rehabilitation and building housing estates on prime agricultural soils. When we care for soils, we are in fact caring for ourselves and our descendants.

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Penny Dunstan is a soil scientist/agronomist and artist with particular interests in anthropogenic landforms and the human/land dialogue that arises when humans create the world. Her transdisciplinary PhD research investigated post-coalmining rehabilitated land at one mine site in the Hunter Valley, through fine art, human geography, and soil science. She has presented and published in a wide variety of forums including Hunter Valley Rehabilitated Mine Lands, National Soil Science Association, Institute of Australian Geographers, and Creative Arts forums in Australia and overseas. Penny is an accomplished artist who regularly exhibits work that details aspects of the Upper Hunter interactions with the Anthropocene. She works within and with Wonnarua country.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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