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.

A Pirate Faith

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It is largely uncontested that institutional Christianity in the West is declining in numbers and influence. Even when you take into account surging numbers in certain large Pentecostal and Calvinist movements, the overall trend is downward.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has confirmed that churches generally have toxic cultures that have provided a safe forum for abuse. The real question isn’t ‘Why did so many priests become abusers?’; the real question is ‘Why did so many abusers become priests?’. And the answer to that question is now crystal clear: the churches provided ready access to children and vulnerable people, a corrupt understanding of power and authority, and an institutional culture that protected the strong over the weak. In the past, it was easy to say there were a few bad eggs. But we can’t actually say that anymore. The reality is that the institutional church was a bad place, and bad people were drawn to it as a good place to hunt.

Another manifestation of this corrupt understanding of authority has been the marginalisation and disempowerment of women and queer people, and we’re now seeing this play out on an international stage as the old denominations tear themselves apart over those insidious gays and their dangerous female allies.

Here in Australia and throughout the world, that sick ecclesiastical culture also provided a safe justification for colonisation. The destruction of culture and language, the deliberate extermination of whole peoples, enslavement, and ongoing oppression. The churches were hand in glove with that work, and the oppression is ongoing.

By now you may be wondering why you’re reading an article written by a comedian because there’s nothing funny about any of this.

But the context is important because I am an agent of the Anglican Church, which was (and in many respects still is) the Department of Religion of the British Empire. I’m also that rare creature, a priest who is younger than 40, and who is also a theological and social progressive. When I think of myself as a priest, I like to think of myself as a beautiful unicorn, with a flowing mane and a shiny horn, ready to pierce my enemies through the heart. I’d appreciate if you would do likewise.

On Sundays, I lead worship in a neo-gothic church building wearing Roman civil costume speaking the language of Empire, set in an almost-universally white middle-class village in the Perth hills. I can click my fingers, and a plate of scones with jam and cream will instantly appear. I have become the village vicar that I vowed as a young man I would never become. My parish is small but sustainable. We do good stuff and we’re good people. But we are still part of an institution, which is part of a broader movement, which is badly screwed up, and which is rightly crumbling to dust.

In the Church of England and around the world, a trend of planting new churches has emerged. Variously called ‘Fresh Expressions’, ‘Mission-shaped Ministry’ or ‘Missional Church’, there has been strong grassroots and, in some cases, hierarchical support for new churches. These are churches intended for people who are not currently a member of any church. I am supportive of this movement, though I’m conscious that the new churches can very quickly become infected with the same toxic culture as the old church. There’s also a range of movements seeking to refresh and renew the church, not least through the inclusion of voices previously silenced. I’ve done some of my own work in this area, but there’s plenty left to do before we are a truly inclusive church. Jesus will probably return first.

I’ve done a rough sketch of the context I and many of you inhabit just to lay some groundwork. So what, then should be our artistic response to this context? I’m not sure exactly. But I am pretty sure that it involves pirates.

Now, a quick word about what Pirate Church isn’t. Pirate Church isn’t a pirate-themed church service for kiddies. I know there are Messy Churches and Vacation Bible Schools that would do that sort of thing, but Pirate Church spits on that sort of nonsense. Pirate Church is not a fresh expression of church. It is not an outreach. It is not an evangelistic enterprise that uses Piracy as a gimmick. Pirate Church is art, created by two artists who happen to work in the medium of sketch comedy and immersive theatre, and it’s a somewhat collaborative artform as the audience also gets involved.

Pirate Church is Werzel and me. Werzel is actually a Churches of Christ Minister named Paul Montague. But before he was in ministry, he was ‘The King of Perth Comedy’. We met because there was this extraordinary moment where he was a stand-up comedian exploring a vocation to ministry, and I was a priest exploring a vocation to stand-up comedy. The idea for something like Pirate Church had been brewing in Werzel’s head for some time, and after many long conversations the phenomenon was born.

A Pirate Church show consists of two halves. The first is a kind of sketch and variety show about ‘the wacky world of religion’. It usually begins with a song, then there’s a game show segment where the audience competes based on their knowledge of current ludicrous religious news stories, then there are sketches. So, for instance, over the years we’ve introduced Margaret and Joyce, the vicious matriarchs of the Ladies Auxiliary who hate everyone (but Muslims most of all). Father Hayter, a clapped-out and rather rude Catholic priest, and Pastor Jayden who is hip with the kids. One of our hits is a sketch called Hellsong, which is about a Megachurch of Satan.

No one is immune from the Pirate Church treatment – the hippy earth mother Christians are satirised by Margaret and Dennis at Laughing Goanna Retreat Centre, and the Orthodox by Brother Gyorgiy who is a missionary trying to correct the date of Christmas in Australia.

Senator Troy Pendleton-Coombs, Minister for Freedom, is a Bible-believing Christian politician who sees no conflict in ultra-nationalism, and white supremacy low-level fascism. He’s obviously a very unrealistic character who bears no resemblance to anyone in real life.

The second half of the show is a liturgy on board a pirate ship. It’s a little hard to explain without experiencing it, but perhaps it’s helpful to think of the pirate realm as a bit of a Narnia-style alternative universe. The Armada holds sway there, but there’s a group of rebels who sail aboard the Good Ship Fisher’o’men, living life free and wild and somewhat drunkenly. The Captain, who built and founded the ship was actually murdered by the Armada and nailed to the mast, but he did not stay dead and is returning. Surrounding the pirates on every side is The Deep, which is both the ocean and a kind of terrifying yet benevolent force who shapes their lives. And accompanying them on their travels is the Ghostly Parrot, who provides both a tender comforting presence and a tendency to peck at the eyes of people who do the wrong thing. When the ship’s crew gathers for church, there’s a reading from the ship’s log, which contains records of stories from the time of the Captain, and then Reverend Squall or the Saucy Jim the ship’s mate expound the log to explain it to the gathered throng. Rum is shared. All must share and none are left out. And, of course, the liturgy is punctuated by sea shanties.

Pirate Church is unashamedly theologically orthodox. We work very, very hard to sustain a commitment to trinitarian theology. So even when we are writing a Log Reading or a Saaarrrrrmon set in an alternative universe, it has to pass a test against the historical formulations. We are also faithful to the scriptures, sometimes slavishly so. Even though we are operating in the world of allegory, it’s important that the characters and narrative are recognizable, and speak intelligibly to the scriptural experience. We are creating satire, not mockery. There is no end of people who take the piss out of religion, but we are actual believers who genuinely love and follow Christ, and our aim is to provoke both laughter and reflection inside the bosom of the faith.

Now, the way I see the world, artists create art which attempts to integrate the world they inhabit, their own experience, their particular creative gifts and skills and the real or perceived needs of an audience. Art should be provocative and somewhat transgressive. Great art is both beautiful and discomfiting. For six years of the Pirate Church project, my work as an artist was affirmed by my peers – many clergy including bishops came to see the shows, we were nominated for and won awards, we appeared at national Christian conferences, and were interviewed in various media. Not once from my own institution was any concern expressed.

I guess I should have seen it coming, but I genuinely didn’t.

At the start of 2017, the day after we finished an amazing few days performing and teaching at Yurora, the National Christian Youth Convention, I received a letter from the Director of Professional Standards of the Diocese of Perth which began a descent into a rabbit hole that took fifteen months to finally resolve, and involved me being stood down from ministry for six months. The short version of this story is that the Professional Standards Director personally made a complaint against me to the professional standards committee, which then sort-of investigated. They ultimately referred the complaint to the Professional Standards Board, a kind of tribunal. All of this, of course, while the Royal Commission is at its peak and the churches are being publicly critiqued, and while my own Archbishop was ‘stood aside’ having admitted to letting down survivors of child abuse.

After a national media and solidarity campaign, which included my beautiful parishioners protesting on the steps of Church House, the complaint was withdrawn. But the trauma remains, and the sense of betrayal remains. I, and many others, still find it unfathomable that the Church in 2017 deployed tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours of staff time, and significant positional power, to attack and try to silence an artist. And it did so in the middle of a massive genuine crisis in the life of the church.

But, on reflection, I think it was important that the institutional church exposed its agenda in this way because it made it clear that a Pirate Faith is absolutely necessary. A faith that is wild and untameable and fears no one. A faith that goes on adventures seeking buried treasure. A faith that sings, and shouts, and fights, and gets dirty, and has a place for everyone, no matter how munted, is a faith that we all need right now. It is no mistake that totalitarians always come after artists because we are dangerous people.

Creating art is a political act. It is a holy act. It is an act of faith to create, devise, construct, draft, perform, exhibit. Art is the work of the pirate, not of the Armada.

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The Reverend Chris Bedding is Rector of the Anglican Parish of Darlington-Bellevue in Perth, WA. He is also a performing artist and social activist.

To Tea and Be, or Not to Tea and Be?

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In The Book of Tea (1906), written by Japan’s Kakuzō Okakura and later published in English in the United States as a guidebook to be read in the lounge rooms of New York socialites, Okakura says of tea: ‘(I)t has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa’. He doesn’t give a succinct description of tea (the book is 116 pages long) but the title alone is enough for us to know he was seriously committed to his tea.

Perhaps if I was to extend Okakura’s comment to include tea I might say it has the ‘calm presence of a negotiator, and the quiet confidence of a healing balm’. Tea was used by the suppressed Japanese Church as a subversive Communion drink, to end wars, and to bring reconciliation.

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I am a lightweight theologian and a heavyweight practitioner of the worship arts. As a pastor and curator of worship, my commitment is to the local communities of Christians who gather for worship from week-to-week or from time-to-time, more or less regularly; to those followers of Jesus, or those not yet, who gather at festivals and conferences.

These are the people I want to help sustain in their following of Jesus in their worlds; or introduce them to that possibility. My purpose is always to design space and liturgy that will offer the potential for liminal moments in which they might engage heart, soul, mind, strength with the Trinitarian community of God.

My most recent projects have been iterations of a tea ceremony. Originally designed to be one chapel of a dozen or so at the annual Festival One held outside of Auckland in Aotearoa-New Zealand, ‘Tea & Be’ brought together my enjoyment of tea drinking and my belief that God primarily calls us to being – in relationship with the Godhead – rather than to doing. My generalised overstatement of this to my community is to say that God doesn’t care about anything you do, only about who you are becoming and being, in relationship with God.

‘Tea & Be’ invited people to pre-register in groups of 14 (with no more than 3 people known to you) for a 45-minute session of tea and conversation. Places at the long narrow table were set out with high-quality teaware, and a placemat that described the six teas on offer suggested some conversation starters and offered a place to journal responses. A small block placed on the placemat allowed each participant to display ‘Talk’ or ‘Be’ sides and so control their active participation in one or the other mode.

After a 10-minute introduction to the history of tea, its use as Communion when Christianity was suppressed in Japan, how to use the teaware, slurping, and other aspects of the session, people were invited to observe the texture and smell of the high-quality loose-leaf tea they had chosen; then, following a Prayer for Tea, to drink and converse with those around them. The style of teaware made it possible to also try teas chosen by others.

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In the week before the festival, I wondered if the concept was crazy and if anyone would turn up. Others felt similarly! By one third of the way into the festival, all 23 sessions were fully signed up and people not registered turned up hoping to take the place of aregistered non-starter. More than 300 people were served.

All used tea leaves and dregs were poured into a tall glass phial and stood as a visual reminder of the conversations that had taken place around the table. Placemats were hung on the exterior fence of the chapel for anyone to read the journal notes and tea choices made by participants. Written and verbal responses were very moving. People found something going on beyond the individual elements of a cup of tea and a conversation with someone they didn’t know. God was present, and for many people that encounter with the other and the Other was very significant.

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Why? I am not sure, but wonder if it was the mixture of informal ritual, permission given to slow down and just be during a busy and noisy festival, opportunity for deeper connection with another person/people (or perhaps the opportunity of a connection for some), hints at eucharistic/table re-imagining, being served, and it all offered in a safe space.

My tea crew was keen to maintain the concept, and since festival we have reframed it to work in several worship services, conferences and gatherings with numbers up to 110. The ritual continues to evolve and be shaped by our experience of it.

My answer to the title question is an unequivocal “yes!” to Tea & Be.

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Mark Pierson is a reject from the Baptist denomination and has pastored/curated the Rhythms of Grace community under the independent Upper Room Church in Newmarket, Auckland, for the last four and a half years. He is author of The Art of Curating Worship: Reshaping the Role of Worship Leader. He very ocassionally posts something on his website, where an expanded account of ‘Tea & Be’ can also be found. In January 2020, ‘Tea & Be’ sessions in a range of styles will be offered at Festival One, and in July 2020 at a gathering of pastoral leaders exploring ways to understand and sustain artists in the congregations.

Relics of war

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The Great War presented clergymen with the ultimate test of faith; reconciling the benevolence of God with the greatest conflict in modern history. Killing on a grand scale would seem at odds with Christian fellowship and moral rightness. Most AIF chaplains believed the war to be just, the Will of God, King, and Country, part of God’s redemptive plan. Christians put an emphasis on the love and mercy of God, so the idea of God as warrior can seem difficult to reconcile.

The experience of army chaplains is well recorded – selfless service in very difficult conditions; coping with death, wounds, grief, and sorrow on an unprecedented scale. Churchmen provided spiritual consolation to the men as well as assisting with the wounded, boosting morale, providing entertainment, burying the dead, and writing to families.

In the same way as the men who served in the trenches, chaplains could not have returned to parish life unchanged. Dead sons, fathers, uncles, and brothers were not repatriated to Australia for burial and so churches became the important place to commemorate the conflict and honour the lost. Even in our increasingly-secular nation, Anzac Day ceremonies have an undeniably religious element, uniting people of different denominations for one day of remembrance.

As a Master of War Studies candidate of UNSW ADFA, I am writing my thesis on war relics in Australian churches. There exist already excellent works on memorial windows and honour boards in churches; I am focusing on artefacts or relics directly connected with the Australian experience of war that churches hold.

My interest began in Canberra – at the Warrior Chapel within St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Forrest. Rev Dr John Walker served as an AIF chaplain in World War One. Five of his children also served, and three sons were killed. Walker conceived the idea of embodying within the church a fitting tribute to the memory of parishioners who had given their lives in the Great War. Two communion chalices are used alternately in chapel services held on Anzac Day and Armistice Day – a silver chalice used on the Western Front by Chaplain Captain Percival Hope, and a small brass chalice used by Chaplain Rowan MacNeil while a prisoner at Changi.

I have asked just over 2000 Australian churches if they hold war relics within their buildings. The vast majority, of course, do not. But 2.75% do hold extraordinary and sometimes surprising relics. Grave markers, crosses, flags flown in battle, portable altars, communion linens from Nui Dat, Lae, and Palestine fit comfortably within the church fabric.

I have identified many churches where highly polished artillery shell vases are used for floral displays. Were they simply tokens of remembrance brought home as souvenirs? What memory did chaplains seek to evoke?

Millions and millions of artillery shells were fired in the First World War. Artillery was the biggest killer and provided the greatest source of war wounded. A very beautiful baptismal ewer at Grafton was crafted from a First World War artillery shell. Was this simply practicality or symbolic of new life at baptism received from something designed to kill?

All bar one of the 55 churches identified contain First and Second World War relics. Yet the tradition continues. At the Kapooka Soldier’s Chapel in Wagga, where raw army recruits are trained, a wooden crucifix contains metal from an armoured vehicle in which an Australian soldier in Afghanistan was travelling when he was killed.

It is easier, perhaps, to understand how some chaplains and soldiers brought souvenirs home from ruined churches; shards of broken church windows were gathered in ruined French and Belgian towns by an Anglican chaplain in the First World War and brought home to his parish. He had them made into windows that still bring the light into St John’s Reid. Candlesticks, chalices, patens, statues were all gathered from the rubble of destroyed churches on the Western Front and reinstalled in Australian churches in city and country.

Several churches have a ‘Blitz’ piece of St Paul’s Cathedral and All Hallows in London, Coventry Cathedral, and other English churches, sent out as tokens of gratitude to far-flung churches of empire who had contributed financially to their rebuilding after the Second World War.

I am not trying to simply document these relics but to understand why they were brought back, how they evoke memory and the stories behind each relic. I will also attempt to understand the religious nature of our commemoration, and the interconnection between war and Christianity. The relics may present an important perspective on the Judeo-Christian [sic] God as a warrior. One relic defies time; olive cuttings taken by a Light Horse chaplain at Gethsemane still flourish in the grounds of Our Lady Help of Christians, Ardlethan.

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Emily Gibbs works art the Australian War Memorial and is conducting research into war relics and religious faith. She can be contacted by email.

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.

 

‘The Architect’

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The Melbourne Theatre Company recently staged ‘The Architect’, a play written by the Australian writer, director, and dramaturg Aidan Fennessy, and directed by Peter Houghton.

It is a particularly-confronting presentation of the issues surrounding the impending death of a terminally-ill woman, Helen (Linda Cropper), who desires to ‘architect’ her own death – with dignity and under her control.

While presented as a serious and confronting issue, Fennessy has introduced a ‘perfect foil’ in the character of Helen’s husband John (Nicholas Bell), and Helen’s carer Lennie (Johnny Carr), a rugged straight-shooting Aussie who introduces both typical humour and real concern.

Family matters and secrets long carried by Helen and John, and by their son Jeremy (Stephen Phillips), as well as by Lennie, the external third party, are brought out into the open. Death can do that. Theatre can help bring it home.

The play is a convergence of two matters in no way uncommon to the experience of those facing death – great humour and deep questioning. This convergence invites the audience to reflect on their own judgements about what constitutes a good death, and what they might themselves wish for in such a circumstance. The closing scene is particularly gripping and challenging.

Outstanding performances by all four characters, and particularly by Linda Cropper, brought a standing ovation from an audience of mostly older people.

From the middle of next year, eligible Victorians will be able to end their own life under the provisions made possible through the Parliament’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill (2017). ‘The Architect’, therefore, is a well-timed production, and a welcome reminder of the ways that the arts can and do stir, inform, and shape the public imagination. It sits also within a growing body of Australian theatre attending to death matters. One upcoming example of such is Triage’s Death Trilogy, the first part of which, ‘The Infirmary’, the creation of Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy and Clair Korobacz, opens within the next week at Arts House.

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Ken Tabart is a retired civil engineer who lives and plays on Wurundjeri land. (With Jason Goroncy, a theologian and artist who also lives and plays on Wurundjeri land.)