The art of seeing salvation

Each summer those beginning or continuing their ordination training at Sarum College gather for a week of fellowship, exploration and reflection.  This year’s ‘Summer School’ focused on the use of art to help us ‘see salvation’: in the stones that have been calved and placed to gather amongst; in the sculptures formed by hands and machines to walk around; and in the paint applied to paper, canvas and plaster to gaze upon.  Although much of the art looked at during the week was formed with a clear religious intentionality behind it, an expression of faith and worship by an artist, not all of it did.  Indeed it was one of these latter pieces that provoked the greatest reaction and insight into ‘seeing salvation’.  The piece was Zak Ové’s “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness”, seen during a visit to the New Art Centre at Roche Court, near Salisbury. 

The piece presented 40 figures to communicate the strength and resilience of the African diaspora, and contained no religious meaning (a description of the sculpture’s meaning is available on LACMA‘s website).  Each figure was identical, their faces all with the same resolute expression, their hands all held up, their feet fixed in place.  The figures did not speak but the art  called me to listen with my eyes; what they saw perplexed me.  Were their hands held aloft in a show of defiance or fear?  Were they putting up a barrier to keep me away or showing empty palms to welcome me in?  The nature of sculpture, each figure placed on the ground and open to all angles of inquisitiveness, served to to the latter: to draw me into the midst of the figures and deeper into a silent dialogue with the sculpture.

Upon examining the sculpture from within I was struck by the trauma of the figures’ uniformity.  They contained an identity but not of an individual.  Their identity was corporate, they were a group, a history, an issue.  Medallions on the base each figure suggested who, when and what  they were.  Their faces, modelled on African ceremonial masks, suggested the past.  The medallions, with their technological symbols, linked them into the present.  They were both those who had been taken and those who were fleeing, those who found enslavement and those who sought freedom.  They were those packed on boats crossing the Atlantic to the hell of the Caribbean slave plantations, and those packing themselves on boats crossing the Mediterranean to the ‘salvation’ of Europe.  But they were not individuals.  They were not Alan Kurdi, the three year-old Syrian refugee found dead on a Turkish Beach (see Katy Fallon’s piece in The Independent), they were the hundreds and thousands who drowned with no name.  

By stripping the figures of their individual identity Zak Ové reminded me of how each person is known to God, but to us they are often no more than a statistic.  Yet each ‘statistic’ was made in God’s image like all are, and all are loved by God.  That we can allow them to die unreported and unknown speaks to a dereliction of duty in playing our part as God’s servants of salvation.  That I made a link with faith and salvation demonstrates that what a piece of art means to us is as much down to what we bring to it as to what the artist intended.  This is good, not least because much art comes without explanation, whether due to the meaning being lost in time or the artist purposely withholding it – this means that any piece of art may help us see salvation if we open ourselves up to it without. 

Art that can connect with our imagination and experience can overcome our apathy or dislike for it.  Zac Ové’s sculpture spoke to me not from its form – it was not aesthetically pleasing to me.  The sculpture spoke to me because it connected with my experience of, and heart for, refugees.  Where such a link does exist we need more if we are to be drawn into a dialogue with salvation.  I similarly did not like several pieces of art presented to us during the week, yet they contained explicit meanings that engaged my thoughts and imagination.  As such, art can provoke us to contemplate our faith in and relationship with God.  

A simple visual clue, such as a snail placed to signify a strangeness that is not what it might at first seem, can unlock an avenue of thought that a book or sermon cannot.  The visual has the power to circumvent our understanding of the written word and tap into the knowledge we have been building up since our eyes first opened.  What it is less able to do is help us understand intellectual concepts, although whether the written word can help us grasp doctrines of salvation, for example, is dependent as much on the writer as it does on the reader!

Art has the power to awaken our imagination and make room for change to be perceived, change that can bring clarity, hope and even salvation.  In doing so art becomes more than a pretty picture or an ascetically pleasing sculpture, it becomes a communication tool, one which God can use to interact with us.  This is perhaps best seen in our cathedrals, and other churches, through the artistry of the stone mason and architect whose work is an act of worship that continues as perforMative art centuries after their passing.  The structure and materials of Salisbury Cathedral, for example, demonstrate this by the way they lift our eyes, hearts and souls up towards the heavens and help us be receptive to God’s redeeming love.

Contemplating art and salvation has the ability to be self-indulgent.  It can enrich and nurture our individual faith, but unless our thoughts are communicated to others it becomes limited and confined.  The ‘so what?’ of Summer School that I frequently returned to was how I can help people to ‘see salvation’ through art.  How do I help people to open themselves up to be drawn in by what they see?  How do I enable people to go down avenues of thought that might deepen their faith?  It is not, perhaps, best done in sharing the art which I love but in sharing perspectives on it that they might not have considered.  The latter has the capacity to overcome the barrier of dislike – it can help people look upon things with a fresh perspective, one that they can apply to whatever comes before their eyes as they proceed through life.

What piece of art has surprised you with where it took you?

Your thoughts, comments and feedback are most welcomed.

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