A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
The Breeze and Breath of Spirit
May 15, 2005
Ordinary Sunday 7 Rom 6:1b-11 Matt 10:24-39
Marian Fountain has brought a mackerel into church. Along the spine of this fish humanity is emerging. In ancient times the fish spoke of mystery and meaning in the depths. It was also a fertility symbol. The early Christians appropriated this ocean image and incorporated it into our symbiotic culture.
I've known Marian [Maz] since University days, and Christianity is a major influence in her art. The mackerel plays with the border between outside and inside. Is spirit something within, or is it without? What's spirituality's relationship with creatures and their environment?
Of course this is my interpretation. Art lends itself to many interpretations. There is no one correct meaning. There is only the invitation to enter into the feelings evoked by the art, and let your imagination swim free.
In times past the Church has dogmatically tried to capture and restrict understandings of God by using words. Words can release the imagination, but they can also imprison it. Art however is usually different. It takes license to push and prod us with images when words seem inadequate or heretical.
The Trinity is maybe the clearest example. It is a difficult concept for the wordsmiths. Artists though have played with it. I'm reminded of a keystone in the Benedictine Abbey of Luxeuil that has three fish, like spokes on a wheel, with their heads overlapping in the centre. Trinity is a doctrine that is better left to artists than theologians.
God as a fish flicks my mind back to Maz's mackerel and the human community emerging from its spine. It makes me also look again at Bing Dawe's victimized eels. Are they likewise an image of the divine vulnerability? When we irresponsibly pollute and destroy, we kill godness.
Art plays with the border areas. Like the area between what is accepted and what is not. Like the area between what is and what might be. It is no surprise that art and social change have frequently cohabited. Art, like religion, can be used to sanctify the way things are - for good or for ill. But frequently it breaks those fetters inviting us to widen our vision, ignite our compassion, extend our generosity, and above all set our imagination free. Religion, at it's best, does likewise.
I enjoyed the playfulness in Paul Hartigan's Colour-ist. It critiques the neon bombardment we experience in the city, inviting us to envision something better. It also toys with the border between word and image. Maybe we are best to understand the biblical text "the Word became flesh" as imaginative play. It seems that when Jesus is reduced to 'word' alone, the lawyers are in the ascendancy. Yet when 'flesh' is not re-imaged in each time and culture, our religion becomes as dead as any document.
A number of the sculptors have played with that central Christian symbol, the cross, encouraging and exhorting us to see more, to see it as part of nature, to see it encompassing and not excluding. Of particular note is Virginia King's Link that relates to our consecration stone. Set in the pillar, the consecration stone with its St Andrew's cross dates from 600 CE and was part of St Augustine's abbey at Canterbury. Virginia takes the St Andrew's cross and playfully brings it into the South Pacific, transforming it, contextualizing it, into something nurturing, botanical, and life giving.
In our search for spirit-filled meaning we can view art and sometimes find glimpses of truth and purpose. We can talk to the art. But the art can also talk to us. An artist can bring his or her skills to imagining and shaping the piece. But the piece can also talk back, inviting meaning unplanned for and unimagined. Like in Pinocchio, the judgemental 19th century Italian children's story, the creation has a life independent of the creator.
I like how Terry Stringer's works send us on a search. For meaning, like the soul, is often hidden. Even when we discover the right viewing points, revealing more of Terry's meaning, there is no guarantee that we will discover the depths of that meaning in our own souls. Is the tear, for example, Christ's, or the world's, or our own? Or is it, depending on the headlines or our mood, however it addresses us? Art can be a reflector into and out of our souls.
When the Prime Minister stood in our pulpit on Thursday evening and confessed her agnosticism I thought to myself: 'Welcome fellow pilgrim.' Agnosticism, at it's best, stands before the mysteries of the universe, and the mysteries in our own souls, and has the humility to say, 'I don't know. I haven't arrived in the land of certainty or trust. But I'm continually opening my mind to the search.' It is deeply Christian to approach a number of our traditional doctrines agnostically. Like heaven. Like hell.
The theme of 'search' meshes with the theme of the 'sea'. The influence of the ocean, on it and below it, permeates our antipodean spirituality. Beside the mackerel and the eel, there is Peter Oxborough's oar [with the fish symbol on it], Barry Lett's boat, and Virginia King's Radiolaria [a water-bourne micro-organism]. The spirituality of our context is represented in nearly every piece of sculpture here. The sea, flowers, plants, beauty, colour and depth are all part of our spirituality in Aotearoa New Zealand.
I had a chat with John Radford the other night. John's sunken buildings in Western Park are now a part of my morning walk. Recently John has been covering things in clay - a car, a bus, and a Vulcan Lane pub. The clay then dries and falls off. In church we have John's They Had Vessels. It shows the clay drying and slowly falling away from a bottle. John is symbolizing how the clay of this land makes, even imported things, its own - enveloping, holding, and letting go.
This is our story. Concepts and rituals of God and life, if we let them, are embraced and held by the clay of this land. Then they are let go, and most of the clay falls away. But they are never quite the same again. More and more our spirituality is of this land and place with its beauty, mystery, wonder, and purpose. This collection of spirited sculpture celebrates that.