Nativity – He Qi

He Qi is a Chinese artist who spent the years of the Cultural Revolution painting pictures of Mao Tse Tung in the day time as an alternative to forced labour, and in the evening painting pictures of the Madonna inspired by his fascination with Raphael’s Madonna and Child.

He Qi’s Nativity is typical of his work in terms of colour and vibrancy. His painting resembles stained glass and always feel they have an element of fun. In this picture you can see the sheep virtually dancing in response to the angels. Listening is an important element of this piece. Of course, the sheep stand for all those who know the Lord as their shepherd.

The light in this Nativity comes from heaven and is far more intense than the light any of us can hold. The light Joseph holds is dim compared to the light that Mary holds. – but then Joseph is fading from the picture with his work well and faithfully done.

Mary is pictured in the pink. Normally Mary is dressed in blue, but here He Qi picks up pink as a symbol of marriage and shows Mary as the archetype of the church who holds and treasures Jesus. Jesus is offering a red apple to Mary and the church. This is a reference to the Garden of Eden signifying Jesus as a new Adam and Mary and the church as a new Eve. This is new creation.

The apple is blood red to indicate the nature of God’s offering. Is there also an ambiguity in the shape of the apple? Is it also heart shaped to indicate that this is the new heart promised by God to his disheartened people (Ezekiel 36)?

This is the Nativity. Christus natus est. This is Christmas. Happy Christmas.

On Druids, Trees and Truth

Eiche und Basaltsäule, Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf (1)
One of the 7000 Oaks inspired by artist Joseph Beuys with basalt stone
Friend Lewis asked me about “druids”. They are much maligned (is it, I wonder, mainly by the English?). They don’t understand their honourable history in ancient Celtic cultures where they were members of the professional class including religious leaders, legal authorities, lorekeepers, medical professionals and political advisors.

The modern word druid comes from the Latin druides, but behind that Latin word is Old Irish, Old Cornish and Middle Welsh words which hypothetically might be based on a proto-Celtic word reconstructed as druwids (plural is druwides). Druid is thought to come from the Celtic word for the oak tree, duir. A drewid is a “knower of oak trees”.

What led me to this clearance of understanding was a look at one of Joseph Beuys’s works (1982) which consisted of the planting of 7000 oak trees in Kassel in Germany. in conversation with Richard Demarco, Beuys said:

I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heart wood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet ever since the Druids, who are called after the oak. Druid means oak. They used their oaks to define their holy places. I can see such a use for the future … The tree planting enterprise provides a very simple but radical possibility for this when we start with the seven thousand oaks.

Other words derived from this root (excuse pun) include the Old English treow from which we have tree, truce, truth, troth, tryst – what a vast array of fruit those words represent! And that leads me to the moment Jesus was hung from the remains of a felled tree and, with true love, excruciatingly transformed the Tree of Death to the Tree of Life.

Druid

PS You may be interested in a series of poems written by Jim Bridgman called The Tree Cycle, for example, this Nightmare of the Rood

Notes heard above The Noise of Time

The Noise of TimeI don’t read that much but every now and then I come across something that takes my breath away. Julian Barnes, through his book The Noise of Time, has me intrigued with the noise of time. This is a poetic book that is well crafted and beautifully composed. It tells us the time and the time is telling. It is a short book in which a lot of time is told in a short time. It is a time of terror.

I read this book for the first time at the end of Holy Week, through the three days known as the TriDuum, Maundy Thursday through till Holy Saturday – the short time it took to tell so much of time. I was attentive to the noises of that other time told through three days: the crushing noise of religious and political authority almost overpowering a more faithful and resilient strain.

There are three main characters in The Noise of Time. There’s the “author” who is the one who remembers. There’s Shostakovich, who is the one who hears. And there is the one less than human, Power deformed. Arguably there is a cast of three in the Triduum. There’s the one who remembers (the witnesses), the one who hears (on the cross) and the ones Power deformed (who know not what they do).

Running through my mind while I read this book were lines from a poem by Anna Lightart called The Second Music:

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
yet always present.

The Noise of Time is a book full of threes – if you like, there are three hands: an hour hand, minute hand and second hand. The three chapters measure three movements: On the LandingOn the Plane and In the Car. 

There are three brands of cigarettes (Kazbeks, Belamors, Herzegovinas). There are three vodka glasses for three vodka drinkers (the perfect number for vodka drinking). There are three wives (Nina, Margarita and Irina). There are three ways to destroy your soul: “by what others did to you, by what others made you do to yourself, and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself”. (p.181)

There are three Conversations with Power and there are three leap years twelve years apart from each other (1936, 1948 and 1960). This is the time frame of a crushing history. It is a history which crushes the human spirit and twists arts and artists to the ends of empire, turning them into cowards – which threatened to be a life’s work (being a coward, just to survive).

“It was not easy being a coward. Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment – when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. To be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your fallen, abject character. Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change – which made it, in a way, a kind of courage. He smiled to himself and lit another cigarette. The pleasures of irony had not yet deserted him.” (p.171)

Dimitiri Shostakovich was one of the major composers of the twentieth century. I’m no musician but I do know that there are usually four movements to a symphony. That is music’s shape. In his threes, is Barnes describing the way in which totalitarianism deforms truth and beauty? There is the hint of a fourth movement in the opening and closing of the book in epigraph and coda. In these there are the three characters on stage (it’s a station platform). There’s one who remembers, there’s one who hears and there’s one who is a vulgar “half man” (reduced by the noise of time to being less than himself, a mere “technique of survival”. The one who remembered, remembers the vodka and remembers how the one who heard pricked up his ears as he heard the notes of the clinking vodka glasses.

This is what was remembered:

“They were in the middle of Russia, in the middle of a war, in the middle of all kinds of suffering within that war. There was a long station platform, on which the sun had just come up. There was a man, half a man really, wheeling himself along on a trolley, attached to it by a rope threaded through the top of his trousers. The two passengers had a bottle of vodka. They descended from the train. The beggar stopped singing his filthy song. Dimitri Dmitrievich held the bottle, he the glasses. Dimitri Dmitrievich poured vodka into each glass …

He was no barman, and the level of vodka in each glass was slightly different …

But Dimitri Dmitrievich was listening , and hearing as he always did. So when the three glasses with their different levels came together in a single chink, he had smiled, and put his head on one side so that the sunlight flashed briefly off his spectacles, and murmured, “A triad”.

And that was what the one who remembered had remembered. War, fear, poverty, typhus and filth, yet in the middle of it, above it and beneath it and through it all, Dimitri Dmitrievich had heard a perfect triad… a triad put together by three not very clean vodka glasses and their contents was a sound that rang clear of the noise of time, and would outlive everyone and everything. And perhaps, finally, this was all that mattered.” (p.196)

So the tragedy is told in The Noise of Time. There is a lot of time told in a short time. In one moment there is a note of beauty, a sound of music ringing above the noise of time, testimony to the human spirit, crushed, humiliated for so much of the time. There is the sounding of hope.

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” (p.97)

Surplus of meaning

a work of art in the Cheshire countryside

It has been good to be involved in the development of an Arts & Faith Network (for the Diocese of Chester), and to be “breathing space” at Stephen Broadbent’s studio yesterday with textile artists, stained glass artists, wordsmiths, dancers, painters, sculptors, actors, authors, poets, cooks, singers, preachers and “makers of pretty things”. Until yesterday the Network hadn’t been much more than an idea shared by a few people and it was difficult to put into words what it was about and what could happen. Now it has got legs, is on the road, and has its own story – “the day we met at Stephen and Lorraine’s, when our exploration of the interaction of arts and faith was facilitated by Simon Marsh with background percussion of water overflowing into a pond…..”

IMG_0759
The (overflowing) River of Life
sculpture by Stephen Broadbent
at Warrington at the site of a terrorist bomb explosion
which killed two children.

There were so many good things, including a wonderful rendition of The Rose by Simon (spoken, not sung), and, we discovered a “surplus of meaning” as we joined our own creative endeavours to those of others. Surplus of meaning doesn’t mean that there is too much – rather, there is so much. The meaning of our insulation block sculptures co-mingled with the meaning given to them by others, with meaning pinned to meaning. Of course, Ricoeur was right. There is a surplus meaning as one meaning gives itself to another, transforming itself in the giving. Nothing we can do, or create can provide an adequate container for our meaning. Meaning is so abundant it has to overflow. It overflows into convivial and meaningful community, good times, great company.

There are, though, those in whom there is no sense of meaning – including some in this emerging network who described the meaninglessness of past experiences. Is this where art and faith come together, making sense when we are oppressively or depressively crushed?

Simon Marsh and Sarah Anderson have both posted on the Arts and Faith launch.

>Reading Postures

>How do you read?

R.S. Sugirtharajah in Post-Colonial Reconfigurations suggests “post-colonialism” as a reading posture – more a mental attitude than a method and “a process of cultural and discursive emancipation from all dominant structures, whether they be political, linguistic or ideological”.

Resting from my reading posture I met – by chance – someone who is producing a paper to challenge art colleges to think through their procedures which admit predominantly white (upper) middle class students.

So that’s what I call “writing with a post-colonial posture”. According to R.S. Sugirtharajah “the task of post-colonialism is to ensure that the yearnings of the poor take precedence over the interests of the affluent … and that the participation of the marginalised takes priority over the perpetuation of a system which systematically excludes them.”

Writing post-colonially from the context of Church – it means looking at Church and how the dominant structures and thinking have marginalised so many and reflecting on why it is that we are so slow in following Jesus’s “post-colonial” ministry turning his back on the dominant structures to face those cast out. When he said “You have heard it said (bad news), but I say to you (good news, alleluia!)” he was good news to the poor and the colonised.

>The Curious Incident of the Painted Cows

>
For some reason local p**s artists painted local cows! Their work shows a distinct lack of imagination using only white paint (will it be magnolia next time?) and showing nothing of the flair of Banksy’s work. An advertising slogan could be “Milk is good for you” – but then, on the other flank (as suggested by friend Ceri) – “but Guinness is better”.

Pentecost

>Getting ready for Sunday one job is to prepare a weekly newsletter. We call it Network and we try to have a picture/photo as a focus for the Sunday. This one isn’t one we are using on Sunday, but it’s one that refreshed me. It’s called Pentecost by Chris Shreve. Pentecost is a great Jewish festival which has become the festival of the Holy Spirit for the Christian Church. John Pridmore writes in the Church Times, and referring to Pentecost and the Holy Spirit points out that fire, water and wind are all metaphors for the Holy Spirit, and that they are all things that flow.

Chris Shreve has captured this flow with the flame and the wind blowing the curtain – with the suggestion of dancing. Chris also captures the new creation of the Gospel with what reminds me of the stone rolled away from the tomb and the light, breath and energy of God bursting into the world. It’s a very dry picture though – unless that is a water pitcher, or a container of oil – another sign of the Holy Spirit and the gifts the Holy Spirit brings to the world.