Thursday, 2 September 2010

Participatory Ritual as Art and Theology

I am keen to integrate my artistic practice into my everyday living, to learn to use a visual and material language to explore my inner journey, my cerebral thought, and my activity as artist, mother and ministry. I have been reflecting on my own contextual standing in relation to my work (my experience as a practicing artist both in a community arts setting and in the university setting; my history of a practical, embodied theology learned through many years of ministerial experience; my role as mother, wife and homemaker; my spiritual journey and practicing Christian faith; my social context and lastly my role as scholar) and how that is affecting my reading of both my theory and my practice; my context is effecting not only the choices I am making in my studies and research but also on my visual translation, my material expression. I have for a long while felt trapped between two camps that don’t relate, the world of church and faith and the world of secular, contemporary art, but I am finally having a growing confidence to accept and acknowledge my particular context and to work towards building a conversation between these two practices. By coming to an acknowledged understanding of my context and autobiography I am placed in a more knowing position when making work that is to be read and understood within different contexts.

The culture of the Church is very different to the postmodern culture of the western world and to the culture of the contemporary art world. This has led me to ask a number of questions. Who am I addressing in my work? What is the context I am trying to situate myself in? And is it possible to find a visual and material language that is understood by both Church and theology, postmodern society and the contemporary art scene? In other words, if I intend to make work for a cathedral would it be different to a work made for a gallery? Is this a question of site/location as in creating a site specific work in relation to the space and its history or is it also site responsive, responsive to the context of the site and its inhabitants? Do I need to separate the way I work within such different contexts or can I find a generic way of working that reads well in both contexts?

These questions lead me to inquire about the relationship between theology, church and contemporary culture and art. There is a growing cultural divide between the church and contemporary society that is now being addressed in contemporary practical theology. (see Pete Ward, ‘Liquid Church’ and Brian Maclaren, ‘A New kind of Christianity’). The Christian Church is being challenged to rethink much of its Modernist interpretation of the biblical text and to re-read it in the light of contemporary postmodern theory; to acknowledge the presence of a disembodied theology and to make space for faith to be more organic, spiritual and less defined and dogmatic; for the often arrogant, imperialistic practices to be revised and to find new ways of expressing the words and personhood of Jesus, not to loose the message of the gospels but to use a more inclusive, contemporary language to communicate.

This excites me as I see that one of the ways forward is to use a visual, material language, that utilizes participation; in other words to re-engage with ritual but not by mimicking the past but by creating new expressions that marry the old with the new. In this way I see a link between a theology of participation, and the participation of contemporary artistic practice; the activity of participatory ritual and the activity of installation and performance art. Is the generic language that can be understood by both theology and art a language of embodied experience, a language that is understood via the senses as well as the mind; a holistic language of body, mind, heart and soul?

This has led me to examine in more detail the installation work of Ann Hamilton and the performance work of Marina Abramovic and to use some of their ways of communicating in my own pratice. Much of Hamilton’s work is dominated by the power of repetition, either multiples of objects, materials or actions. In Malediction a performer is seated at a large table with her back to the spectators, filling her mouth with pieces of dough to make an impression of the inside of her mouth. These pieces were then placed in a large basket and the repetitive, mundane performance would be repeated over an extended period of time until the action takes on a life of its own, a rhythm forming that in turn becomes a meditative practice. This ordinary activity becomes something special, extraordinary, a kind of ritual; the original action taking on a new form and function that speaks of something deeper and greater than the action itself. The activity is transformed. The selected materials in the installation of bread dough, a large long table, white sheets soaked in red wine, a wicker basket taken from a morgue, and the meditative repetitious actions offer many associations with religion and the act of communion, evoke a sense of death and life, sustenance and decay, creating an environment of associational meaning. The repetitive labor of the performer becomes redemptive, a narrative that is also expressed in much of Abramovic’s work.

In ‘The Lips of Thomas’ Abramovic also makes use of material associations and rhythmic, repetitive actions to narrate her text to her audience; white cloth, blood, wounds, tears, ice and homey, all weighted with symbolism accompany her provocative, violent actions that play on the audiences emotions. Subjecting herself to intense pain and discomfort Abramovic confronts our disembodied nature, challenging the spectator to become an active participant either by violating her physically or by interrupting the performance.

Both these contemporary female artists create a conversation with the spectator, either as performer in the flesh as with Abramovic, or in the case of Hamilton as a hidden narrator. Each artist creates an energetic dialogue around ritual processes, people, objects, actions, repetition and duration; building a space that becomes a threshold to the unknown.


I have been responding to the feedback I received after my Contextual Studies presentation that explained that I now need to explore how I am applying the theories of Girard on mimetic desire and Turner on ritual, to my practice. I need now to begin to articulate more clearly the way that my research is feeding and developing my creative work and to feel confident in discussing the issues that I am expressing. Secondly I need to develop my phenomenological ideas about the red thread and the role of the body, perhaps looking at the ideas of boundary and the role of ritual in negotiating the boundary or threshold between the visible and the invisible, the sacred and the profane.

Desire is mimetic; in this way we learn from one another what is or is not desirable, often leading to jealousy, rivalry and finally conflict when we desire what is not ours to own, or that which is beyond our reach. Mimetic desire can also be directed beyond the material realm towards ideals of fulfillment, a sense of belonging, recognition or wellbeing. This is known as ‘metaphysical desire’ and is at the heart of many religions and faiths.

Aristotle wrote in the ‘Poetics’, ‘Man is distinguished from other life-forms by his capacity for imitation.’ Girard takes this notion one step further, suggesting that desire is not just biological or instinctual like our need to eat or sleep or inquisitive mimicry, but that mimetic desire defines our humanity and is influenced by social interaction and culture. Mimetic desire tends to lead to violence arising from rivalry; humanity desires what the other has. Violence in turn leads to more violence and he goes on to suggest that in order to break this cycle, society selects a scapegoat to sacrifice, for the greater good of the community as a whole. This scapegoat mechanism is performed through ritual, and my practical work aims to respond to the notion of ritual and sacrifice, wounding and healing, separation and ‘communitas’.

In my performance and video work my aim has been to create the experience of ritual in a gallery context; using repetitive actions, slow rhythmical movement and the use of sound to mark out rhythm and sequence. I have tried to give the viewer a phenomenological understanding of the scapegoat ritual. The violence implied by the piercing and cutting of cloth, flesh and the rose in the performance and installation aim to offer a hidden and subdued narrative; by creating a softened and aesthetic interpretation I aim to introduce the opposing truth that violence and beauty, violence and the sacred, are inextricably bound to one another.

This notion is expounded upon in Turners observations on ritual and rites of passage; in order for the beauty and metaphysical desires of the community to be met, violence and separation have to be encountered and mediated, for they are the boundary that separates the visible material world from the invisible and sacred realm. Pain and suffering, offering and sacrifice are the thresholds to the sacred realms. We therefore meet the sacred within the profane experiences of our everyday lives as we encounter death, humility and self-denial. Nature exposes us to this truth not only through the cycle of the seasons, by the cold barren stripping away of the winter months to reveal the new life and fruits of the spring. But also in the contrasts of day and night, ebb and flow, rain and sun, and the continuing cyclical process of life that stems from death.

My installation ‘Scapegoat’ explores this theme; the ongoing blood red thread or lifeline that flows forth from the tools of violence and destruction is offering hope; life continues beyond material existence, offering protection from evil and the existential dread of the eternal abyss.

The sound that I intend to accompany the work is the repetitive rhythm of a heartbeat, quietly and continuously beating within the body; the noisy drumming of machinery in the mill, and the almost silent repetitive whispers of a woman at prayer.

In Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ 1939, he writes of the desire for recognition. He emphasizes the role of desire in the formation of the self stating that the human is self-consciousness, and therefore more than just a thinking subject; that to be human is to desire another on a metaphysical level, thereby transcending animal nature and instinct. In other words, as human beings we desire to be recognized by another, to become the object of someone else’s desire. This desire for recognition can lead to violence in order that we might become more recognized than our opponents. In this way Hegel places violence at the core of his thought and in so doing sacralises it, offering no alternative way. Girard however, by using the Christian revelation of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice offers humanity a way through the boundary that separates violence from the sacred realm.

The mixed media piece on the wall creates a compressed abstract narrative of the whole work. The everydayness of the found wooden base, distressed and tarnished by the violence of everyday living is completed by the red thread suspended the length of the wooden panel as a continuum. The five wounds speak of the surrogate sacrifice whilst the painted space and waxed pyramid represent light, hope and 3 in 1, acting as a threshold to the invisible world.

The Ritual process in Art

My practice considers the relationship between theology and art. More specifically it aims to re-unite the religious and artistic languages that have become fragmented over the past century and to rebuild a conversation between these practices, thereby creating a visual and material language that explores ritual and liturgy, doctrine and spiritual experience. In other words I am trying to develop a visual theology; a sensory experience that incorporates site and touch, optic and haptic, ritual and performance.
This has led me to research the liturgical and ritual functions of art and the relationship between the material object and the spiritual realm that it symbolizes; to examine the relationship between the sacred and the profane, wounding and healing, sacrifice and restoration and the resultant establishment of community or congregation.

My research has lead me to investigate the theories around ritual and rites of passage. Victor Turners seminal text ‘The Ritual Process’ is an anthropological study of ritual and religion written in the 1960’s in which he makes observations of the function of ritual and the performance element that results in a collective understanding and identity being formed by the participants. Turner challenges the traditionally accepted rational ways of thinking about religion and ritual that often disregard the imagination or emotions such as L H Morgans view that ‘Religion deals so largely with the imaginative and emotional nature, and consequently with such uncertain elements of knowledge, that all primitive religions are grotesque and to some extent unintelligible.’ (Ancient Society 1877 p5) Turner regards ritual as a form of non-verbal language, suggesting that rituals are spaces of meaningful symbols through which information is revealed; these symbols not only reveal religious and social values but evoke a transformation in human behavior, that those involved in the performance of a ritual are changed, transformed through their experience; the ritual performance acting as a threshold to renewed experience either in a religious or social context.
In this way Turner offers a post modern reading of ritual and religion, recognizing the importance of symbols and signs as language and encouraging a reading of the subject that is more open to experience, performance and ontological pluralism. Also Freud’s development of clinical depth-psychology has brought about a new respect for the imaginative and emotional nature of man. Understanding religious beliefs and ritual expressions are seen as important ways to understand how people and societies think and feel about relationships with one another, with a divine being, and the natural and social environments in which they function.

These ideas are feeding into my practical work; Turner suggests that ritual brings forth the unconscious into the conscious world of material thought, enabling the unknown to be understood. This is an exciting way to view the artistic act, as making visible the invisible thought.

I am beginning to ask a number of questions that will affect the outcome of my practice in relation to ritual, materiality and the sacred. For example: Do material objects hold memories or become signifiers or carriers of spiritual presence? Why are religious objects so venerated within the Catholic Church whilst denounced within Protestantism? Should we be creating new signifiers and carriers of spiritual truths or should we just replicate the old? Can video and new media replace some of these material objects? (I.e. Bill Viola, Anish Kapoor) How do we allow new media to become something special or significant within the world of material religion?
How does the material object become a signifier of the unseen world of spirit and faith ie the relic, the holy sacraments etc?

I have decided to concentrate on the themes of piercing, shedding of blood, sacrifice, repetition, and the use of the red thread in ritual and rites of passage, trying working in video – referencing textiles in ritual practices (see work of Ann Wilson, Clio Padovani) and to think of ways of guiding the viewer to experience a sense of contemplation.
A common thread to most rituals is the role of the mimetic. The Greek word mimesis is the route of our words mimicry and to imitate. The contemporary French philosopher Rene Girard takes up this theme in his writings on mimetic desire, violence and the sacred suggesting that imitation is an aspect of behaviour that not only affects learning but also desire, and that imitated desire is often a cause of conflict. Walter Benjamin also writes on the ‘Mimetic faculty’ saying that the mimetic is our desire to become and behave like something else, this seems to form the basis of many religious rituals, for example the Eucharist; take eat, do this in remembrance of me, baptism- imitation of Christ, to be Christ like. Girard examines this theme in many literary works by Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Proust and many others. He suggests that desire is not just biological or instinctual like our need to eat or sleep or inquisitive mimicry, but that mimetic desire is fundamentally a human characteristic that leads to a violence arising from rivalry; humanity desires what the other has. Violence leads to more violence and he goes on to suggest that in order to break the cycle of violence, society finds a scapegoat to sacrifice, for the greater good of the community as a whole.

My practical art work is utilizing the notion of the red thread as signifying blood and protection or blessing used in many traditions and rituals; linked to the notion of sacrifice and the shedding of blood, the red thread acts as a signifier of the scapegoat, a metaphor observed in many myths, legends and religious narratives. I am exploring the use of performance as ritual within my work through the use of video, recording repetitive, rhythmical acts that act as a metaphor for the scapegoat, always aware of my need to refer to the everyday, beauty, violence and the sacred. I am trying to be reductive in my artistic language rather than purely narrative, offering fragments of discourse and aiming to create a phenomenological reading of my work.