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.

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