Saturday, March 03, 2012

theology needs art: Adelaide Fringe Festival floor talk

Here is the floor talk I gave to launch the Adelaide College of Divinity bi-annual art exhibition.

Over the recent summer holidays, I was fortunate to be able to spend some time visiting friends in New Zealand. As part of our time together, they took me to the Brick Bay Sculpture Trail, which lies about an hour north of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.

The Brick Bay Sculpture Trail is part of the Brick Bay Winery, although owned by a separate, not-for profit arts trust. In 1986, the owners, Richard and Christine Didsbury, had brought the land.

While the land had previously been overfarmed, they had a personal passion for the environment and began a systematic project of restoration. Trees were replanting. Native bush was protected. Water was carefully damned and channelled.

Which means that all of the art in the Brick Bay Sculpture Trail, is outdoors. So to experience the art requires about an hour of your time, and about a 2 km walk. You climb through native bush and walk past gently meandering lakes.

In other words, the backdrop is not walls, but trees and landscape. The roof is the sky and the land and environment speak. Which allows a fantastic art experience – glass of wine, time to wander, space to contemplate and discovery, all outdoors, all surrounded by birdsong, all open to random encounters with native wood pigeons and tui.

The 43 artpieces displayed in the Brick Bay Sculpture Trail are from some of New Zealand’s most well known sculpturers.

For example, sculpture 17 – Lucy Bucknall’s Awaiting Transportation. It references immigration, a proud couple, dressed their best, awaiting transport on their next part of their journey to a strange land. It says so much about the hopes and dreams of all migrants.

Or sculpture 25 – Jim Wheeler’s Regeneration. A revered native bush, the Puriri, sprouts from a distinctively New Zealand fence post. It says something about the processes of settler colonisation, and about the potential for rebirth, of nature’s ability to regenerate and reemerge.

Or Sculpture 31 – Graham Bennett’s Position Fixing. A wire fence, it captures the linkages – links between people, links between place – that give shape to our identity. Running along the top of fence are a line of towers and at the top of each tower is a boat, each boat pointed toward a Pacific Island, in honour of those who first sailed to New Zealand. The art explores boundaries and journeys.

Each sculpture is profoundly shaped by it’s context; Lucy Bucknall’s Awaiting, the migrant couple waiting to board a boat, is playfully positioned by a small stream of water. Jim Wheeler’s Regeneration almost hidden in a thicket of regenerated native bush. Graham Bennett’s Position Fixing standing proudly atop a hill and it serves to mark a boundary between native bush on one side and a (imported) vineyard on the other.

I’ve taken the liberty of taking quite some time to describe this, because I want it to serve as contrast with some of my experiences of theology.

You see, in 2009, I was part of an academic theology conference that explored the theme of land. I did a theological paper that engaged with many of the sculptures – that explored Jacob in the Old Testament as a migrant, as crossing boundaries, and the impact of that on the indigenous peoples of the land.

In 2011, the conference became a book. The Gospel and the Land of Promise: Christian Approaches to the Land of the Bible. In which my paper appeared and it was a bit of a personal highlight from last year.

But walking the Brick Bay Sculpture trail, sitting on the grass, looking at Graham Bennett’s Position fixing, I began to wonder what sort of conference, what sort of book, and what sort of theology might have been possible if our theological work on land had actually engaged with art of the land.

If instead of sitting in a sterile lecture room, we’d been expected to take regular walks been lectures through this art trail. If instead of a lecture spent looking a data projector, we’d had a lecture looking at the art, which was exploring so many of the same themes. If artists like Lucy Bucknall, Jim Wheeler and Graham Bennett had been our dialogue and conversation partners, rather than simply other theologians.

In other words, over the summer I was reminded again of how much theology needs art. (The question of whether art needs theology is best addressed by an artist?)

Theology needs art, first because art celebrates metaphor more than careful footnote. Both are important. But a theological focus on the footnote alone, on the careful analysis, on the minute detail, needs to be reminded of the importance of metaphor, the need for making connections, for looking for a bigger weave.

Theology needs art, second because art reminds us we are bodies and not just heads. The first thing theology tends to do is look for a library. But we are more than minds, waiting to be stuffed full of information. We are also bodies, who need to walk and look and be moved by our emotions. That, to quote one New York art critic, there are times when “words fail us; the glossary dissolves, there are no more terms that really work.”

Theology needs art, third, because art invites us to see. Richard Kearney, who is Charles B. Seelig Chair of Philosophy at Boston College has written over 460 pages on the place of art in human history (The Wake of Imagination). He concludes by arguing desperately, passionately, for the need to see in our world today. He argues that we need two types of seeing.

First an ethical seeing, we need things – words and images- that make us aware of the other, of the voiceless, the missing, the unheard the overlooked. An ethical seeing.

Second a creative seeing, we need the invitation to the invention and re-invention of ourselves, others, our worlds. A creative seeing that invites us to be more than what we currently are. To quote Christian Seerveld, we “need an understanding of playfulness if we are going to take sanctification by the Holy Spirit seriously.”

Which is why I’m delighted that every two years the Adelaide College of Divinity is part of the Adelaide Fringe through facilitating an art exhibition. This year, but also back in our history.

And why I thank each artist. And Stephen Downs and his team for the work they put in behind the scenes to make this event possible.

Because theology needs art. First, to remind us of metaphor as well as footnote. Second, to help us recall that we are bodies and not just head. Third, to invite us to see, ethically and creatively.

And fourthly, and finally, because it makes our lives, this space, a whole lot richer. I watched on Tuesday as folk came into the Chapel of Reconciliation for a weekly chapel service. And how, rather than take their seats, they gasped in wonder, and proceeded to wander around the art. To point. To talk. To ponder. And suddenly our lives, our chapel, this space, was a whole lot richer.

Because theology needs art.

Posted by steve at 07:13 AM

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.